Part of our month-long series on Food & Drink and how they enrich our lives.
In 1995, at the age of 50—after a breast-cancer scare on top of 10 years of physically exhausting catering work—I decided to shut down my food business in Manhattan and return to Africa, where I’d felt happy and at home when I’d lived there for a time many years before. As a means to this end, I joined the Peace Corps, which sent me to Gabon, Central Africa, where I served as a health and nutrition volunteer for two years in a small town in the middle of the rainforest. Like so many Peace Corps volunteers before me, I emerged from this experience a changed person, having learned much more than I taught. The following essay, “Dîner,” is an excerpt from my memoir of that experience, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010).
Of course, the finest way to know that the egg you plan to eat is
a fresh one is to own the hen that makes it.
—M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Everybody around seemed to know I loved to cook. Even the big, red rooster who lived across the way came to my house regularly, looking, I presumed, for a free meal. Little did he know, though, that my number-one meal in the whole world prominently featured roast chicken.
It was something of a joke among my friends that I, the former food professional in New York City, of all culinary capitals, should choose as her favorite meal—the meal she would request as her last if she were to be executed at dawn—a simple, tender, whole roast chicken, served with flavorful risotto and fresh, steamed, buttered broccoli.
I would call to the rooster sweetly, all the while thinking homicidal thoughts.
This was the meal I fantasized most about at my Peace Corps post. Plain, white rice was available in Lastoursville, Gabon, but Arborio? No. Broccoli? Malheureusement, non also. Deep-frozen, often-accidentally-thawed-when-the-town’s-power-was-out, then-refrozen chicken parts were available, it’s true. But the taste of these compared to the taste of a whole, trussed, juicy, crispy, golden roast chicken was about as far apart as Lastoursville was from Manhattan.
So when this beautiful rooster started strutting over to my house looking for something to eat—risking his very life by crossing the relatively busy road, where battered taxis whizzed by taking emergency cases to the hospital—I confess at first I had similarly hungry thoughts. I even gave him a nickname, which subsequently stuck. I named him Dîner (pronounced DEE-nay), the French word for both “dinner” and “to dine.” I thought I was looking at a free meal.
“Yooo-hoooooo! … cluck-cluck-cluck! … viens ici, mon petit Dîner!” I would call to him sweetly (which made the neighborhood children think I’d gone mad), all the while thinking homicidal thoughts. “I have a nice slice of homemade bread here for you to peck at! What you need is a little fattening up…!” But the closer he got, the more my attitude changed. I started to see Dîner differently. I experienced a change of heart. Proximity, like timing, I found, can make all the difference in this world.
The Peace Corps and My Fine Feathered Friend
Funny things happened to Peace Corps volunteers living alone in far-off places tourists seldom see, on the other side of the globe from such foodie paradises as Fairway on Upper Broadway and Balducci’s in the Village. Some volunteers were known to sit and stare at one wall of their hut for hours on end. Others spent whole days deep frying beignets. I seemed to have become emotionally attached to a neighbor’s rooster.
Eat this rooster? I soon realized I couldn’t think of it. He was too beautiful, too elegant, too utterly regal.
When I asked myself how this crazy thing came to be, I could come up with a couple of fairly sane answers. The first was I didn’t have any pets in Lastoursville. I’d left my beloved Himalayan cat, Sweet Basil, at home in New York in the care of my friend and next-door neighbor, Martha. I missed him. Dîner had begun to fill Basil’s shoes, so to speak. Another reason was that Dîner was a first for me, and the novelty of our relationship was oddly appealing. He was the first living, crowing rooster I’d ever gotten that close to in the feathered flesh. Since I didn’t grow up on a farm, poultry for me had always been something only encountered in a cold, plucked, gutted, raw, lifeless, cut-up, or whole and ready-to-roast form in a grocer’s or butcher’s refrigerated meat case.
Eat this rooster, Dîner? I soon realized I couldn’t think of it. He was too beautiful, too elegant, too utterly regal. Below his bright-red crown, his widening body was covered by a feather-cape the color of the polished copper pots hanging on the kitchen wall of my New York apartment. His haughty, black tail feathers reminded me of my favorite, shiny black silk pants (now in storage), the pants I wore only to posh New York cocktail parties, and I knew I’d have no use for in the rainforest.
Dîner was dignified, too, and proud. I loved the way he strutted around my house—kingly head held high, copper chest puffed way out—like he owned the place. And what a voice! Vibrant, piercing—ear splitting, in fact, at close range. When he hopped up on my front porch and serenaded me at dawn every day, I found the sound of his commanding cock-a-doodle-doos strangely comforting.
How to Feed Fowl
So, instead of eating Dîner, I decided to feed him and make him happy. For selfish reasons, I guess: I wanted him to keep coming back to me.
One afternoon when I spotted him strutting away, crossing the road again, going back to his real home, I was crestfallen. Was he angry? Disappointed? Still hungry? Didn’t he like my bread? What could I do to win him back? I wondered. What do chickens eat, anyway?
One afternoon when I spotted him strutting away, crossing the road again, I was crestfallen. Was he angry?
Someone told me that chickens like to eat rice. Of course! Chicken-and-rice! Why hadn’t I thought of that? So, then, every morning, when I heard his distinctive, expectant, close-up cry, I would quietly unlock, unbolt, and unchain my front door and toss a handful of raw rice onto the porch for him. The first time I did this he was startled, almost insulted at having food thrown at him. He turned his back on me, walked off, and toured the grounds. Then he began to expect his breakfast. He didn’t even flinch as the kernels bounced and scattered at his feet. Soon, I thought, I’ll have him eating out of my hand.
And then I had an even better idea: I’d find him a wife.
One day my friend Youssef arrived with a cardboard box containing a young, shy, blond hen. I named her Déjeuner (lunch), and Dîner fell in love with her instantly. They became inseparable, strolling around my house side by side, pecking and cooing to each other. Youssef said he’d never seen anything like it.
I designed and Youssef built a henhouse for Dejeuner out of bamboo and chicken wire. She grew fat and happy and began to lay eggs. I called her eggs my Petits Déjeuners (breakfast). And, yes, I ate them.
Classic Roast Chicken
- 1 whole roasting chicken, about 3-1/2 pounds
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Set a roasting rack inside a 9 x 13-inch baking or roasting pan. Remove the innards from the chicken and rinse the chicken, inside and out, under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
- Liberally season the inside of the chicken with salt and pepper. Rub the outside well with oil. Tuck the wings under the back, tie the legs together at the ends with kitchen twine, and set the chicken, breast-side-up on the roasting rack.
- Tent the chicken loosely with foil and roast 30 minutes. Remove foil and roast 30 more minutes. Remove chicken from oven and test for doneness: Prick the thigh with the tip of a paring knife; if the juices run clear, the chicken is done. If the juice is pink, return to oven to roast for up to 15 more minutes. Allow chicken to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before carving.
A Simple Omelet
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon water
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter
- Filling, if desired: ¼ cup of any of the following: chopped ham; grated cheese; crumbled, cooked bacon; cooked, sliced mushrooms; or 2 tablespoons minced, fresh herbs
- Combine the eggs, water, salt, and pepper in a bowl and beat with a fork to blend well.
- Set an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add the butter and tilt the pan, swirling the butter to coat the bottom and sides of pan.
- When the butter foams, pour in the beaten eggs, and let rest, undisturbed, for about 5 seconds, to set. Using a wooden spatula, gently lift the cooked part of the egg away from the edge of the pan in four places, allowing the liquid egg to run under and toward the rim.
- After about 30 seconds, spread the (optional) filling in a line just to one side of the center of the omelet, then slip the spatula under the egg mass on the other side of the pan and flip that half of the omelet over onto the other half to enclose the filling. (If no filling is used, simply flip one half of the omelet over onto the other half.)
- Carefully tilt the pan over a plate so the omelet falls out bottom-side-up. Serve immediately.
Makes one serving.