Obviously, bird was no spring chicken

March 27, 2002|By Rob Kasper

THE OTHER night, we had a chicken for dinner that was tougher than Tonya Harding.

That chicken was so tough, its skin could patch potholes on Interstate 95.

That chicken was so tough, it could have been sliced with a power saw.

The chicken was so tough, its drumsticks could sport Louisville Slugger trademarks.

Exactly how that rugged bird came to dinner is still being investigated. Preliminary indications point to age. That bird was old.

How old?

That chicken was so old, I bet it was around when Liza Minnelli got married the first time, four husbands ago.

The label on this chicken did not mention the age of the bird. What it did mention was its heritage -- this bird hailed from Marietta, Ga. -- and its "special" price. This bird was cheap.

How cheap?

That bird was so cheap, you could buy a pound of it and a cup of coffee and still have change for a dollar.

But it was no bargain, at least the way we cooked it. That 4.8-pound chicken was rubbed with olive oil, sprinkled with herbs and allowed to roast in a 380-degree oven.

After about an hour and 15 minutes, it was pulled from the oven and probed with an instant-read thermometer. The breast was at 170, the thigh was at 180, which are the readings that signal that the meat is done. But instead of looking done, this bird looked distressed. The skin on the breast had shrunk, letting the breast meat pop into view. It was not a pleasant sight, reminding me of a guy with a big beer belly wearing a T-shirt that was two sizes too small.

The bird went back in the oven for 15 more minutes. The extra cooking didn't help this situation. This bird did not need heat; it needed moisture, an ocean or two.

When I picked up a carving knife, and tried to slice the leg off the body, the leg seemed to be kicking back. I wrestled with that bird, and it won two out of three falls. Finally I gave up on the leg and attacked the breast. It fought me as well, but, using a very sharp knife, I was able to slice off enough meat to fill a small plate.

That plate of chicken meat, along with rice and salad and vegetables, served as supper. Everybody in our family took a few bites of the chewy chicken, then filled up by eating extra helpings of rice, salad and vegetables.

As people in trouble tend to do these days, I turned to Washington for help. I telephoned the National Chicken Council there and asked for advice.

I figured denizens of Washington would be familiar with tough old birds. Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the chicken council, surmised that the bird was probably a stewing hen. Stewing hens, he said, are mature chickens that are "retired" after years of laying eggs.

Unlike most of the chicken sold in supermarkets, these hens are supposed to be cooked in liquid, in closed containers like a Dutch oven. When surrounded with moisture, these hens produce magnificent soups and stews, he said. But when stewing hens are cooked in dry heat, they become ropy.

Next, I did what journalists do: I dug through the trash. When I found the wrapper belonging to the bird in question, I pulled back the price sticker and saw the words "Fresh Hen."

I don't know how fresh it was, I think "spent hen" would have been closer to the truth. The fine print of the wrapper also offered recipe suggestions. One called for cooking the hen in water for 2 1/2 hours; the other called for cooking it, with water, in a pot with a tight-fitting lid for 3 1/2 hours. In other words, this bird needed a steam bath and we had given it a sauna.

Apparently, there was not much I could do to make the dehydrated hen edible. Lobb said I could try to salvage some of the bird by cutting the meat into very small pieces, then dumping it, along with a can of corn, into a pot of seafood chowder. But he admitted this was less of a solution and more of a cover-up.

In short, when you've got a tough old bird on your hands, the wisest course of action seems to be to admit your mistake and toss it.

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