Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Head on, Feet on": Kosher & "Buddhist style" chicken

"Young Chicken. Free Range, Raised without growth stimulants. No added antibiotic. Buddhist style: Head On. Feet On." Label for "gà Vikon: A Heritage Chicken" that I cooked recently. I never saw a dead chicken with head and feet, but Layne told me that's how they'll be now.

Perhaps thanks to the anti-caged hens law we passed when (other) voters defeated the same-sex marriage proposition last fall here in California. The juxtaposition of more voters approving birds' rights than gay rights infuriated activists. Still, perhaps pleasing Peter Singer's "animal liberation" supporters and my vegan neighbors, we can see how a concern for human dignity need not and should not cancel out ethical treatment of how we care for the animals we depend upon for food. (I see today's paper has PETA bemoaning the century-old custom of tossing high dead fish at Pike Place Market in Seattle, which to me goes a bit too far; they ask if "dead cats" were hurled if we'd applaud, and I admit I might given my gallows humor.)

That picture you see above's on the bags of the two chickens Layne had bought, cheaply and grown in Azusa a few miles from the Alhambra Asian market she shopped at. See a brown, rather resolute fowl standing, or slightly strolling, amidst a green lawn's otherwise flat and undifferentiated expanse. Not likely to have been our chicken's last sight, given the industrial and dusty nature of my native San Gabriel Valley. Still, the reminder of "Free range" did coincide with the stated intention of the plurality of Golden State's electorate to allow chickens more room to roam before we grabbed them for eggs, or hauled them off to decapitate and cook.

The eyes of both chickens were glazed over by skin of sorts, a membrane that reminded me of a fetal being. I'd been musing about kashering and Buddhism both as I prepared the dinner, reflecting on our weakness that needs animals to die so we can live. Nothing deep or profound, as my Corgi watched me with eyes glinting more brightly than the knife I honed. But, I am trying to become more aware of what I do. Then, as I considered such issues, I saw for the first time the writing on the label, leading down to "Buddhist style: Head on. Feet on." I figured it was some sort of sign, bibliomancy on a bag.

I did it wrong, of course. The feet had been tucked into the skin somehow, and my dear wife chastised me on her return when I'd only cut part of the legs off. I figured culpable ignorance this first time out. Their heads came off with difficulty, if no more than turkey necks I'd had to sever, or chicken necks I twisted off by the dozens in a college summer job deboning vast amounts of fowl boiled the previous night so as to be disassembled by my hand at the meat-pie restaurant every morning. I can still take the meat off of a chicken practically blindfolded, separating fat from skin from meat and bones mechanically, if manually.

Talk about minimum wage, unskilled labor; I got the job in the midst of Reaganomics at the state unemployment agency across from ironically named Easy Street in El Monte one sweltering summer. Down the same street from the Asian market, if directly prior to the massive influx of immigration the past twenty-five years that would change the Valley from blue-collar white and Latino to many more Latinos and Asians. The whites and Asians demographically and suddenly switched; the Latino population kept growing. The only white person for miles even then, I had to walk from my house to the office down a boulevard belying its French inspiration past stucco shops and asphalt vistas in shimmering June heat that marked the Valley as a downscale wasteland; as a college student on grants and work-study, I had no car.

In school and in college, I'd always had to walk or bike or take the bus. On another level of austerity, I'd never had to dissect animals, given parochial destitution. So, this chopping off of feet and neck-head meant a sharp blade and fast instruction. Why should a bird's dead eyes move me more or less than those of a fish, the eye of which we tossed to the Corgi during our meal a few days before the chicken dinner?

Associations: thinking as I was why the apropos if un-clannish surname "Turnbull" in Seán Ó Riordáin's existentialist, unsettling encounter in his Irish-language poem that came to mind unbidden yesterday as I walked along on a break from work. I used my schoolboy Gaelic as a mental leash (Beckett's French a predecessor however rarified!) for my tugging English. I wondered:why should I "see" the eyes of one animal I eat differently than any other?

As the poet puts it, first in his Irish, then in Gabriel Fitzmaurice's translation of "Malairt" ["A Change"]:

'Gaibh a leith,' arsa Turnbull, 'go bhfeice tú an brón
I súilibh an chapaill,
Dá mbeadh crúba chomh mór leo sin fútsa bheadh brón
Id shúilibh chomh maith leis.'

Agus b'fhollas gur thuig sé chomh maith sin an brón
I súilibh an chapaill,
Is gur mhachnaigh chomh cruaidh sin gur tomadh é fá dheoidh
In aigne an chapaill.

D'fhéachas ar an gcapall go bhfeicinn an brón
'Na shúilibh ag seasamh,
Do chonac súile Turnbull ag féachaint im threo
As cloigeann an chapaill.

D'fhéachas ar Turnbull is d'fhéachas air fá dhó
Is do chonac ar a leacain
Na súile rómhóra a bhí balbh le brón--
Súile an chapaill.

"Come over," said Turnbull, "and look at the sorrow
In the horse's eyes.
If you had hooves like those under you,
There would be sorrow in your eyes."

And 'twas plain that he knew the sorrow so well
In the horse's eyes,
And he wondered so deeply that he dived in the end
Into the horse's mind.

I looked at the horse then that I might see
The sorrow in his eyes,
And Turnbull's eyes were looking at me
From the horse's mind.

I looked at Turnbull and looked once again
And there in Turnbull's head--
Not Turnbull's eyes, but, dumb with grief,
Were the horse's eyes instead.
"Brón," sorrow or sadness, repeats five times. Relate this to the fallen shell within which live sparks try to rise in Kabbalah; the "dukkha" or suffering permeating Buddhist teaching of the unsatisfied flesh. Out of such meditations, such confrontations demand compassion: Irish and Jewish and Buddhist and secular all sift with my ancestral Catholicism. I suppose my worldview deepens as my contradictions accumulate. Such may be maturity, as this month I will near closer the half-century mark; my bones begin to ache often with intimations of my next fifty years best or worst. Our bodily appetites never cease. Maybe, as all traditions tell us, we can start to control them, to master them. I try this now and then by thinking in halting Irish rather than my glib English.

Turnbull's eerie exchange comes to mind often when paralleled with my own witness on a Donegal road two Junes ago with a dirty sheep in a trailer looking back at me with its direct gaze. "Hooves under me," I had been trudging a silent hike in a threatening dusk, relief from my Irish-immersion classes, but I was talking to myself in Gaeilge to test my travel-weary memory and acclimate myself within the lunar, treeless, scoured, storm-lashed Gaeltacht landscape. Silence nearly total.

At that "insight," although on my trip already I'd not eaten meat since the chicken (that or beef) on the plane over, I vowed to pull back from what I craved, as a meat-and-potatoes guy. I'd once loved shrimp and pork chops, bacon if not ham. I gave those up nearly twenty years ago. When in Ireland, I tended not to eat any meat, to test myself and put that "fence around the Torah" observance of this one obligation at least. In a land of little kosher, it reminded me of what I've chosen to control.

For, I craved meat. I still eat it, no salad days for me, but no longer at least from four-foots. If I want more bipeds inside me, I must learn to chop heads and look at eyes. By this task, I assume a bit of responsibility for my actions.

I turned out, I admit, a delicious meal. Layne's instructions e-mailed to me I figured she'd garnered from a cookbook. But, it's her off-the-cuff culinary genius!

My wife sent me these directions which I copy for your inspiration and perhaps imitation:
This will show you how to remove heads and feet:
["How to Butcher a Chicken" blogsite.]
Try it with sharpest kitchen sheers. [sic: shears. Editor's note.]

heat oven 325 [I'd say 350 but she--"the meat's too dry"-- disagrees with me and the boys.]
There is a zip lock bag with long green Chinese chives. Snip some of these with scissors into 1/4 slices--about 1 1/2 cups, add about 1/2 cup garlic cloves and 2 sliced lemons and 1 tablespoon of salt, 1/2 t pepper and stuff chicken cavity. Melt half cube of butter and add juice of one lemon. Brush this on chicken and sprinkle with salt, pepper and a little paprika. Should bake about 1 hour.
The link is to a lively (blogsite rather than a video) from "Herrick Kimball, inventor of the world famous Whizbang Chicken Plucker" who in ten steps takes you through the chicken butchering process. Nobody who lives among animals made food stays sentimental long, any more than in a morgue, on a hospital staff, or in the police force. The crew looks quite happy in their work, and I'm reminded of my dad telling me how he saw a chicken running around with its head cut off as a boy, or our babysitter taking Leo as a toddler on the bus to nearby Chinatown to buy a live chicken from the store with, what else, a giant rooster adorning its facade, like an idol perching among the jolly buddhas and pagodas there. Perhaps his ancestors followed the shetl custom of "kapporot" when a person's sins are transferred to a fowl (rooster or hen depending on the sinner's sex) who's swung around one's head near the arrival of Yom Kippur. Said bird's then donated to the poor. Eat well before you fast. Moderation, not excess; don't starve yourself too much, but don't stuff yourself. Again, there's a subtly ethical concern in this ritual, as with kashrut and "Buddhist style" slaughter.

I'm re-reading, after fifteen years when it appeared, Rodger Kamenetz' "The Jew in the Lotus," about the historic encounter of a rabbinical delegation with the Dalai Lama in October 1990. I was learning about Judaism when I read it originally; now I am adding an interest in Buddhism that builds upon my longstanding interest in Tibet. Perhaps that will illuminate a dietary intersection between the two traditions. Already, Blu and Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg in their Indian travels with Kamenetz and the minyan (if not for Orthodox--part of the problems that plague their negotiations!) of delegates encounter difficulties in staying Torah-true to their version of Modern Orthodox kosher, as opposed to their liberal brethren. Even vegetarian may not suffice, for the oils and preparations may mix with other foods in their prepared vessels. Arriving in Dharamsala, however, to their delight, the Greenbergs find the Tibetans have kashered their kitchen totally according to exacting directions sent ahead of their entourage.

I admire the Greenbergs, for going hungry on a flight since the Brahmin meal served may not meet their halakhic standards shows no small adherence to discipline on an arduous journey. Yet, as Kamenetz subtly shows, the challenge of the whole meeting with the Dalai Lama also rests in the visiting Jews' self-control not to take charge of every situation for dialogue, but to learn to step back and listen and understand. This respect, nonetheless, can clash in turn with Jewish prohibitions on idolatry and consorting with "pagan" practices. So, even in this meeting, rigidity remains for some a paramount concern, for how else, some reason, will Jews survive a diaspora among the heathens. Out of their lessons, perhaps the Tibetans will learn how to endure exile. But, can they sustain tension between fidelity and flexibility?

Kamenetz cites a young woman's view of Judaism: "An old man saying no." Restriction, as any parent or teacher learns, beats permission. There's a general belief I'm sure my vegan neighbors would share that Buddhism eschews meat. In fact, as the Tibetans show by practicality in their arid homeland, this restriction did not become universal among practitioners. Last month, I reviewed here (and on Amazon US) Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' A Buddhist"-- this Bhutan-based teacher tells us early on that "eating meat" does not keep you from being a Buddhist, but in his conclusion, he informs us that one must not kill any animal. So, I'm not sure; Buddha's monks could receive meat as alms if the animal had not been killed especially for them.

As with Torah, perhaps later Buddhist restrictions grew as debate ensued and laxity loomed. Layne and I discussed after going to temple last week how boring the parshah was, how full of minutiae about the clan of Gershom having their tabernacle tasks assigned. Out of this, she suggested, we can see the truth of the Torah: if the Hebrews had been only concerned with grand narratives and origin myths passing as reality, they'd not have included these dull bits of legalisms and bickering.

I'm sure these discussions, over two-and-a-half thousand years in both cases, resulted in splits and factions and rivalries. Oddly similar to Judaism, Buddhism lacks much "original" textual lore about its purported first teacher to bicker over; the life of Buddha's probably about as scanty as the veracity of Moses. The bulk comes after those who follow such men hash out the details. After the revelation at the deer park, the fire sermon, the theophany at Sinai, the Decalogue's simplicity, the texts begin to surround the original documents, the pithy commandments, the four noble this and the eightfold that.

Out of this, we find kosher expanded and meat also accepted or denied. And, eventually, the Dalai Lama insisting that if science proves rebirth wrong, the belief must capitulate to reason. And, eventually, the rabbis designing ways to stay "Torah-true" in an electrical age with Rube Goldberg devices, inventions as ingenious as those for Sabbath-compliant ovens, but such are the necessities of keeping a faith alive for centuries amidst pressing daily anxiety.

Website and source of photo: Vikon Chicken Farm, Azusa. Translation & original poem by Seán Ó Riordáin (1917-77). "Malairt"/ "A Change": Gabriel Fitzmaurice, "Poems I'd Wish I'd Written: Translations from the Irish" (Indreabhán, Co. na Gaillimhe, Éire: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1996): 38-9.

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