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The Stove’s On — It Must Be Chicken in the Pot

Although a chicken cooking in a Jewish pot now seems about as natural and inevitable as the sun rising in the morning sky (and appear about as frequently), it might not necessarily have been so. The Bible never mentions chicken, and the dietary laws therein regulating its consumption are ambiguous at best. Unlike the other three categories of animal — fish, mammals and invertebrates — the Bible cites no characteristics that distinguish kosher from non-kosher birds; instead, it simply lists 24 non-kosher species (among them eagles, vultures and hawks), the implication being that all other species are to be considered kosher.

While this approach sufficed during biblical times, in later centuries the particular species mentioned in the Bible could no longer be definitively identified, and so a number of eminent rabbis attempted to elucidate the features that make any species of bird acceptable or unacceptable for consumption. As has been discussed by Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky in a fascinating article (which can be found on the Web site titled “Is Turkey Kosher?,” the first stipulation was that a bird could not be a dores, or predatory species. The precise definition of such a species, however, was the subject of impassioned debate: No less authorities than Rashi and the Rambam believed that the category should include any bird that holds down its prey with its claws and breaks off pieces to eat. This interpretation was rejected by other rabbis, notes Rabbi Zivotofsky pointedly, “because it would seem to include chickens.” Instead, these rabbis asserted that a predator is a bird that ingests its prey while it is still alive. Chickens eat live worms — and have been known to hold them down with their claws — and so the rabbis hastened to add that this does not present a problem, as worms are not to be considered true “animals.” On such meager grounds were we granted chopped liver and chicken chow mein.

Though there were chickens in Egypt, they were kept primarily for ceremonial purposes; the preferred poultry of the time included geese, duck, dove and quail. The Romans, on the other hand, were great lovers of chicken, raising them for fattening on special farms, and it seems likely that this is the period that Jews first began eating chicken. Interestingly enough, the taste for chicken did not survive the fall of the Roman Empire, among Jews or non-Jews. Chickens were not eaten in Europe throughout the Dark Ages; not until the Crusades and the subsequent rise of European cuisine in the 12th century would chicken again be widely consumed.

Among Jews, it was only in the late medieval period, with the migration to Eastern Europe, that chickens would achieve a position of centrality in the cuisine. In Central Europe geese had been the poultry of choice, but in Eastern Europe it was far more common for rural Jewish families to keep chickens. Chickens were very cheap and easy to raise; unlike geese, they could be kept year-round, and, unlike cows, they could be slaughtered without requiring the services of a ritual slaughterer. Indeed, for the Jews of Eastern Europe the chicken came to be rivaled only by the potato as the most important foodstuff and, as such, none of it went to waste. To paraphrase an American Southern expression about (lehavdil) pigs, Eastern European Jews used every part of the chicken but the squawk. The chicken’s fat, or shmaltz, became the chief frying agent; the skin was rendered into the delicious cracklings known as gribenes; the head and feet went into the soup pot to thicken and enrich the broth; the liver, of course, was chopped, while the giblets were fried; the neck, or heldzl, served as a casing to be stuffed, and chicken eggs, useful in countless ways in the kitchen, provided another major source of protein. Moreover, the chicken’s feathers were plucked and put into pillows and bedding, and even the droppings were collected and scattered for fertilizer.

The importance of the chicken can scarcely be overestimated, and Yiddish literature is full of stories of Jewish housewives who bring questionable chickens to the local rabbi (according to the kosher laws, a chicken cannot be eaten if it has blemishes on any internal organs) and anxiously await his ruling about whether or not the bird is acceptable. In Eastern Europe, chicken was the centerpiece of most Sabbath and holiday meals, and this was a tradition that survived the immigration to America. In her 1958 classic “The Art of Jewish Cooking,” the famed Catskills hotel-keeper Jennie Grossinger wrote, “Everyone knows that the classic Friday night meal of Jewish families throughout the world consists of chicken soup, followed by boiled or roast chicken. To serve anything else might almost border on the sacrilegious in the minds of many who have had no other Friday night dinner during their lifetimes.”

As Grossinger indicates, the love of chicken was not reserved only for the Jews of Eastern Europe, but was shared by Sephardi Jews, from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and India. Chicken is a relatively bland-tasting food, providing a welcoming base for a variety of rich and flavorful sauces of the sort often found in Sephardic cooking. (This is in marked contrast with Eastern Europe, where chicken was prepared far more austerely, usually either roasted or boiled, and served without much garnish.) In Morocco, for instance, a famous dish pairs chicken with green olives and the local specialty of preserved lemons; the olives are rich and fatty, and the lemons sour and salty, and the powerful combination would not work nearly so well with a meat that provided more of its own distinctive flavor. Chicken is also the centerpiece of perhaps the most splendid dish made by Iraqi Jews, tabeet, which consists of a whole chicken long-cooked with rice both inside and out, and lavishly flavored with a special spice mixture including, among others, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and dried rose petals.

Similarly, one of the special dishes made by the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta is chitarnee, in which the chicken stews in a glossy, fragrant onion sauce. There were few ritual slaughterers in the Calcutta Jewish community, and as a result chicken was far more common there than beef or lamb. This was unusual in the Sephardic world, however, where chicken was generally not a staple; in many places it was the most expensive form of protein, and reserved for special occasions such as the Sabbath, weddings and holidays, including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Chicken has long been associated with Yom Kippur, among Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, in part because of the venerable atonement ritual of kapparot (kapores in Yiddish). Kapparot is performed by swinging a live chicken around one’s head three times while reciting prayers requesting that the chicken be sacrificed in one’s stead, the idea being to symbolically transfer one’s own sins to the chicken. As for the now sin-laden chicken, it is slaughtered and either it or its monetary equivalent is donated to the poor. (Presumably sins — unlike, say, salmonella — cannot be transmitted from the chicken to the eater.)

Because there were often lots of chickens around as a result of kapparot — and because it is an easily digested food — it has been chicken that many Jews throughout the world have traditionally eaten before the Yom Kippur fast. It is chicken with which they have, as often as not, welcomed in the New Year, and each week, the Sabbath; prepared in one form or another, it has also been chicken served at the Jewish sickbed. From chopped liver to roast chicken and chicken soup, it is almost impossible to imagine Jewish cuisine — indeed, Jewish life — without it. A Yiddish proverb tells us, “Better a chicken in the hand than an eagle in the sky.” The eagle, we know, isn’t kosher; as for the chicken, well, let us just be grateful that everything worked out.

* * *|

In Greece, this simple, flavorful dish was very common for Friday or Saturday night. This particular preparation comes from the town of Volos, on the eastern coast midway between Salonika and Athens. The recipe was given to me by Paulette Nehama of Bethesda, Md., who left Volos for the United States in 1958.

Kotopoulo Lemonato (Greek Lemon Chicken)

1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, cut into 8 pieces; or 4 split breasts, totaling about 3 pounds

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

juice of 2 lemons

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 1/4 cups water

4 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch slices

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1. Wash the chicken pieces and pat them dry, then season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until browned on all sides.
2. Add the lemon juice, oregano, water and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Add the carrots and continue cooking until they are soft and the chicken is cooked through, about another 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken and carrots to a large serving platter and pour some of the cooking liquid over them. Sprinkle with the parsley. Serve hot, with rice.

Serves 4.

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