by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)
If it’s Friday, it must be chicken. Our family’s Shabbat dinner in South Philadelphia was as ritualistic as Torah law. The menu was chicken soup, vegetables (cooked in the soup), stewed chicken, challah, and dessert. The day started with the purchase of the chicken.
The chicken store was one of the many storefronts, often mom and pop shops, that lined several blocks of Seventh Street, the shopping “mall” for South Philadelphia. The shops on Seventh Street supplied all the necessities of daily living, from hammers to lingerie. But on Friday morning the chicken store was the busiest, opening at 7 a.m., with some women, early risers, waiting in line for the indoor key to turn.
The chickens were also waiting, clucking nervously and pacing back and forth in their cages, as if they knew their final day had come. The object of the buyers was to find the chicken with the fullest breasts, meaty thighs, and no visible flaws. The women went to the cages and pushed their hands into the openings to find the chicken that met these requirements. I wondered how they could find what they were looking for through the flurry of feathers and bouncing chickens. I was sure these fowls were insulted by this invasion of their privacy.
When the ladies found the chicken they wanted, they held onto its feet so it wouldn’t disappear into the crowd of identical looking poultry. My mother was not among the early risers, so she had a harder time finding the appropriate bird. I started to accompany her for the chicken-choosing expedition when I was about ten, during school holidays and summers. I worried that I might have to repeat this ritual when I was a grown-up with a family to feed.
The owner approached the cage, removed the chosen chicken, and handed it to the schochet (ritual slaughterer) for kosher decapitation. This was done in a back room out of sight of the customers. I thought about what my school friends said—headless chickens could still walk around—but I left that for myth and never tested it.
The headless chicken was then handed to a woman whose job was to remove the feathers and pinfeathers. My cousin and I called her “the chicken flicker.” The now decapitated, feather-free chicken found its way into a brown paper bag and was on its last journey. The destination, our kitchen sink, then became a hub of activity. My mother, who always found the flicking inadequate, used a tweezers to remove stubborn pinfeathers. Although she asked me to help, I usually found an excuse to do something else.
The first task to cleaning the chicken, I knew, was to get out the insides. I visualized this process on our walk home with distaste and averted my eyes at this surgery. I marveled that my mother didn’t mind doing it. I suppose she had no choice, but I never liked taking part in that process. The liver was turned into chopped liver which my father enjoyed the next day for lunch. The chicken was then submerged in a pot of boiling water, accompanied by companions of carrots and celery, which hours later was transformed into our dinner soup. Sometimes I watched the soup as it cooked, peering into the steaming pot. The bright pieces of orange carrots seemed to dance toward each other like goldfish in a fountain.
When there was a non-fertilized egg inside the chicken, it was awarded to me at dinner as the older child. The tiny yellow ball was fuzzy like a miniature baseball. I had no idea of its abbreviated destiny. The chicken parts were apportioned to the family according to seniority. My father got the breast, my mother the thighs, my brother the wings and drumsticks, and I shared the thighs with my mother. At the dinner table, the chicken had the company of the very soft carrots and celery and a boiled potato. If my mother were ambitious that day, sometimes a kugel substituted for the potato.
Dessert was predictable: one week applesauce, the next week Jello. Sometimes leftover chicken was transformed into chicken salad for a sandwich lunch the next day. But that wasn’t as absolute as chicken for dinner on Friday night for Shabbat.
Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free-lance writer for national publications.