A Flurry of Fowl

There was a quiet little buzz moving in the air amongst my food-savvy colleagues at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference I recently attended in Providence, Rhode Island. I would catch snippets of conversation like, "Can you believe they actually butcher the chickens?" "Did you see the eggs?" Finally, my friend Cathy said, "Beth you've got to go see it. It's "the chicken place" up on Federal Hill." So off I went with only a name -- "the chicken place" -- and my always overextended food curiosity.

"The chicken place" wasn't too difficult to find. One false start led me into Joe's Acorn Market, Inc. I met "the Joe" (third generation) and had a teensie taste of his zingy imported Italian Provolone. After asking Joe if he knew where the chicken place was, he gingerly kissed my hand and sent me around the corner. There, in a lovely little garden square, nestled among the hip coffee shops and restaurants, was "the chicken place."

Like many of the businesses in the ethnic Federal Hill neighborhood, Antonelli's is family-owned and -operated. Christopher Morris, the present owner, proudly boasts his store's heritage -- it's been in the same location since 1889 with a name change only once, in the 1960s, at which point the Antonelli name was placed on the door. Which is how, some 30 years later, I happened to be speaking to the third-generation (by marriage) proprietor.

As you stand in the bustle and noise of his back room, Morris guides you through the natural and age-old process of butchering a fowl. The choice of fowls at Antonelli's is extensive, including chickens, ducks, hens, pheasant, and quail. You can even choose the age and type of fowl. For instance, the Chinese Black Bone Chicken is one of Morris' favorites. He describes it as being black to the bone when cooked.

As a paying customer, you get to choose from the flurry of fowl that are caged in rows one on top of the other. Angelo, a crusty old gentleman in his 80s, takes the squawking fowl from its cage, weighs it, and drives the bargain. Once the price is agreed upon, the fowl is taken to the butchering table. With masterful hands, one of Morris' team bends the neck, cuts the artery, and drains the blood. The fowl is placed in a specifically designed table that allows the blood to drain respectfully and thoroughly. When drained of blood, the fowl is placed into the scalding machine to loosen the feathers.

The scalding machine contains water that reaches 148 degrees Fahrenheit. The fowl is left in the hot water for up to one and a half minutes. It is then taken out and placed into the spin plucker. Morris describes the spin plucker as being similar to a washing machine. It takes the feathers off the fowl. Interestingly, you will see some fowls being plucked by hand. Morris points out that these are ducks, and ducks' feathers are harder to remove. Once the feathers are plucked, the fowl is moved to the eviscerating table.

At the eviscerating table, the innards are taken out of the cavity and the cavity is rinsed. The innards that we eat, like the gizzard, are then cleaned and placed back into the fowl's cavity. The fowl is packaged and presented to the customer. From start to finish the process takes about 10 minutes.

As I was watching this process, Morris brought me a handful of different-shaped and -colored "orbs." He said, "These are the eggs that come down the fallopian tube of the females." I was fascinated. He went on to describe that each female fowl has a birth cycle. A fowl could be butchered at any point in this cycle. Therefore, eggs may be in the fallopian tube at any given stage during its growth. I saw a few stages, one of them being the embryonic, or yolk, stage. The size of a grape, the egg at that point is a rich, dark orange-yellow color. When I asked Morris if he saved and sold the eggs, he told me that regardless of when it's cooked, an egg tastes like an egg.

Morris loves to talk about his business, and rightly so. As commercial consumers we usually don't shop for live fowl anymore. We shop for the freshest looking pre-packaged fowl, wrapped in clear plastic, found perfectly stacked on grocery store shelves. Morris' motto for his business is, "You can't buy a fresher bird." And he's right.

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