29 SEPTEMBER 1984, Page 40

Imperative Cooking: Chickens

T ucy's dinner parties have two major

defects. Both, in their way, involve chickens. First, there is the kissing busi- ness. Her guests arrive hard on each other's heels and the gentlemen im- mediately form an orderly queue just inside the reproduction stained-wood front door. Michael kisses Lucy, on both cheeks, saying 'Lucy' as if he were surprised to meet her. He is followed by Peter and then Graham. Meanwhile Lucy's husband Tom kisses Michael's wife Pat, then Peter's wife Susan and Graham's wife Helen. Pat is then kissed by Peter and Graham, Susan by Michael and Graham and Helen by Michael and Peter. In north London and south-west Essex apparently the ladies also kiss each other, unconvincingly and whimpering the while.

Those of us who don't go in for the kissing business can do one of two things; either arrive early before the queue block- ades the hall and lock oneself in the lavatory until it is all over, or counter- attack. The ladies do not kiss the gentle- men. They are kissed by them. They are not, however,, entirely passive. As Michael, Peter, Graham and Tom approach, the ladies proffer themselves, chin stuck up like a hungry chicken, weight thrown on toes, wings half-extended and, often, as they lean forward, standing on one leg, the other raised backwards from the knee. The solution for ladies who do not wish to be kissed is to avoid this apparently inviting posture. Reluctant gentlemen, on the other hand, should make as if to approach in order to elicit this routine then move smartly to the side. With luck, the lady will fall over and one can slip, unscathed, into the dining room.

Goodness knows where this kissing busi- ness started. It is clearly not southern European: the men do not kiss each other. But it certainly isn't English. Perhaps it is something to do with the SDP or the EEC or is an extension of the reformed Mass. One shy gentleman confided to me that he rather likes it because it gives him some- thing to do with his hands when he meets people.

When the kissing is done, we get a drink, regain our strength and confront Lucy's second challenge — her coq au vin. Lucy is neither lazy nor mean but she is a culinary fundamentalist: cookery books are to be believed literally and provide all things

necessary for gastronomic salvation. Most cookery books divide chickens into two sorts; roasters which are young and tender and boilers which are old and tough. Roasters should be fried, grilled or roasted; boilers casseroled. In fact, chick- ens age in much the same way as humans, gradually, and enjoy a middle age. Also, like people, their toughness, tenderness and plumpness depend on, inter alio, their breeding, background and diet. Good cooks know the background of their chick- ens and establish a regular source of reputable supply. Coq au yin can be made with young, teenage, adult or senile hens, or cocks or capons. It does not matter as long as you know what it is and treat it appropriately. Lucy doesn't. She simplY copies the items off a recipe, reads them out to an ill-informed butcher and presents her guests with the cardboard or rubber results. If you cook chickens, you should knoW about chickens — they, again like people, are known by their feet and livers — or you should acquire a butcher to know for you. Halal can be good. Indian cookery makes a similar range of demands on chickens to French cooking and Indians keep their butchers up to the mark. As with chickens, So with eggs. If You drink yourself silly at Lucy's to get through the coq au yin, she will put you up then offer you boiled eggs for breakfast, chirp' ing, 'three or four minutes?' If you weren t so hung-over, you'd explain that the tex- ture of an egg depends on its freshness, size and last immediate place of residence. But Lucy likes recipe knowledge. Little does she know that the recipes in which she places so much trust are, in many cases, merely copied from other books. It shows; Lucy's books all have pictures of heifers with dotted lines and alphabets over them and the legend, 'A = Roasting Meat, B Stewing Meat' etc. These reproductions are largely useless. The originals were composed at a time when beasts were reared differently and killed 'at a different age. Yet they turn up in book after book, unchanged. Lucy does not need more recipes. She needs to get out and meet a few chickens, learn to wring their necks, pluck, hang, gut and truss them. That would improve her coq au vin no end — and stop the kissing.

Digby Anderson