1950s Archive

Primer for Gourmets

First Lessons in Chicken Cookery

Originally Published February 1958

The American touting the provinces of France by automobile soon discovers that the small towns he passes en route are very different from their counterparts at home. In the first place, the towns follow closely on each other's heels, separated only by small intensively cultivated farming areas. The American looks in vain for the spacious front lawns, the side yards, and the friendly porches of the houses on Main Street. In France, the façades of the houses rise straight from the sidewalk line and great inhospitable wooden doors bar the stranger's entry. Instead of casually curtained windows that offer an occasional glimpse of a cozy living room, the visitor sees tightly shuttered windows through which only the merest thread of light can escape to indicate that the family is at home.

Too few visitors to France ever go beyond this forbidding barricade into the charming little rear yards that are the pride of every French household, although travelers on the railroads that run behind the rows of houses may enjoy a fleeting view of the long narrow gardens. It was one of my greatest pleasures, when I returned for a visit to France in 1953, to visit friends who lived in such typically French houses, to step through the back door into the fenced garden (all gardens are fenced in France), and to enjoy with my friends the charming intimacy of French family life. I knew that I would be asked to have an apéritif and hors-d'oeuvre (or frequently Champagne and pâté de foie gras, brought out in my honor) at a metal table on an arbor-shaded terrace. Despite the passage of years since I'd been home, everything seemed the same. Neat rows of Carrots, onions, beets, and lettuce stretched away from the house. Flowers edged the two parallel walks, interspersed with strawberry plants, clumps of fragrant herbs, and carefully trimmed berry bushes. Apple, peach, pear, and apricot trees, espaliered in the space-saving French fashion, made familiar patterns against the fences, and at the very rear of the garden, partly hidden by shrubs, partly shaded by a plum tree, a busy clucking announced the presence of the poulailler, the chicken coop.

The French family loves its chickens. The fuzzy little chicks that overrun the chicken yard in the spring are scrupulously fed and cared for, but at the same time careful planning dictates how many of the creatures will be needed to supply eggs during the winter and how many will be consumed, at different stages of growth. City housewives envy their country cousins their poulaillers at the back of the garden, and in compensation develop great skill in judging the chickens they buy each week at the market. Most young French girls consider learning how to cook chicken in a dozen or more delicious ways a prerequisite for marriage. Henry IV's dream of a chicken in every pot every Sunday was an expression of a French gastronomic ideal: a never-ending supply of precious chickens for every French family.

The weight of the chicken determines its designation and also how it should be cooked. Young chickens that weigh from one and a half to two and a half pounds are called broilers, and are usually broiled. Fryers, or frying chickens, weigh from two and a half to three and a half pounds. Roasters, or roasting chickens, vary from three and a half to five pounds, and average about font pounds. A young chicken has plump legs and a plump neck, and flawing tips and breast bones are flexible. The hair on the skin of a young chicken is fine, and the spurs on the back of the feet are pointed and sharp. Old hens—about the size of the roasting chickens—are less tender, but they make fine flavored soup.

The must popular size, the most widely sold, and I think the most versatile, is the fryer, which is equally suitable for frying, sautéing, cooking en cocotte, and roasting. Many gourmets prefer to roast two or three fryers rather than one larger roasting chicken, and use capons when a larger bird is desired. And. naturally, people who raise their own chickens rarely eat a hen of roasting size, since they are the most prolific layers.

The little broiling chicken tends to be dry and demands quick cooking, hut at not quite so quick a pace as, for instance, red meat. The broiler also requires frequent basting with butter. The skin side is always cooked first, to just the desired shade of brown, then the chicken is turned and the cooking process finished on the underside, which will not Show when the bird is served. Test the chicken for doneness in the usual way—insert a fork at the second joint. If the chicken is cooked, the juices that follow the fork will be clear, with no tinge of pink. Broiled chicken should be served immediately, since there is no satisfactory way to keep it hot. In a warming oven it gets dry and tough, and in a covered dish it steams and loses some of its crispness.

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