Pick Your Own Chicken for Dinner

In an age of industrial food production, live poultry markets redefine 'freshness.'
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Live poultry markets are the kind of grocery store where your dinner is walking around when you arrive. They are more common than you think -- New York has more than 70.

When you enter a live poultry market, you see hundreds of animals in cages, clucking contentedly. Sometimes there are pigeons, which look no different than those in city parks. Some even have rabbits -- white, fuzzy, nose-wiggling bunnies.

There are black-speckled guinea hens, bearing gorgeous feathers that some women like to stick on hats. And ducks. But, of course, there are many cages of chickens -- small red ones, fluffy gray ones and big, white American chickens with red beaks and combs, like Foghorn Leghorn.

There is a distinctive odor in the shop, not unlike Petco if it were filled with cages of animals instead of fish tanks and dog toys.

The shops I've visited are obsessively clean. The floor is cement, with a couple of drains, and the butchers are always hosing down the place, rinsing the floors, counters and other work spaces. They wear long, white coats and knee-high rubber boots.

The animals snuggle together in their cages, cozily, like the hamsters I had growing up. When I select a chicken, she's pulled from the cage, no fuss and a minimum of flap. My butcher handles her gently, as if to soothe; there is no advantage to a frightened fowl. Pamela Anderson would be proud.

Then the chicken is hung by her feet on a scale in the center of the room. After I nod that she is adequate, the price of the bird is scribbled on a ticket, which is ripped in half. Half is tied to her foot, and the other half is handed to me. Then I'm pointed toward the cashier.

I keep my eyes on the butcher as he walks behind the plastic curtain and gently twists her neck backwards, exposing her throat. He quickly and unceremoniously makes a slit, and places her over a sink to drain.

The dead bird flaps once or twice. After the blood is drained and feathers removed, she is wrapped in plastic, and handed to me. Ten minutes after I enter the store, I am given a plastic bag with a warm, dead bird.

Live poultry shops are the domain of urban immigrants. They are owned and supported by people from China, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Some customers arrive in djellebas, others in jeans and T-shirts. Men shop, women shop, and families shop together.

Fresh-killed birds are close in price to those in grocery stores, just under $2 a pound. This is slightly more than a whole bird costs at a grocery store, but less than an organic bird from Whole Foods.

Although many people from around the world value shopping for a beak-to-tail bird, the majority of Americans prefer their chickens killed elsewhere, packaged in Styrofoam and plastic.

Taking part in the killing process is not for the squeamish. But the benefits are beyond flavor. I've also gained knowledge of, and taken part in, the process of putting food on the table. This gives me a greater sense of responsibility for what is on my plate.

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