Thursday, August 23, 2007


Somewhere, in some Peace Corps file, is a hastily written list of goals and aspirations I was required to fill out during training. I don’t remember exactly what I put in there, but I’m sure it was overly idealistic and filled with wild ideas that would seem positively laughable now. They’ll give it back to me when I leave and I can compare mine with other volunteers and we can all share a good laugh at our combined naiveté.

Some of those goals were no doubt very simple and practical. I recall writing that I wanted to learn to make wine, milk a cow and kill and pluck a chicken. Wine making will occur in the fall, but the cows are off limits apparently. My neighbors think I’m joking when I ask to help with the milking. They think I’m mocking them and tell me the cow is ill tempered and will kick me. I sincerely want to know how to milk a cow.

The matter of the chicken was becoming a near obsession for me. Originally, it was simple curiosity, something I thought seemed a practical thing to know. However, a year of eating Georgian chickens had left me with one burning question: What happens to the chicken breasts? Every time a pot of chopped chicken pieces appear before me it turns into some sort of incomplete anatomy lesson. It’s as if the chicken’s body had been censored by Focus on the Family or some other lobbying group concerned that the sight of breasts could adversely affect impressionable young people. The repeated absence has turned me into some sort of amateur poultry coroner. I investigate the carcass and fail to find the chicken breasts. The plot thickens.

During training, my site mates and I engaged in endless speculation as to what had become of the breasts. We’d see the chickens roaming the yard, looking plump and busty, but once they were on the plate the breasts were missing.

Does the cook eat them? Do Georgian chickens simply not grow breasts? Or is there some sort of cultural aversion to them, the way we volunteers are towards the chicken feet, neck, organs and heads we are served (actually fried chicken feet are kind of tasty). Georgians enjoy these little bits and we don’t. Maybe the inverse is true for breasts.

I’ve told my host mother repeatedly that I’d like to be on hand for one of the chicken executions. To her, this is like asking to be on hand for when she peels an onion or opens a jar of mayonnaise. “Ryan, come quick, for I am to use the magical can opener! Get your camera!” Or maybe she just thinks I’m morbid. The months have passed, and I’ve eaten my share of chicken, but had never been included in the killing.

A few weeks ago, around high noon, I opened the back door and caught my host father, axe in his hand with a chicken pinned to a rotting log. Aha!

It’s pretty much how you figure it. Axe comes down, head comes off, body attempts to run the 100-meter dash but is thwarted by being stuffed under an overturned laundry basket. The flopping goes on for thirty seconds, while my host father keeps his foot on the basket and absentmindedly scratches his stomach and admires the view. I suppose this method is employed to keep it from running off to warn the others.

All the while it flops, the chicken’s severed head stares blankly back at the world that, only a few seconds earlier, was the happy site of its incessant clucking and endless search for bugs and worms. I thought maybe it would blink or give me a disdainful look, but nothing.

I passed on to my host parents the story my mother told me, in which, as a child, she and her cousins would draw a big circle in the yard, chop the head off and see if the headless chicken could run out of the circle. If it did, it won. My host parents nodded sheepishly, knowing this game first hand. “No need to act ashamed,” I thought. “It seems a fine game to me.”

Once the uncontrolled jerking had ended, my host mother heated up a pot of water to aid with the plucking. To test for the proper temperature she would dip the severed head in, pull it out and check if the feathers could be pulled out with ease. Apparently, the water has to be at less than a boil. Once the proper temperature was reached, the bird was dipped in and the feathers were then pulled off with ease. It was then briefly held over the open flame of the gas stove to burn off what little bits of feather remained and then butchered. And with this, the matter of ‘where the hell are the chicken breasts?’ was settled for me once and for all.

A Georgian chicken is flat as a board.

Perhaps growing up eating hormone laden chickens and watching the actresses of Baywatch jog in slow motion down the beach had given me unrealistic expectations of breast size. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a 2-1 breast to body ratio. These chickens aren’t posing for centerfolds after all, they’re simply living out their days, roaming the yard, eating bugs and bits of corn, and cockle-doodle-doing at all hours of the night. Perhaps this lifestyle and diet limit the size of their breasts. Or perhaps their free-range status instead of being crammed into tiny cages that does it. Or maybe it’s a local poultry conspiracy, as they might opposed to developing meatier portions often served in a garlicky broth and mopped up with bread. I’m not really sure.

Regardless, like tissue paper in a bra, their feathers exaggerate their size. Chickens in Georgia are simply A-cups. When chicken is served it’s best to rush for a thigh and avoid the pointless search for absent breast meat.

And thus, the mystery of the missing chicken breasts was solved.


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