I want to make a recipe from Joliver’s book Joliver Dicks about in America and Writes a Cookbook Whose Organisation by Geographical Location of the Dish’s Provenance Makes it Impossible to Find Anything. It involves griddling chicken and arranging it on top of stewed chickpeas, so I head off to the halal butcher.
At the counter I survey it for what I need: chicken breast, and chicken thigh. The bone-in thighs they do have had their skin removed, which is not what I’m after. I appreciate the health benefits, but if you’re going to cook your chicken without the skin on I’m not sure there’s much point in being alive. They do, however, have chicken legs, skin on, which can be separated into thigh and drumstick. This means I need to ask them to do some butchering.
A junior butcher approaches me, one of the four or five regulars. He is happy to fulfil my request for two chicken breasts. “I’m after two thighs with the skin on as well please,” I tell him. He gestures towards the skinned ones before I can finish. “Oh no, I need them with the skin on, please,” I go on. “Could you joint two chicken legs for me?”
He’s unsure what I mean. I can see that he feels awkward about it and I feel bad for him. When I said “joint” I was using a word that I’d understood was common parlance in butchery. Have I got this wrong by trying to use technical terms within a field I know nothing about? Am I like one of those people the IT department hates because they try to speak their language when they come up to fix the PC, and stand behind them saying “Maybe it’s the RAM? I thought it might be a RAM thing?” when they just want to be left alone to get on with it? Well, yes, I am very much that guy with IT people, but I don’t want to alienate the butchering community too. I’d have to start chopping up cows myself in the bathtub.
I decide to rephrase it. “Could you cut the chicken legs in half for me please?” Again, he’s unsure and he smiles nervously. I sort of want to hug him.
“Cut the legs in half?”
“Yes please, so cut the thigh off the drumstick.”
“You want thighs and drumsticks?”
“No thanks. If you could cut the thigh off the drumstick, then you keep the drumstick, and let me have the thighs.”
I did work experience in a music shop when I was about 16, and a woman came in wanting me to replace a string on her son’s guitar, which at the time I wasn’t very confident about, and I ham-fistedly wound it manually around the machinehead before securing it at the nut, rather than secure it first then tighten it by tuning it up like you should. All while she watched me, knowing, I think, that I was messing it up, as my cheeks turned red and my hands shook with shame. I know how the junior butcher feels.
He looks at me and I know he hasn’t fully understood. I don’t know any other way to convey the instruction. There’s a pause. Outside, generations pass. People exchange glances across crowded bars, fall in love, marry, have children and grandchildren, attend friends’ funerals and quietly slip away into the silence. Distant wars are fought and lost. Civilisations are formed, stand proud for centuries, and crumble into the dust.
One of the senior butchers approaches, frowning. He often gives off the impression of being ill-tempered. He asks his junior in Arabic what the problem is, and the younger man nervously explains to the best of his ability what I’ve requested. The older man pulls two chicken legs from the tray, joints them both with one thunderous chop each, tosses the drumsticks into the drumstick tray, gives his charge an angry shrug as if to say, “Why would you think that was difficult?” and storms off into the back room.
The junior butcher bags up the thighs, red-faced, not making eye contact with me. He gives me the price and I thank him and pay him. I want to pay him more, or apologise for what I’ve been party to, or let him know I’m on his side with a facial expression that says “Cuh! What a grouch, eh?” or say it might not feel like it now, but he’ll learn from this and be stronger for it, or stroke his hair and tell him he’s a good person and everything’s going to be all right.
I go home and griddle the chicken.