At dinner a couple of years ago, I told the restaurant critic that I should write a story about chickens. That’s exactly what I said: “I think I should write a story about chickens.” We were dining on roasted bone marrow and ribeyes and rye Manhattans at a steakhouse that neither of us could afford. The newspaper was footing the bill.
This was a joke. At least it should have been, because prior to stating my intentions to write a story about chickens, I had been trying and failing to write a story about chickens for four years without realizing it. I should have laughed and laughed and laughed because miserable failure is funny, especially when you’re unaware that you’re repeating the same mistakes.
The problem with jokes about chickens is that they aren’t funny.
Take the joke you already know: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
I’ve been researching chicken for about two years now and the best punch line I’ve come up with is, “Because the U.S. raises and slaughters eight and a half billion chickens for meat every year.” Not that funny.
The restaurant critic is older than me by a decade. She’s Australian, surly, accomplished, has a child and a blonde mustached chef for a husband. On nights that we’d find ourselves the last two in the office, poring over final proofs or finally filing some feature past deadline, she’d offer to take me out for drinks on her dining budget, the newspaper’s tab. Her car was rusted through with holes in the hood and roof and the valet boys at these fancy places would smirk.
So, here we were, having roasted bone marrow and rye Manhattans, and she says to me, “Why would you want to do that?”
Like I said, the first story I tried to write about chickens was four years ago in 2008, when a woman and I flushed the last of our cocaine down a toilet, packed our things in a car, and moved from San Francisco to Atlanta to become adults. She was headed for a Ph.D. I had a vague idea about writing some stories.
As part of our plan to become adults, we decided to get chickens. In San Francisco, our immediate neighbors had been a twenty-four-hour sex club on one side and an open-air drug market on the other. Here in Atlanta, we’d already lined up a driveway and a backyard. It was, I imagine, what the settlers felt when they moved out West to find a homestead. For us, we had to move back South to find land that wasn’t yet taken. We told our friends that we’d be farmers by the end of the year. We built a hen house in the backyard and stocked it with a flock. Somehow this made her future as a professor and my own as a writer more possible.
The joke about chickens first appeared in print, at least according to Wikipedia, in the March 1847 issue of The Knickerbocker, a New York–based magazine. People have been repeating that stupid joke for more than 150 years.
The restaurant critic happened to live down the street from the house that we moved into. We discovered this not long after I started writing for the paper, and she’d invite me over for long nights of cocktails on her porch. The blonde mustached chef would hang around some nights and drink, too, but eventually he’d tire of all our writing talk and head to bed. Really, it was almost all we’d ever talk about, the stories we were currently writing and, more often, the stories we were going to write. She had one about Epcot, a premise so perfect that I wouldn’t dare to tell it you now. It was going to be great, just the right thing for her to write, as soon she found the magazine with enough money to pay her to write it.
The key to most jokes is variation on theme. Light bulbs, elephants, chickens, and so on. The stuff that keeps going, like chicken jokes, are the ones that have infinite variations, that can be continually changed without ever being exhausted.
The future professor and I had the chickens in the backyard for about six months when the first one died. I can’t say for sure how it happened. It just disappeared. I hear that hawks get them, especially when they’re that age. A hawk can pick one up and fly away to a nearby field, the talons gripped deep into the chicken’s skin. On the ground, the hawk will use her beak and talons to eviscerate the chicken, starting there in the soft belly, pulling out intestines first, then the heart, lungs, and liver before moving on to meatier parts.
“The other day, I found this restaurant that serves chicken dinner for a buck. You sit down and they bring you a plate of bird seed.”
I don’t know who wrote that joke. Not me.
After the probable hawk, it was the definite dog next door. The Guatemalan family’s rottweiler, left chained up in the backyard with not enough to eat. His name was Oso, which means “bear.” It was seven o’clock in the morning. I was still in bed, when I heard Bear break his way into the chicken coop. By the time I was outside, Bear had given one a good chewing. He dropped it at my feet like a deflated toy and trotted back to his own yard and sat next to his broken chain.
The half-chewed chicken was still alive, her beak gaping and struggling to get a breath in her broken lungs. I went to the garage to get an axe, thought it’d be better to end it quickly for her. By the time I came back, she was still and dead.
The Guatemalan family felt horribly and, unexpectedly, gave us a couple hens. It was only after these replacement chickens squawked in abandon for days, flew with the dexterity of chubby hawks around our neighborhood, and generally acted in way that terrified even our other chickens that we found out they came from a breed meant for fighting cocks.
Henny Youngman liked to tell a joke about a Jewish woman with two chickens. The first one gets sick, so she makes chicken soup out of the second to make the first one feel better.
After the quick, violent chicken deaths, there was a slow, sickly one. Midwinter, a hen took a bad respiratory infection. Most farmers, when they see a sick chicken, they separate it from the flock before it can spread, wring its neck, call it a loss. Because the future professor and I were guilt-haunted liberals, not the farmers we were pretending to be, we moved the hen into our guest room’s bathroom.
At the time, a miserable chicken obviously suffering from a bronchial infection in our in-law powder room did not seem comical. In hindsight, this is most hilarious metaphor I could have possibly created for the sex life of our relationship at the time. I’d rather not linger on the miserableness of it, but it bears mentioning.
I ran into the future professor the other day and said that I was writing an essay that included the chickens. She said, “It would be nice if you could get through it without describing me as a frigid bitch.”
Let me explain it like this: We lived in that house, avoiding the sickly chicken as often as possible, opening the door only when we had to, trying to forget it after we closed the door. I spent more and more evenings on the restaurant critic’s porch, drinking cocktails late into the night, until it was finally time to just move out. The future professor kept the flock. The chicken in the bathroom died.
I told you that I had moved to Atlanta to write stories. It was around the time that the future professor and I split that I started working on a short story about a newspaperman who loses his job and starts a chicken farm. He hires a carpenter to build a chicken coop on his property and, soon after, starts sucking the carpenter’s cock at the end of each workday. The carpenter enjoys this but also refuses to acknowledge it, which creates some tension. In the end, the coop is improperly built and all of the chickens die but the carpenter finally shows a glimmer of emotional recognition to the laid-off newspaperman. So, it kind of works out.
I remember thinking at the time that this was somehow a big step forward for me, that I had really achieved a kind of literary distance from my characters. Now, I’m not a psychoanalyst, but a story about a one-sided, sexually frustrating relationship, backyard chicken farming, and a lousy newspaper career sounds a lot like a parable about my problems at the time. Somehow, this was not apparent to me.
So, I wrote it in that fifteen-page-long, cleanly realistic style that people only write because that’s how you’re supposed to write stories for literary magazines whose names end with the word review or quarterly. I submitted it to the places that you’re supposed to submit things like that and, thankfully, received polite rejections.
The other popular question about chickens isn’t a joke. “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” is an attempt at pop metaphysics or something. Obviously, profits come first, as everyone in the chicken business knows. By this measure, the chicken meat comes before the egg by a measure of about $16 billion.
Two years ago, sitting at dinner with the restaurant critic, I did not mention any of this when she asked why I wanted to write a story about chickens. I spouted off a bunch of statistics about farms that seemed somehow impressive because they were big and round numbers. I talked about finding people who could embody those numbers, who could play characters in my frame of a story that told those numbers in narrative fashion. I finished my drink and I think felt vaguely proud of myself despite having accomplished nothing.
Then, right as I was meant to start working on the story about chickens, the newspaper laid off the restaurant critic, laid off the news editor, laid off the arts critic. I survived, as I understand it, because my salary was low enough not to be worth cutting. The editorial staff spent that night on the restaurant critic’s porch, drinking whiskey and talking about what should have been, who we should fight, who we should kill. The news editor and I leaned against the fence while he vomited. As I was leaving, the restaurant critic hugged me while she cried.
Not long after, the restaurant critic found a better job in Los Angeles and moved there. I quit the paper to take a job with a magazine. A few months later, the paper offered me a job and I went back. I haven’t seen much of the restaurant critic since then.
Around this time, I started dating a woman and we got along so well that we decided to get a flock of chickens. We haven’t even killed any yet, aside from one that laid down and stopped breathing the day we got her.
The best joke I’ve ever heard about a chicken starts with a classic conceit. A man walks into a restaurant and says, “How do you prepare the chicken?”
“We don’t,” says the waiter. “We just tell it straight that it’s gonna die.”
I got around to working on the story about chickens and finally published it a few months ago. Sometime during those months of research, I found myself wearing a hairnet and ear plugs and a white lab coat, standing in a slaughterhouse watching chickens be killed. Slaughterhouse seems like a nice word for the place; you could also call it a Rube Goldberg machine of chicken evisceration.
Factories like this don’t kill chickens with hawks or dogs or slow bronchial infections. At the beginning of the machine, the chickens are hung upside by their feet, squawking and flapping their wings because they obviously know what is about to happen. The upside-down birds are then rolled into a bath of electrified water, which stuns the bird into paralysis. The stunned chicken passes by a spinning circular blade that slits its throat, beginning the process of bleeding the carcass out. There are many other parts to the machine, but this is a good place to end, the killing room.
There is a man who stands in this room, watching the chickens as their throats are slit. The dead birds pass him, 140 of them a minute. There is a lot of blood in this room, so much that it congeals into a physical mass, a gelatinous pile of blood. Before that day, I did not know this was possible: to have a pile of blood instead of a pool of blood.
The pile of blood rests before the feet of this man, he wears rubber boots and a rubber apron and he holds a long, sharp knife. His entire job is to wait for a mistake: a chicken that has not somehow not been killed by the electrified bath or the spinning saw blade. When a half-killed bird comes his way on the line, spastically flapping wings among the carcasses, it is the man’s job to grab the chicken and use the knife to kill it, to finish the job.
I stood in this room with the pile of blood and the man with the knife for as long as they would let me. Will you believe me when I tell you that I was comforted by this room?
There is comfort in knowing that the dead chickens buried in our backyards and the failed stories hidden in our desk drawers are just mistakes, just little blinks in the greater violence of the world. There is comfort knowing that there is a man somewhere whose job it is to address the mistakes, to take his knife and make them as if they never happened. It would be nice to tell you that all of these little failures helped, that they became part of the story. But it feels better and more true to admit that they didn’t, that they were just honest mistakes to be edited out and left on the cutting room floor.