““My mother is not thrilled with the prospect of my new houseguest, who will be staying with us for a week. Perhaps it is her exotic pedigree to which my mother objects.””
By Mei Chin
My mother is not thrilled with the prospect of my new houseguest, who will be staying with us for a week. Perhaps it is her exotic pedigree to which my mother objects.
“We don’t even know where she comes from,” my mom says.
“Mom,” I say, “she grew up thirty miles away from here.”
“She might have a disease,” my mother says.
“Also,” whispers my mother, “she might start to smell.”
“God, mother,” I say, “you’re so prejudiced.”
Granted, I have never met the chick before. She’s a friend of a connection. Also, granted, this connection tends to say things like, “I’ll shoot ’em for you next week,” and “I’ll squeeze them so I won’t leave a mark.” He’s a little like Robert De Niro in a good mood and my mother trusts him not a whit.
Still, I’ve been dying to meet her. I’ve been a huge fan of hers ever since I was eight. Two hundred years ago, she so captivated the French lawyer Brillat Savarin, he kept her tucked inside his trousers when he was arguing a case in court. She’s been adorned with the most expensive accoutrements in the world—foie as expensive as gold, black truffles lavished on her like they were rhinestones, lash- ings of the most prestigous brandy.
The doorbell finally rings, I open it to greet the most exquisite of creatures. Scarlet, white, copper, and gold, with sweeping tail feathers.
“Oh my God,” I said, “You’re finally here. Did you have a nice journey? Do you want anything—a glass of wine, maybe?”
“He-hem,” I am interrupted by a delicate cough, which comes from a dull brown bird standing in the background.
The dull brown bird shakes her feathers and bows. “This happens frequently. He,” she gestures to the gorgeously done-up creature, “was just my escort. The cock of the week, which every self-respecting woman needs. I’m bored with him now.” She sweeps in.
“I’m sorry. I thought you’d be more …”
“Glamorous?” she smiles. I nod.
“Cherie,” she says, and the breeze shivers through her feathers, revealing touches of silver underneath the brown. “It is what is on the inside that counts….Antoine,” she snaps. Antoine looks blank. “Apparently they need your feathers at the hat shop downtown.” She lowers her voice. “It’s all he’s good for, you know. Go on,” she says, her voice barely rising above a murmur. “I’m done with you now. Au revoir.” On cue, I sweep her into my arms and slam the door.
Then my mother arrives, with a less than thrilled look on her face.
“Hello,” my guest trills. “Thank you for welcoming me into your home.”
My mother is sulky. “It wasn’t really my choice, you know.”
My guest ruffles her feathers. “Really, I’ll be quiet. I’ve been so looking forward to a place to relax and take in the country air. The air is magic to me. And after a week, I promise you I’ll be irresistible.”
“This is New Haven, Connecticut,” my mother remarks wryly, “hardly the country. And I don’t eat your kind.”
Then she blurts, “Oh my God, you’re Chinese, aren’t you. I have family in China. Ni hao, shay shay,” she burbles in a terrible Chinese accent. (This is true. Her ancestors are from Asia. I saw many of her kin in cages in Shanghai, waiting to get their throats slit, a detail I choose not to share.)
“Comrades,” says Pheasant, “right?”
“Humph,” says my mother. “All I can say is that China is a big
country. It leaves plenty of room for mistakes.”
At least my dog is friendly. She gives a joyful yelp and buries her nose into my guest’s nether parts.
“Naughty,” says my guest. “Oh, she tickles.”
At that moment my stepfather also decides to join us.
He says, “Oh hello. I used to keep you in the mud-room when I was a child.”
“Well, hello,” my guest purrs, “handsome.”
My mother scowls. “You’re staying in the garage,” she says in an icy voice. “If you were alive it might be uncomfortable for you. But since you’re not I’m sure you will be fine.” Our garage smells of cedar and paint. I tie a slipknot around her neck and haul her up over the rafters. It’s strange, watching her, as she slowly revolves. She’s graced Roman banquets and been presented at the tables of all the King Henrys, she’s the choice of both sinners and saints. Thomas Beckett partook of her before getting the top of his skull sliced off. She’s out- lasted most fashions—for, let’s face it: lamprey, swan, peacock may have been hot at certain points in Rome and the Renaissance, but they’re not exactly angling to make a comeback. I bet she’ll be as timeless as Chanel.
A millennium of gracing the best of tables probably explains the misty look in her eyes.
“You know that Jean-Anthelme used to keep me in his pants,” she murmurs.
“I do.” I answer. Jean was the lawyer.
“This is slightly more chilly. But I’m not complaining. Auguste Escoffier… he used to love to give me the most expensive baths. And Livia and the Borgia sisters, my lord,” she gives a throaty chuckle, “they were bad girls.”
For dinner that night we have steak dusted with paprika. The steak is delicious but my mother bought it Saran-wrapped at Whole Foods.
As I eat, I think dreamily about my guest and how, when she is ready, I will behead her, strip her naked and remove her insides, and rub her with pork fat and butter.
My mother has declared the garage out of bounds. “I’ve parked your car outside,” she tells my stepfather. When he leaves she fixes me a meaningful glare. “Your stepfather is sensitive. I don’t want him disturbed.”
Hello? My stepfather is from England, which, as I understand, is the Land of Pheasant. There are more pheasants than treacle tarts. I imagine that they hang them on Christmas trees when they run out of ornaments and children cuddle with them at night instead of teddy bears.
When I visit her later she’s exactly where I left her, and she looks luscious.
She evokes scarlet-clad dandies coming in from the hunt to eat her creamed on toast by a roaring fire. Languid French courtesans dine on her in bed with a side of current jelly.
While there’s a lot to be said for your standard-issue chicken, there’s nothing sensual about a roast chicken dinner.
Ideally I’d love to serve her under a glass, although I’ve heard that the dish is an urban legend. As pheasant under glass, she rests under- neath a glass dome, which when lifted, lets out a puff of morels, cream, and cognac.
The first time I ate her, I was dressed up for dinner in a velvet dress that didn’t really fit, with a Peter Pan collar that had gone slightly yellow because it had hung in the closet for so long. The restaurant had a roaring fire and white tablecloths. I ordered pheasant. Even though I hadn’t read Henry James yet, I felt like one of those women on the cover of his novels.
She smelled as rich as I felt, but my first bite tasted of sawdust. Bravely, I persisted, but it tasted like the stuff that my mother used in her window pots. Later there was the pheasant with port that I was picking out of my teeth for a week. Cold pheasant pie on a picnic— how romantic can you get?—but eventually I despaired and ate a ham sandwich instead. Have you ever had breast of pheasant in a Dole pineapple juice reduction? The fact that the sauce tasted vaguely like a piña colada was the best thing about it. For at least a dozen years I ordered pheasant when it was on the menu, and then spent the rest of the meal eyeing everyone else’s entrée. I ate my way through pheasant terrines, pheasant pies, pheasant pâtés. I roasted pheasant and made cream of pheasant soup, and yet that rich, slightly corrupt flavor continued to elude me.
I blamed the books—particularly Edith Wharton, Henry James, John Galsworthy, Colette—all those juicy braces of pheasant devoured by cigar smoking politicians, cold pheasant wings nibbled by debutantes in peignoirs. Pheasant, it seemed, was simply a product of good pub- licity. She was like that guy that you heard so much about, who drove a Jaguar, had a castle, was related to Orson Welles and whose great- grandfather was best friends with Rasputin. When he finally comes calling, you’re bamboozled by the myth. It’s only later you realize that he is five foot three and has hair growing out of interesting places.
Then just as I was ready to put a lid on the whole pheasant thing, , at a sober, adult age, I discovered that I had been too impatient.
For Pheasant to be really good, she’s got to to be left to hang out for a while, with a hook through her beak or a knot around her neck. The pheasant, writes Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin, “when eaten within three days of its death, has nothing distinguishing about it… At the peak of its ripeness, however, its flesh is tender, highly flavored, and sublime, at once like domestic fowl and like wild game.”
Aha! So a pheasant is a lot like a pear, in that she gets juicier as she ripens.
She’s also like Catherine Deneuve, a comparison, incidentally, that Pheasant made when I dropped by the garage late to say goodnight. “I’m so much more satisfying than some icicle blonde,” she added.
Some problems present themselves: I know when a pear is ripe, which, granted, is about a two-hour window, between when it goes from hard to a squishy, brown collapse. But at least I know how that perfect ripe pear looks and smells—it yields to the touch and it smells of gold, honey, summertime, and sugar. Unfortunately, I’m not so confident about knowing when a bird is ready to give it up. I assume she will smell more like Camembert than a pear.
Ripe, in the case of pheasants, is just a euphemism for rot. So there’s the whole salmonella/bacteria thing, and of course my mother, being the usual cheerleader, remarked, “Just make sure you don’t kill us.”
Several die-hards hang their birds until their heads drop off. Others wait until maggots begin to fall from their bodies. Neither, I believe, would really please my mother. Jane Grigson says that four to ten days is plenty. Marco Pierre White has gone for as long as a month.
If I were in England or France I could trot over to my nearest butcher and he would do it for me. Although this is a practice that everyone else (at least in the European Union) endorses, it makes Americansfeelqueasy.TheguysatD’Artagnan,forinstance,toldme that they hang their pheasants and then, a couple days later, refused to offer any other comment for fear that it would drive their customers away. In this country, however, in order to have my perfect pheasant I have to do it myself. And damn it, I will. It’s not just about a dead bird. It’s a profound quest. Besides, this will take me one step closer to being a responsible, politically conscious carnivore. When I look at my pheasant she looks back at me. She is a bird, an entrée with a face, and not a tenderloin wrapped in plastic.
“Mei,” my mother asks me, “how long does she have to stay?”
“One chef,” I tell her, “kept her hanging for twenty-eight days.”
My mother shudders.
“I don’t know,” I say cheerfully. “Twenty-eight days will go by like that.”
Pheasant has been getting petulant. She asks whether I can install
a television or a sound system for the long, silent periods when she is alone. I tell her that since we only have one television in the house, she, like most birds, will have to suffer in silence.
“Oh and by the way. Can you be a darling and see if there is there anything you can do about those nasty song-birds at the birdfeeder? It’s so rude of them to try to rub in that they are alive and I’m not.”
Four days is the minimum that Jane Grigson gives in English Food. When the tail feathers come out easily, she says, the bird is ready. But they are as firmly attached as ever. I bury my face in her breast, hoping catch a whiff of decomposition, but there’s no aroma.
Pheasant stirs. “My,” she yawns, “we’re impatient. You know Auguste Escoffier, don’t you, he was a lovely man. We go back for more than a century.” She smiles. “Now, Auguste was all in favor of having me soak in an 1848 port for several days,” she sighs. “He would have never kept me waiting in digs such as these.” She gives a disdainful look at the garage and the tools stacked there and my parents’ cars. “Then there was the evening he served me to Sarah Bernhardt.”
Pheasant is quite the name-dropper.
For dinner we have chicken, which my mother has roasted with rosemary. Normally this would be tasty. But when I raise my fork to my mouth, all I can taste is feathers.
“Where,” Pheasant says, her voice dangerously high, “are you going? I haven’t finished my story.” She was telling a particularly juicy anec- dote about Nero, which would have been better if I hadn’t heard it three times already.
“I’m going to go in and have a drink.”
“Oh,” coos my guest hopefully. “I wouldn’t say no to a splash of something.”
I ignore her.
She continues, “There’s nothing like a wee bit of something stiff to brighten my complexion. My favorite is Armagnac. Of course Auguste also wanted to stuff me with truffles, but as I always told
those boys, I appreciate the attention but really there is no need to gild the lily, is there?”
Actually, according to the many recipes that I’ve read, you have to gild pheasant quite a bit. Most call for a jacket of bacon around the breast. Jane Grigson asks you to stuff it with filet mignon. And these are the simpler recipes, the ones intended for the farmer/poacher/serf hoi-polloi. Pheasant’s beloved Auguste Escoffier suggests a stuffing of foie gras and quartered truffles, a three-day soak in port, and then, just before serving, a bed of a dozen truffles, which just goes to prove my theory that certain French people regard truffles with the same nonchalance that you and I might view saltine crackers. Incidentally, if those aforementioned truffles are about 100 grams in size, a dozen will run you at least twelve hundred dollars at Dean and Deluca. The foie at Dean and Deluca is a hundred and twenty dollars for a lobe.
Then of course there is the pheasant recipe that tempted me in the first place: the one created by Pheasant’s lawyer Jean-Anthelme, who kept her in his crotch during court. His pheasant is stuffed with the flesh of two woodcocks, steamed beef marrow, and truffles, then wrapped in bacon and baked on a toast that is spread with woodcock liver, anchovies, and more truffles.
Did I also mention that pheasant is a runty bird? She feeds two people.
This somewhat sours my fantasy of being a politically conscious carnivore. After all, in order to make this one bird edible, you have to prepare her with bits of other animals. In another one of his recipes Escoffier recommends braising her in a sauce espagnole, which in- volves reducing a stock made from eight pounds of baby calf.
I haven’t been sleeping well for the last few nights. Roasted and raw birds have been doing the can-can in my head. As are visions of salmonella bacteria, which in my dreams look like kidney-bean- shaped Weepuls. Then there are the dreams I have of my family lying dead on the floor from avian poison.
Whenever I wake, I find myself craving processed foods that bear no resemblance to the animal that died to make it. Sliced ham in plastic, Campbell’s “chicken” noodle soup, and Chef Boyardee with “meatballs.”
Late that night I crept into the garage and tugged at her feathers, but to no avail, and then I high-tailed it out of there.
She wakes up and when she sees me running for the door, she screeches, “You never come see me any more. We never talk.”
My stepfather has a visit from an old Cambridge University chum and his wife. For some reason I tell the wife that I’ve got a pheasant hanging in the garage and she says, “Pheasant? Well, they’re rather like vermin, aren’t they? During shooting season everyone brings us pheasant. By the end, you’re just begging for a decent chicken.”
In England, Land of Pheasant, pheasants cost a little more than a pound when you buy direct from the gamekeeper and about £3.50 at Tesco after the whopping supermarket markup. It is cheaper than chicken. Pheasant poachers have now had to turn their energies towards more profitable occupations, such as the making of potpourri. I suppose, her glamour having worn thin in England, Pheasant crossed the Atlantic where there were plenty of idiot Americans to dupe.
I am one such moron. Did I mention that I bought this Pheasant for twenty-five dollars? So far, I am doing all the work, and I’ve alien- ated my mother in the process.
She hasn’t changed much. Maybe her feathers have lost some of their luster, and maybe she’s drooping slightly.
Today it’s a bluejay that has reduced her to a a state of distress.
“Would you believe it?” She attacks me the second I walk in the door. “The jerk had the nerve to call me not a real bird.” There is a pause as she sniffs and wipes her eyes. “What is that you’ve been reading?”
“What?” I say, hiding the catalogue behind my back, but not before she sees it and gives a shriek. It’s a catalogue of a luxury purveyor of imported food. For $25.99 (ninety-nine cents more than she cost) I can get a wild Scottish pheasant, hung, plucked, and air-mailed to me.
“How dare you,” she hisses.
“You know,” I say, “maybe that blue jay is right. You aren’t a real bird. You’re not even a real pheasant. You grew up on a farm eating corn. You probably don’t know how to fly. Whereas she,” I shake the catalogue and point at the picture, where the pheasant is resting on a bed of apples, like a particularly resplendent centerfold, “she’s the real deal. She’s,” I now quote from the catalogue, “truly wild. Never farm raised. She’s lived her life eating heather and tundra and wild grasses and beetles. Oh,” I add, “with all your la-di-da talk, why did you never bother to tell me that you’re worth fifty pence in England?”
I storm out.
Good news! This morning, I gave those feathers a pull and granted it was quite a firm tug, but a feather fell out in my hand.
I chuckle, somewhat cruelly. “Okay, m’dear,” I say. “Tonight it’s just you, me, and the oven.”
Pheasant murmurs, “So soon? I should know when I’m ready, and I don’t feel ready yet. Jean Anthelme always said—”
“How Jean-Anthelme ever put up with you is beyond me.”
Before she has time to retort I go dancing out in search of a garbage bag for her plumes.
The main question: do you decapitate before or after you’ve plucked the bird? I opt for before, if only not to have her staring at me glassily from my lap. I use poultry shears, which, though not as romantic as an axe or a sword, is considerably less fussy.
“Please,” she says, “just two more days. I promise you won’t regret it. My oils haven’t had time to develop.”
“No dice,” I say, cutting her loose. I lay her on my lap, take in how her chestnut and silver feathers are still silky and quite beautiful. She’s not flashy but in many ways she has an elegance that the male pheasant simply lacks. I feel a momentary pang about my plans to strip her down and devour her. I get out the shears.
“You know,” she says, “of all the people that have eaten me in the past, you’ve definitely been one of the more interesting. I’ll be happy to serve you. Really I will.”
I position the blades around the neck.
Her voice goes low. “Oh please, just be quick.” And she bares her neck like Anne Boleyn. I wonder how many pheasants Anne consumed in her thousand days. I hope they were good ones.
With a quick, firm snap, the head comes tumbling off.
A friend of mine, who has butchered a number of animals in his day, once told me that he feels that such activities are best done in a group. As I start to pluck, crosslegged, alone and shivering in the garage, I begin to see what he means. There is something mentally unsound about the process when you do it solo. A dismembered head on the floor doesn’t help. This makes me pluck faster, and in half an hour I come bearing something that actually looks like it might have been bought from Perdue.
“Congratulations,” my mother says when I waltz my pheasant into the kitchen.
“I know,” I say, and then I beam. “I did it.”
“Good for you,” she says. Then I hear her call up to my stepfather. “Babe,” she announces, “I was thinking tonight we might have lamb chops, baby potatoes and sugar snap peas.” Perhaps it is just a coinci- dence, but lamb chops and boiled baby potatoes happen to be my stepfather’s favorite foods.
Never mind. The only question remaining is whether I stuff it (after the feathers and head come off, Pheasant has ceased to be a her) with sausage or simply butter (foie not being on hand at the moment), whether I should slow cook it with a cover or roast it rare, and how to make a bread sauce. Also there is the bacon issue: almost all the recipes I’ve looked at (and there have been many) ask you to wrap the bird in bacon. Now, I love bacon as much as the next sane person, but it does tend to overpower everything it touches. Eventually, because people in the know are so insistent upon the point, I go with bacon— and a stuffing of celery and butter and garlic, then a port reduction, a bread sauce, fried potatoes, and more celery on the side, braised in the pheasant juices.
I can’t remember the last time I have agonized this much about a piece of meat. Then again, I did entertain this piece of meat for over a week in my garage.
I start cooking when my parents are sitting down to their lamb, and am doing dishes when they are holding hands, mopping up their plates with bread, and discussing whether or not to have chocolate for dessert. Pheasant roasted rare takes only about thirty minutes from start to finish. Fried potatoes and braised celery can be done in one’s sleep. I have never made bread sauce before, but it is heavenly in its simplicity—milk, stale bread, an onion, and four cloves.
Then I sit down to eat my pheasant dinner, but I don’t do it alone. My stepfather, who is normally not a big eater, has decided that he will have a second dinner because he is a loyal parent.
First let me say how wonderful bread sauce is. It is like eating clouds. Also, its total cost something like $1.50—about as much, in fact, as a pheasant during hunting season.
I take three bites of the pheasant, in rapid succession. It is good and moist. The decadence is still missing though, and as I eat it I wonder whether I would not prefer chicken prepared in the same way.
“This is nice,” my stepfather says, chewing.
“I like the bread sauce,” I say my voice breaking slightly. “I’ve never made it before.”
“No, seriously, this is extremely nice,” he says, quite serious.
“If only your mother hadn’t made a full dinner before, I would have much more.”
“I wanted to give you a traditional English game dinner. I fried the potatoes and everything. But it’s not…” I pause and take another forkful of the pheasant. “Well, maybe it’s because she’s so farm-raised. She’s so,” I gesture, “so white, you know?” Slightly resentful, I finish all my bread sauce and leave most of my pheasant on my plate. Then my dog comes and bangs her bowl on the floor and wags her tail play- fully and my stepfather, with a contemplative look, refills my glass of Chambertin. One can hear the wind pummeling against the windows, but inside, the kitchen, with its wooden floors and cabinets, emits a glow. Besides, there is juice in the thigh, and also the sauce is smoky and redolent of booze. I steer a piece of fried potato around my plate to catch the remnants.
Maybe it is not Pheasant’s fault after all. It’s true, as my stepfather said, that she tastes perfectly nice. It is just that I wanted Colette and Henry James pheasant. Or perhaps, as is the case with so many relationships, we simply got to know each other too well.
I sip my wine. Earlier today I placed an order, and as we speak, a Scottish wild pheasant, hung and cleaned and plucked, is winging its way to us via airmail. She’s hopped about on the highlands, and her flesh is ruddy from the varied diet, the fresh air, and the exercise. I already love the idea of her, she’s such a paradox—a wild bird wrapped in plastic and surrounded by packaging, who leaves an enor- mous carbon footprint in her wake. Better still, we won’t have to get to know each other, she will literally be straight from the box and into the pan.
I smile. Perhaps I should warn my mother.
Image: Warren Faidley