February 14th, 2018
Chicken Feet for the Soup
I was at a Whole Foods Store recently, looking for some fresh dill for my boiled potatoes and ended up wandering around the meat department. I was really only looking half heartedly at the endless array of meats until I spied a container full of chicken feet. Uh, hello? The last time I saw chicken feet was when they were sticking out of the rosoł, the chicken soup, my mother was making for a Sunday dinner. The time before that was when she was holding that plucked chicken by those very feet over the gas flame to singe off the last of the pin feathers that stuck to its body. And that was a long time ago, right up there with Sputnik and Russian cosmonauts and the soda fountain at Kresge's. I took a photo.
There was this poultry store in our town, on Third Street, called Curley's. In those early years after our arrival in America my mother often took me in hand and we'd walk to the center of town to this Curley's Poultry Market. Inside Curley's it stank from the droppings of dozen upon dozens of live, cackling fowl in cages stacked one on top of the other. It really stunk in the summer time.
My mother would buy some fresh eggs and because she liked to kill and pluck them herself, she'd pick a live chicken to bring home. Feet (supposedly) tied together and thrust into a paper bag, the hen traveled home securely under my mother's armpit, giving a low, disgruntled cluck every now and then. About half a block from home, my mother's shoulder must have started to ache and meaning to shift her burden to the other armpit, she fumbled the package and it slipped out of her hands onto the sidewalk. Before she could react, the chicken, a Rhode Island Red, bolted out of the paper bag and started sprinting up the street. My mother starts running, hollering "Zosia! Zosia!" meaning, don't just stand there! Kids who had been playing in the street caught on and started to give chase. As if she had a map in her head, the chicken made a left away from our house into oncoming traffic. I could see one of the drivers, who brought his car to a halt, hanging out the window for a better look, laughing. As must have been the men watching from their stools in the gin mill, but maybe, for want of some entertainment, out they came. Outflanked, outmaneuvered, it was there between Czyz's Bar and Borowski's Grocery that we finally caught our chicken.
I could kill, pluck, and disembowel a chicken if I had to. It certainly wouldn't be pretty, but I could do it. I watched my mother do it enough times. Chicken feet will always remind be of The Day We Stopped Traffic. They also remind me of how carefully food was used up, how nothing was wasted, how even ugly, runaway chicken feet could find their way into a pot. It brings to mind listening to Polish mass from St. Stanislaus Church on Sundays and finding a chicken heart or gizzard or neck floating next to the carrot in my bowl of chicken soup. The rendered chicken fat is another story altogether.
Who could imagine chicken feet making a comeback? Maybe it's right up there with new found popularity of pierogi, which has been meriting articles in the New York Times; or sauerkraut now being touted as a healthy probiotic, a food known by my Polish ancestors for centuries. Chicken feet are recognized now as being high in collagen, contributing to healthy hair, skin and nails. So I'm wondering if soon, in specialty stores and supermarkets, I'll be seeing bottles of duck blood to make czarnina, AKA duck blood soup, as part of the old-made-new again cuisine.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.