‘Try and eat meat once a week,’ said my doctor, looking over the rim of his spectacles. I’d had an exhausting year and was a little underweight. He on the other hand appeared to have consumed more than his fair share of animal fats. Still, trusting that ‘Doctor knows best’ I wandered the shops dripping with Christmas goodies, foie gras and fine French chocolates. I picked a top quality chicken fed on choice grains, reared in the great outdoors – a happy chicken in politically correct jargon.
As the oven heated and the stuffing soaked up the apricots in brandy, I was peeling the ornate gold sticker off the plump chicken’s breast when the headline on the label caught my eye.
‘TASTE ME,’ it invited me. ‘I’m one of the unmistakable St.Sever farm chickens.’
I felt strangely embarrassed to be thus addressed by this headless and very recently deceased chicken. I knew that guilt came too late. Instead of casting my eyes to the ceiling to whistle a jolly Christmas tune as a cowardly diversion I felt duty-bound to read the two paragraphs of this very personal heart to heart between the late chicken and myself. After all, I would soon be the beneficiary of the exalted lifestyle of this former bird.
‘I am the little sister of the famous Farmhouse Capon,’ it went on (those who don’t know what a capon is will be spared the sordid detail).
‘At St. Sever I have had the privilege,’ it chirped, ‘of being raised in ‘totale liberté’ for at least 98 days.’
I wondered how many chicken years might represent one human year, but sweeping Higher Maths aside, three months and eight days seemed a little on the short side.
‘I was fed on the golden mais of the Landes,’ it expounded, ‘before being carefully refined with skimmed milk. My tender flesh oozes flavour and finesse. I promise to offer you a maximum in eating pleasure.’
Was this the vanity of a brainless, not to say headless bird speaking which, when alive referred to itself as Moi in Miss Piggy style? Perhaps an evil spin doctor had infiltrated the chicken coops of rural France? Without a moment’s pause to commemorate the departed, the text on the label ruthlessly kicked me back into reality and rattled out the ice-cold orders: – ‘Melt 50 grams of butter, turn the bird until golden on all sides. – Roast at 250 degrees for an hour. – Serve with lemon juice and glazed carrots.’
I wrestled with my conscience. Drawn into so intimated a conversation by a bird wishing to assert its posthumous identity, I was now told to subject that very same creature, so eager to please with its bodily refinements, to deadly temperatures. The simple flick of an oven switch would turn me into an accessory to murder.
The shops had long closed; shopping for an alternative was out, and anyway, the evil deed had been done. I braced myself – chicken for Christmas it would be.
I did not read the chicken’s broadcast to my husband. He grew up in a city and could never make the leap of conscience (or lack of it) from a living creature to what lies on his plate. Although I grew up in the country surrounded by animals which we inevitably ate in the end, being personally addressed by a dead bird had so far only been the stuff of my worst nightmares.
I watched the chicken brown in my new self-cleaning oven. Was I dreaming or had I seen an advertisement for a self-basting chicken somewhere? Perhaps the next logical step was a self-stuffing bird, or a chicken that obligingly wrings its own neck moments before you shove it into the oven – chicken suicide on demand, so to speak – to guarantee absolute freshness.
We sat by a roaring open fire after our Christmas meal. Over a game of chess I reflected on how far we could venture with language when it comes to food. As the flicker from the flames danced about the room I could swear that above the angel gracing the top of our Christmas tree the satisfied face of the chicken’s ghost beamed down at me and I heard a cute Shirley Temple voice squeaking: ‘So glad you enjoyed eating me. We aim to pleeeease. Have a nice dayeee.’ And with a balletic flapping of its tiny wings the apparition vanished.