Long Throat Memoirs: Don’t cut my chicken leg!

The Nigerians in London not only had to deal with the frustration of eating chicken that was texturally revolting… soft flesh falling off the bone at the most gentle of boilings; chicken that was so fatty, you knew it hadn’t moved more than a few centimetres in a battery cage.
Perhaps only a Nigerian will really understand the directive in the title “Don’t Cut My Leg Chicken.”
Or know that the title didn’t originate in Nigeria, it originated in London maybe in the late 80s…maybe in the early 90s.
In Nigeria, no-one has to be reminded “Not to cut the legs (feet) of a chicken off”  It is taken for granted…it is universally understood that chicken “legs” are a delicacy and if they are not, they are paid for as part of the whole chicken, so they must be eaten.
And if anyone turns his nose up at chicken legs, he is worse than a pretentious snob.  If he cuts them off and throws them away, he is wasteful and may one day want for chicken.
“Don’t Cut My Leg” is not only a directive, it is a specific identification of a kind of bird.  The preferred legs are those of a country fowl  or an old~layer.
The kind of chicken that has seen the world: Tough, flavourful and lean.  You can tell by looking at the legs.  There will be nothing pampered about them.  They will have the marks of travel, possibly a few scars.
The chicken in the first picture was a gift from the village, from Rose Odok’s father in Obomutang Kakwagum.  It was a beautiful chicken that had roamed all its life; a true free~range chicken with turmeric coloured fat to show for it.  When I opened up its gizzard, it was filled to the brim with fine sand.
This I was assured was the sign of the most authentic country fowl.  That had spent its days picking food from the yard, the streets, the farm…When it picked at food, it inevitably carried grains of sand with it.
I am still wondering what plans it had for successfully digesting that sand!
In London’s Brixton or Peckham Rye Market, you would have to go to the Halal Butchers for an old~layer:  To the Muslims, who kill chickens like we do.  They pull the knife across the jugular of the fowl and hold it down while the blood spurts a kilometre into the air and around.
When I was growing up, My Aunty Dele killed chickens in our house.  She came from Igbajo, my mother’s village and had no sympathies whatsoever for chickens.  She hadn’t watched them on television and imagined that perhaps they had emotions, ambitions and portmanteaus.
I often stood far off and watched her put one slippered foot on top of the chicken’s wings held together.  She would hold the neck of the chicken taut until all the feathers on its neck stood up like the ribs and cloth of an umbrella.
Then she would draw the knife across exposed neck skin until the chicken’s feeble clucking became a gurgling on red blood.  It was horrendous…well at least until the chicken was boiled and stewed.
The chicken’s blood would spit out furiously and pump like a dirty tap and then trickle.
She would hold the neck down to the ground until there was no more blood coming out and then the chicken would go into the kitchen and be dipped and swirled in a huge pot of boiling water.
By this time I would be fixated on the head of the chicken, wondering if the eyes would suddenly pop open in defiance.
My job was to pluck quickly at all the feathers while the heat from the boiling water had loosened them from the chicken’s skin.  I had been warned that if I waited for the chicken to cool down, I wouldn’t be able to get the feathers out, especially from the wings and I would have to eat them like that…In fact, the hairy wings would be specially apportioned to me for doing such an incompetent job of plucking the chicken.
When I lived in London briefly in the mid 90s, my mother’s sister who had lived there for many years took me to Brixton Market.  It was a shock to stand on the busy High Street and hear Nigerians speaking Yoruba.  My Aunt told me that if you came to the market and started behaving like an aje~butter and speaking big English, you wouldn’t get very far at all.
The thing was to state in clear terms that you were looking for “Don’t Cut My Leg Chicken”.  Anyone in the covered market area, whether, the man at the stall selling purple statice and lilies, or the woman in the shop with the chained suitcases in front… even the big guy smoking a cigarette outside Bon Marche would immediately point you to the Halal Butchers.  They would know you were a Nigerian looking for a country fowl with its legs intact and point you in the right direction.
The Nigerians in London not only had to deal with the frustration of eating chicken that was texturally revolting… soft flesh falling off the bone at the most gentle of boilings; chicken that was so fatty, you knew it hadn’t moved more than a few centimetres in a battery cage; chicken with so little flavour, you had to throw large quantities of Nigerian maggi (No not Knorr), garlic ginger salt at it…It wasn’t killed according to Halal laws so the blood stayed in the skin and in the bones and no matter how much you cooked it, you still saw red when you were eating it…Nigerians didn’t only have to deal with this, they also had to quietly, willingly buy for the price of a whole chicken, a headless, legless, heartless, gizzardless, liverless, neckless animal.  It was really asking too much.
God bless the Pakistani Halal Butchers of London!
Even if they took off the heads and gizzards and livers and hearts, you still got your two legs and that was better than some fat blob of a chicken with big breasts and fat thighs, good for nothing more than a roast.
A teething child can spend a few hours distracted by a chicken leg.
But a chicken in Nigerian is often killed for a family and the legs count for more than a teething infant’s distraction. If you take the legs out and throw them away, someone’s ration will inevitably be affected.
When I was a child, I ate chicken legs and heads without thinking about it too much.
The palms then were my favourite part because the flesh gathered there in a fatty gummy pillow.  You kept the palm till last and nibbled at the legs and crushed the bones to get the salty stock out.  My grandfather owned farm~house chickens and my grandmother knew how to boil a chicken so you didn’t want to leave anything behind on your plate.  If we could have chewed up the bones and swallowed them we would have.
Perhaps the chickens are different now from when I was growing up.
In those days at least they weren’t pumped full with chemicals.  When an egg yolk was bright yellow, you understood that the chicken had been eating red corn and nothing else.
You didn’t have chicken all the time; on Sundays perhaps, or at Christmas.  You never got the breast or thought about them, and the thighs were for my father.  You got the wings and legs and head and they were the best parts.
I am a little timid now to say that I don’t like to eat chicken legs.  What happened? I’m not sure.
Now the fingers bother me, and the shut eyes on a chicken head.  Now the scaliness of the skin; the fact that I am holding parts of an animal that I recognise too well bring up a feeling of revulsion.
I think also that at some point in growing up Agric chickens became fashionable, and the advantage of this was that a big family got enough chicken for everyone; enough flesh to go around.  Everyone felt relevant and loved around a cooked chicken.
Perhaps there is something about scarcity that makes food more appealing to me, and something about abundance that deadens my appetite.  Till today I prefer my chickens small, lean and tough with yellow fat.
Big fatty chickens and turkeys are a big turn off.
My only visit to Houston Texas was a period where nothing at all in huge supermarkets with endless choices appealed…
O! except for the doughnuts that were being fried in the middle of H.E.B.  I would have been crazy to resist those!
 Sometimes it feels like someone learnt how to clone chickens and then flooded the market with the clones and we are back to those chickens that bothered Nigerians in Brixton Market and in Liverpool and in Peckham Rye in the 80s and 90s.
We’ve developed a keen appetite for them over two decades, encouraged by Obasanjo’s farms and KFC and Tasty Fried Chicken and Mr. Biggs and Munchies.
“Don’t Cut My Leg” is now the preserve of finicky eaters and gourmets.
When you go to buy chicken in The Palms Shoprite, you will find the legless gizzardless heartless headless pink parts of chicken as perfectly clean as if someone scrubbed them in soap and water, reeking of antiseptic, snuggled in cling film and styrofoam.
There will be so many packs of chicken parts everywhere you will wonder if they are really parts of an animal or if the chicken is being manufactured in some laboratory in Otta or is falling out of the sky somewhere like the quail in the bible.
It is enough to make one nostalgic for a place and a time when small portions were beautiful; for country~fowls slaughtered once a year at Christmas and eaten with thankful restraint; for portly Nigerian women greeting in loud Yoruba on London Streets; for chickens with bellies full of sand sent from the village; for my grandparents farm house with floors of saw~dust…we stamped our feet a few times of day just to watch those chickens fly up in panic.
I’m not even going to waste my time on nostalgia.  I’ll send off to Watt Market for an old layer with bones as hard as the legs on my table.  I’ll stew it for an hour and a half with Cameroonian pepper and coarse sea salt, ginger, garlic, one bay leaf.  I’ll prepare some fresh pepper to stew it.  I’ll boil a great big pot of basmati…
You are not invited!
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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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One comment

  1. I love the way you write, the vivid descriptions of food "……the soft pillowy chicken foot" genius! I also follow your blog! Good job girl!

cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail