My uncle once said: “kill a fish a day and eat it.” I was 15; he and my aunt had just finished sailing down the coast in a 43 ft boat they had built in their driveway on Long Island. Now they were down in Miami, staying with my dad and hanging out with me for the first appreciable time in my life before moving on to the Keys.
He went on to say that the commercial industry is abusive of the fish and the environment, causing overfishing and then leaving too much inventory of fish on store shelves to go bad and get thrown out. If you have to take from nature, I believe he said, you should have to go through the labor of procuring the food yourself to understand the value and the sacrifice of the animal. And you will limit yourself to what is sensible for you. He thought people are lazy and repugnant for plucking cellophane packages off the shelf and looking for the best price without having to lift a finger or acknowledge the slaughter.
Having been 15, just exiting my “MTV” phase and entering my “intense literature” phase, I had little exposure to this type of culinary philosophy. I found it intriguing. I didn’t do any of the household food shopping and also did not have knowledge of or access to fishing. So I found the idea both academic and exotic. I didn’t know my aunt and uncle very well at that time, and just wondered whether they were out there killing fish in their lives. Later I came to find out that indeed they were out there hunting their daily food. And not the lazy way with a fishing pole in a boat; but with a spear, on a breath hold, free-diving into the water. Throwing the fish up into the boat, and skinning it. True hunters.
We cannot all be hunters; I am not. But I still value the idea of taking only what you need, and really getting everything out of it out of respect for nature. So I make chicken stock.
When I first started cooking after college, I was timid about handling raw meat. I made only chicken breasts. Then I discovered roasting the entire chicken. When you do that, you can also make a stock out of the bones and use that. So I overcame my squeamishness for a greater cause. You could even cook the liver separately, which I am still looking into.
But at least if you cook a chicken whole and make stock, there are a number of things you can feel good about. I start with chickens from local farms or at least from “natural, organic, humanitarian” brands rather than Purdue. I try to zero in on sources that value and respect the chicken. Small-time chicken farms are less likely to put chickens into an abusive, over-farming situation. Small-time farms are more likely to just sell the chicken whole, rather than chop the chicken up into piles of parts immediately with industrial machines. I just find this gruesome and disrespectful. Even appetizing-looking plates of wings piled high just remind me of how many chickens had to have their wings cut off for this amusing dish.
Then when you cook a chicken whole, you know all the parts are consumed and accounted for, and are not sitting on shelves unevenly as extra inventory. Whatever chicken is leftover after a few days becomes a feast for the very happy dog. And then once I’ve made the stock, I feel I’ve done everything I can with this food, and gotten all my money’s worth. I don’t think I will be buying chicken stock any time soon either – picture the industrial process and ingredients used for that, compared to the batch I made with my own spices. I guess I would rather keep everything closer to home.
So in my way, by collecting whole chickens for cooking, making stock, making homemade soups, caring for other chickens and eating their eggs, I think I am upholding my uncle’s principle of “kill a fish a day and eat it.” What’s your food philosophy?