You men eat your dinner
eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen

So goes the blues song, “Back Door Man,” written in 1961 by Willie Dixon for Howlin’ Wolf, and later immortalized by Jim Morrison and The Doors.

A “Back Door Man” is said to be a man who has an affair with a married woman while her husband’s away. In the song, the chicken line serves as a double entendre. Chicken-eating was rare in 1961. Per capita, consumption of pork doubled chicken consumption; not until 1985 did chicken consumption surpass pork consumption in the United States.

“I eat more chicken any man ever seen,” then, likely referred to the singer’s boast that married women cooked chicken for him and saved the less desirable pork and beans for their husbands.

I am not a “back door man”-at least not in any blues sense of the phrase. However, taken literally, that chicken line is my personal anthem: I really do eat more chicken any man ever seen.

In 2007, the typical American consumed about 87 pounds of chicken. My yearly chicken consumption equals about 525 pounds-a ½ chicken almost every single night.

Most nights, I eat a ½ roast chicken. I adore The French recipe, poulet en cocotte. I believe chicken should be brined. In Puerto Rico last winter, I ate a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket for seven consecutive evenings. I prefer dark meat. I tolerate people who prefer white meat, though I find this “preference” laughable. Chicken legs are finger-lickin’, robust, Whitmanesque. Dark meat, replete with B-vitamins, is more nutritious than white meat, too. I believe that chicken should be shared.  Sundays, I share a whole roast chicken with my wife. Weekends, I grill chicken legs for friends and family.

This was not always the case. Growing up, I was not necessarily a prolific chicken-eater. Then, at twenty, I became a vehement vegetarian. Firm in my belief that I was nourishing my body (and, obviously, supporting the welfare of the earth and its creatures), I ate whole grains, beans, tempeh, raw fruits and vegetables-but no chicken. Skinny to begin (6″ 150 pounds), I slimmed down to beanpole dimensions (140 pounds). I acquired what Gabriel García Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, calls “the forlorn look that one sees in vegetarians.”

Some thought I was rigid. A Greek chorus of friends, family, everyone, really, except my supportive and loving vegetarian wife, said the same thing: Maybe you should eat some meat.

Perhaps they saw what I did not: vegetarianism was killing me. Throughout my early twenties, I suffered a variety of health problems. In my mid-twenties, my health issues evolved. At 26, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. One year later, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I checked into the hospital at 118 pounds, and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.

Remembering this time, I think of these lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine”:

Daydreaming comes easy to the ill:
slowed down to the speed of waiting rooms,
you learn to hang suspended in the wallpaper,
to drift among the magazines and plants,
feeling a strange love
for the time that might be killing you.

I do not think I was unique in my stubborn will to remain vegetarian. We hang onto to diets, to ways of eating, even when they no longer make sense, don’t we? Often, we become attached to habits that might be killing us. Time, food, cigarettes–why do we maintain this “strange love”?

It wasn’t until my honeymoon in Barcelona, when I was hit by a car, and later diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, that I began to reconsider my vehemence.

Post-diagnosis, I spent 3 days in the ER, another 3 days in the hospital. When I was released from the hospital, equipped with a regime of insulin and needles, I felt my life had been cut in two. I knew who I used to be, but I had no idea who I might become.

That night in Barcelona, I fell asleep next to my new wife for the first time in seven days. Married only a month, we had spent a week apart–me in my hospital bed; her, returning to the flat alone after visiting hours had ended. Catalans are known for their late meals. I awoke around two in the morning, to a crisply delicious, salty smell. I stepped to the window and was hit by a waft of potato chips. I stuck my head out the window into the clear air. Smelling again, I realized I was mistaken. I hadn’t been smelling potato chips. No, a lunatic Catalan family was grilling at two o’clock in the morning. The scent struck me-the scent of grilled chicken, a veritable blizzard of aromatic compounds. Something about that scent struck my soul-it came to me deliciously intoning its simple message: You can change. You will survive. Eat chicken.

Since that time, seven years ago, I have eaten approximately ½ chicken almost every single night of my life.

Diet is the most idiosyncratic trait a person owns. Married people often share religious and political beliefs-but rarely the same diet. I admit, my chicken-eating habit might seem obsessive-akin in many ways to my prior vegetarianism. There is a difference, though: as a vegetarian, in pursuit of a “pure” body, I had viewed certain ways of eating as wrong or evil. Even as I refined my diet to an impossible degree, my health suffered. Today my diet is even more refined-and yet, I thrive.

I’ve abandoned the absurd belief that any way of eating is inherently right or wrong. I do not trust dietary dictums. In terms of food, my experience has taught me that the spirit with which you approach food is as important as the food itself.

How do you eat? In penance? With joy?

Food choices are vitally important to a type-1 diabetic. I had to re-learn my relationship with food in order to live healthfully. Every time I put food into my mouth, I must calculate the effect it will have upon my body, and I must make adjustments to my insulin regime accordingly. I cannot just eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I am bound by diabetes to live my life within proscribed boundaries.

Within these boundaries, though, I’ve discovered joy: perhaps it is a form of compulsion, but I enjoy eating the exact same thing every night. I know exactly how my body will react to chicken. I love the bluesy feeling of mirth, the wild joy of sucking on a chicken bone. I do not mean to be flippant. When I eat chicken I try to remember that I’m engaging in a significant moment–a moment that must be cherished, for it has been afforded to me through a great sacrifice of resources: land, energy, life. I cannot deny, though: to me, chicken is momentous. Chicken symbolizes my return to life.

I’ve posted recipes for my ½ roast chicken and whole roast chicken on my food blog. Here is a recipe for grilled chicken.

Grilled Chicken with Pantry Spice Rub

Over-cooked chicken, like over-cooked steak, is an offensive abomination. A good way to precisely gauge the internal temperature of chicken is to use an instant-read thermometer. Optimal temperature varies between white and dark meat, typically the best chicken measures 160-165 degrees at the breast, and 165-170 degrees at the leg.

4 naturally raised whole chicken legs 
6 tablespoons kosher salt 
2 tablespoons brown sugar 
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 
1 teaspoon sweet paprika 
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chile powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Dissolve the salt and brown sugar in a gallon-size plastic bag. Add the chicken, press out the air, seal, and refrigerate for 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the olive oil, garlic cloves, and spices.

Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse, dry with paper towels. Rub the pantry spice rub all over the chicken parts.

Light your grill.

If using a charcoal grill, make a two-level fire by stacking most of the coals on one side of the grill. Place the rack on the grill, cover, and allow the grill and rack to heat up for 5 or so minutes. Cook the chicken over the hot coals until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.

If using a gas grill, turn all the burners to high and heat the grill until very hot, about 10 minutes. Leave one burner on high and turn the other burners to low. Cook the chicken over the hotter part of the grill, uncovered, until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move  the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.

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SETH POLLINS, a strong advocate of dinner, is a writer and who lives with his wife in Ambler, a small town outside Philadelphia. He currently works at Villanova University's Writing Center and Whole Foods Market as a lively lecturer, recipe developer, and all-around food optimist. He earned an MFA from Warren Wilson College and is currently finishing his novel, Bump. Seth writes for the food blog, FoodVibe. Fanatics can follow him on Twitter.

19 responses to “I Eat More Chicken Any Man Ever Seen”

  1. Erika Rae says:

    Oh wow that recipe looks fabulous. I love the chicken. Le poulet. It makes me feel so good. I feel healthy – alive. My body functions right. I feel like I might just make it to survive to the point where we can download our brains, upgrade our bodies, and live to see the next millennium. And bacon, well, give me some and I’ll dip it in my chocolate fondue while proclaiming my passion for all of humanity. But that will be misleading, for you see bacon is just my mistress. My fling. When it really comes down to it, my heart belongs to chicken.

    • Seth Pollins says:

      I’m glad to hear you share my enthusiasm for chicken, Erika! I must admit, though, I am a bit confounded by the bacon fetishism that seems to have infected the entire globe. I haven’t eaten bacon in nearly 17 years, yet I still know, from smell alone, how delicious it can be. But still, the way people talk about bacon–it’s just so anthropomorphic! My wife actually makes a once-a-year Beef Burgundy with salt pork–that’s pretty close to bacon–and I love that in a strange Salvador Dalí sort of way. I have no religious or moral prohibitions against bacon. I suppose by now I’m just resisting the tide. Perhaps if I try I, too, will become a fetishist. Whatever the case, viva la chicken!

  2. I’m so pleased that you’ve expounded on your chicken obsession at last … and that recipes have been included/linked to. I think my lack of chicken love comes from the fact that I’ve never brined it first. You just might have changed everything. Winner winner chicken dinner!

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Seriously, Cynthia, brining is life-changing. I literally brine every piece of chicken I cook–at home, and at work, where brining can be more of an ordeal. It just makes such a difference in the taste and juiciness–I literally cannot overstate how impressively life-changing brining is. Please let me know when you try.

  3. Amanda says:

    In my early 20s I became vegan, ostensibly to repair some chronic health issues. At the same time, I earned a nutrition degree, excited that at last, “eating properly” had sorted out the things doctors had failed to solve. One of my professors – a bully, to be sure, but a bully with a head full of helpful information – scolded and scoffed and pooh-poohed my choice, and assured me I was taking the slow road to a lifetime of poor health. In turn, I discounted everything she tried to teach in the classroom as being just so much guff from a close-minded woman. Years later, I jumped back into meat- and dairy-eating (a tale unto itself) and never looked back. Probably, my instructor was half-right and I was half-right, too.

    What you said about eating with joy resonates, because those years of veganism were fun at times, frustrating at others, and packed with things I’m glad I learned. But, the overarching thing I took away from the experience was that food can so quickly become a joyless duty, and in a place where we have the option not only to eat whenever we please, but to eat a variety of amazing things, it seems criminal to turn it into purely a survival task, a kitchen chore, a thing we do because if didn’t eat we would die.

    And, when a housemate joined me in Meat Kingdom after years of vegetarian living herself, we once tore apart a roast chicken with our hands, starting with the legs then moving on to the strips of salty, crispy skin strapped across its roasted breast…we joked that, like innari, it would be great if you could go to the store and buy pouches of chicken skin in which to stuff and eat other things.

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Amanda.

      I’ve always hated that dictum: “eat to live; not live to eat.” Yes, obviously, we must eat to live, but why not live to eat as well? It’s funny, that quote is attributed to Socrates, the famous philosopher-vegetarian. In my experience, vegetarianism/veganism takes this quote as its motto–and as such the act of eating often becomes, as you say, a “duty.” I agree, “eat to live,” but when you’re immersed in the act of cooking, or eating, why not make that a time of living to eat?

      I love your image of chicken-eating. It sounds quite similar to an experience I often share with friends. There’s nothing quite as unifying as ripping apart an entire chicken with a good friend.

  4. I always thought that line was more action/sex specific, like Putting Sugar In My Bowl, or playing with a certain Jellyroll…..but I’m pretty sure Blind Boy Fuller used the back door man allusion in his song I Crave My Pigmeat…..not sure that it changes anything, just seemed worth mentioning….

    • Seth Pollins says:

      You could be right, Sean. That’s always what I thought, too. I got the above interpretation from some wild on-line discussions on the subject–but many also seemed to say that the allusion was also pretty sex-specific. Either way, I like the spirit of the line.

  5. Bert says:

    In 2012, Seth Pollins will run for president, promising 1,000 chickens in every pot.

  6. Becky Palapala says:

    Referring to women as “chicks,” in terms of breasts, legs, thighs for comsumption is attested in the 20s and according to etymological sources, “adapted from black slang.”

    Like, I’m not sure he’s talking about eating chicken.

    If you know what I mean.

    I mean sex acts.

    • Seth Pollins says:

      Definitely, Becky, he’s talking about sex acts. I meant to say that when I referred to the line as double entendre. In researching the song, I read many impassioned opinions on the interpretation of this line. To me, the original singer might’ve been speaking more directly to the adulteror-chicken-eater subtext, although he could have been playing as well with the anal sex meaning. It seems that Jim Morrison’s version might’ve been more directly allusive to anal sex, though. Either way, it’s all about sex.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        K. When you said double entendre and then talked about the suggestion that women were witholding chicken from their husbands, I thought that was it.

        The most prudish double entendre ever.

  7. Amber says:

    I’m a former vegetarian/current pescetarian but I totally get where you are coming from. You can’t be rigid in thought when it comes to how you will nourish your body. It has to be a personal choice and one that is made for the right reasons. Listening to your body and what it tells you it needs will almost never lead you astray. If you’ve found what works for you, then go with it.

  8. Jimmy Carl Black says:

    Wow, did you ever miss the point of that lyric…

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