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.
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.