October 20, 2011

Two Right Legs

There’s this roast chicken recipe I make all the time. It’s actually a combination of two recipes: a simple cast-iron skillet one I saw in an issue of Esquire while sipping Jack Daniels from a plastic cup and waiting to get my hair cut at New York Shaving Company, and a recipe from Mark Bittman’s tome, ‘How to Cook Everything’ (emphasis not mine). My version combines the equipment and accoutrements of the former (cast iron skillet, chopped vegetables) and the cooking times of the latter (preheat 450 degrees, 15 minutes, flip, 10 minutes, flip, 5 minutes) and further adapts them to work with chicken quarters, because I have not yet taken the time to learn how to butcher a whole chicken though I hear it’s pretty simple and I’ve seen them do it on Top Chef at a rate of about six and half chickens a minute.

So I buy pre-quartered chicken from Whole Foods. Bell & Evans in case you’re wondering what brand. In a two-pack of whole legs. This is an ideal portion if I’m especially hungry, or if I’m slightly to moderately hungry, I’ll finish one leg and save the other for lunch the next day. Except whenever I do this, I never have enough vegetables left over, because if I use too many vegetables it crowds the pan and keeps the skin from getting crispy. I could buy a larger pan, but have already invested 25 dollars and the fat of eight steaks and a couple dozen whole chicken legs into seasoning the pan, so every time I use it, it becomes harder to replace. Whoever came up with the term sunk cost must’ve owned a cast iron skillet.

I usually arrange the chicken legs skin-side up in a yin-yang configuration in the skillet. There is no more optimal arrangement given the size of the pan and the size of the chicken pieces. It has always worked flawlessly. Until last week, that is, when I tried to make my roast chicken dinner recipe using non-Bell & Evans chicken and the yin-yang didn’t work. I was perplexed. The only way to make it work was to flip one of the pieces over so it was no longer skin-up, which is ultimately what I did. I shrugged it off, put the skillet in the oven and went about my business of watching an episode of Louie. I usually catch up on TV shows when I make roast chicken dinner or I use the time to write (as I am doing now).

That was last time. This week, I went back to my usual Bell & Evans brand chicken and the skin-up yin-yang worked fine. I can hear the chicken sizzling in the pan, and when fifteen minutes have passed and I get up to flip the legs over, I notice that I’ve forgotten to season the chicken quarters before I put them in. I wonder how much of a difference it makes if I season them before or after (answer: depends on how much you like food) and sprinkle on some freshly ground black pepper and kosher salt. I flip the pieces over so the yin-yang is now skin-down, sprinkle on some more salt and pepper and add the vegetables. At that precise moment, I have an epiphany: the reason the yin-yang succeeded this week and not last, is because my Bell & Evans vacuum-sealed package of consciously-raised, air-dried chicken always comes with two right legs.

Now, I’m not one of those types who eats strictly by the rules of Michael Pollan. I’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma (pretty good), seen Food Inc. (less damning than expected), and understand that there are probably very good reasons and very bad reasons why I always get two of the same type of legs. As someone who makes a living designing workflows, I can guess that there’s some assembly-line efficiency to a chicken processing factory: all the legs probably end up in a big bin separate from the wings and the breasts, and the butchering and packaging are split into two discrete steps. But why always two right legs? Maybe they package together matching legs on purpose so there’s more room in the pan. Or maybe I’m just lucky. From listening to science podcasts on NPR, I know that even if the distribution of leg orientation in Bell & Evans chicken packages is completely random, this could happen out of sheer chance—if you give the roulette wheel enough spins, at some point it’s going to land on red ten times in a row, and if enough people buy Bell & Evans consciously-raised, air-dried chicken leg quarters, then someone will eventually get a string of right-legged packages and that someone could be me. Whatever the reason, a part of me feels guilty: two chickens died for my meal tonight when one would’ve done, but this there is some circular logic to this, like refusing to travel by plane because of the carbon emissions. The flight departs anyway, the chickens die anyway, and on an individual basis it makes no difference unless a lot of people do it all at once. I shake my head: I am a commoner; it’s a tragedy.

I take a first bite of the chicken. It burns the roof of my mouth. I suck in bursts of air to cool the chicken instead of spitting it back out on my plate because ugh that’s disgusting, even though nobody’s around to see it but me. By the time the meat finally cools, the skin on the roof of my mouth is dull, and as I take another bite I wonder how I got on this train of thought from what would normally have been a vastly unmemorable dinner. Well hey, Proust had his madeleine. Which is a phrase I know and use sometimes even though I’ve never really read any Proust. I’ve read blog posts about articles about books about how to read Proust, and though I’ve attempted Swann’s Way four times, I could never get past the first twenty pages because my attention span is weak sauce. Still, “Proust had his madeleine” sounds like one of those things you can say at a party with smart people when one of them launches into a vodka-soda-fueled diatribe about something in their personal life and immediately apologizes for talking on and on about it and then tries to—and eventually does—figure out how they got onto the subject in the first place and oh haha, isn’t that weird. “Well hey,” you shrug. “Proust had his madeleine.”

I’ve now reached the aforementioned inflection point in the meal: the vegetables and the first leg have been consumed. What remains on the plate is the second leg. If I had really planned to save it for later, I probably would’ve at least attempted to save some of the vegetables as well, but seeing as how the veggies are gone, a roast chicken leg by itself seems inadequate for a meal and too heavy for a snack. I’m still kind of hungry, even though in fifteen minutes when the first leg’s digested I won’t be and it’s getting late and more food will probably keep me up for an extra hour and make me cranky in the morning. I start on the extra leg anyway.

Before I’m done chewing the last few bites, I get up and begin clearing the table. Whenever I make food, I eat it fast, faster than I normally eat, which is already pretty damn fast. Friends have told me they enjoy watching me eat because it’s like watching a pack of hyenas tear into a gazelle. That’s me, the human hyena pack, devourer of sandwiches, destroyer of pizza. And when I make my own food, I eat doubly fast, because I want to clean up as soon as possible. I want to clean up as soon as possible because there is a sense of completeness to the act, because I got up to make chicken, and the making of the chicken is not truly finished until the chicken has been eaten, the dishes are in the drying rack, and the kitchen has been restored to its pre-chicken-making state. When I start something, I’m committed until the end, so the sooner the end arrives, the sooner I will be free of the commitment. It’s the same reason I can’t stop playing Angry Birds.

I sit back down and skim over what I’ve written and christ, it’s too long. I would never read this. Whenever I come across something on the Internet, I do a quick mental calculation of how long it would take me to consume, and if it looks like it would take longer than three minutes and fifteen seconds, I defer it until later. Anything more than three minutes and fifteen seconds makes me feel like I’m getting sidetracked from what I should be doing, rather than Just Taking a Quick Break. The trouble is, once we cross the 3:15 threshold, we enter a gray zone, whose upper bounds approximate the length of an episode of Louie, of things that are too lengthy to consume on the spot, but not long enough that I would specifically set aside time for it—too heavy for a snack, not enough for a meal.

I’m faced with a dilemma: what to do with this extra right chicken leg of an article? I consider it in my oeuvre of blog posts, status updates, photo captions, check-in tips and meticulously-crafted and oft-revised ‘about me in 160 characters or less’ blurbs and realize that there’s a low bar for what qualifies as an oeuvre these days. I consider posting it on my usual blog, which I don’t update enough, but I’m not sure it belongs there, so maybe I should submit it to a website or something, that way other people will find it and click through at the end and follow my blog that I don’t update. I go back and forth on this, look over at the dishes drying on the rack next to the kitchen sink, look back at the laptop screen, and I can’t decide anything, because it’s 2011, I’m a Guy on the Internet, and I just ate two right chicken legs. TC mark

image – Jack Cheng

Jack Cheng

Jack Cheng is a writer & designer in Brooklyn. He co-founded a design studio called Disrupto and writes about …