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Rant #17
(published Late in the Year, 2000)
On the French and their Friggin Chickens
A Letter from a Provencal Kitchen
by Sarah Whitney Womack

Oh, the humanity. And the poultry. Sartre thought that hell is other people, but I can now confirm that hell is a big chicken and a toaster oven. Their culinary reputation notwithstanding, the French tend to furnish their kitchens as if they were boy scout camps— little two-ring propane ranges and (bizarrely, for a country of bakers) tiny plug-in toaster ovens instead of the real thing. Now, MY toaster oven has a picture of a chicken on it with "45 minutes" written next to it, so I just assumed that I could, in fact, cook a chicken in it.

Oh, the youthful naivete. I went to the market yesterday and got a fancy black-footed roasting chicken (much prized, though I'm exactly sure why and the Chicken Man was pretty vague, too), an absolute bale of fresh tarragon, tiny baby potatoes, and assorted wooden cooking implements. Today, looking forward to my elegant dinner, I decided to abandon my customary Chicken Under The Rock method (which works fabulously well, actually— you partially debone the chicken and halve it— a disgusting job— and, after marinating it for a good long time in garlic and olive oil, brown it with a large rock on top, which presses the skin against the pan and gives a great crispiness, then finish it in the oven) and go for the classical roast chicken with lemon and tarragon. Because, hey, there's a picture of a chicken on my toaster oven.

So I make my seasoning paste of tarragon (by the way, fresh tarragon must be used instantly— mine was very sad when I took it out of the fridge after only a day) and stuff, finish gutting the friggin chicken (and thank You for being assiduous, Chicken Man!), rub the paste all over the chicken, poke holes in the lemon (and my thumb— so nice to have a fresh wound with lemon, salt, pepper, and raw chicken around), stick it inside, truss up the chicken, and put in the toaster oven.

Almost. The picture on my toaster oven must not be of a chicken, but of a quail, because it took all the force of my youth to cram the goddamn chicken in— with one of its wings hanging casually out of the side of the pan as if to say, "salut, la fille!"— and I was just pausing to reflect upon what effect touching the heating element would have on the skin when it Burst Into Flames. Tarragon, apparently, burns. So out comes the chicken, the flames die out, and I think, well, no permanent damage, because it's often a better idea to roast the dark meat separately from the white, so I hacked off its little chicken limbs and stuck the limbless torso (so much for keeping all those juices in, but at least, I thought, I don't have to deal with making Chicken Under the Rock) in the toaster oven.

Almost. In life, it must have been quite the strapping barrel-chested chicken, because there was Simply No Way of getting it in there without fire hazard. So I surrendered. I stuck the stupid limbs in the pan, threw them into the ridiculous toaster oven, and proceeded to make Denuded Chicken Torso Under the Rock.

Almost. I discover that one of the reasons that works so well is that the chicken is soaked in olive oil for an entire friggin day. The Denuded Torso was not, so by the time I noticed that the cheerful skin-crisping smell had transformed into an alarming flesh-burning smell, I had to jerk the chicken off the bottom of the pan with both hands (got a nice burn for that effort), after failing to dislodge it with my new wooden spatula, which with the force of my prying catapulted out of my hand, through the open window, and onto the roof. So I dumped a bunch of water in with the chicken to make Steamed Chicken Torso and climbed out the window (over the stove, but with no mishaps), rescued my spatula with no further adventures, and came back in. At that point I couldn't stand to look at the friggin chicken, so I just had vegetables and will make the cursed thing into soup tomorrow.

So that totally sapped my will to live, and I have resolved never to be fancy again. Or to eat chicken. And now I am going to take out the trash, run my bathwater, and soak my evening away, reflecting upon the fall of France as a major world power. Okay— now I've waited too long to take out the trash, and it's pouring rain. I have to go. Damn their eyes.

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