By Marcia Chaiken, with Jan Chaiken
The question is both the beginning of a bad joke and somewhat misleading. Kosher chickens cannot cross roads. When physically capable of crossing a road, a chicken simply cannot yet be kosher. Only when it has been examined and declared whole and in good health and slaughtered by someone certified as a shochet can a chicken have a chance of being called kosher. If a chicken had crossed a road it might later become kosher, but if it was clipped by a car or even just lost a toe nail, it would called trafe or “torn” and would never be accepted by a shochet.
So who is a shochet? And what does he do? And when can the chicken be considered kosher? I know the answers to these questions from growing up with uncles who owned a kosher meat market. There was a chicken coop behind the butcher shop, and the excited clucking sounds of hens and rooster that reached my bedroom in the apartment above the store indicated one of two events: either my brother had gotten into the coop again and was chasing around the fowl, or the shochet had arrived in his black suit and black hat and was examining hens to find out which ones qualified for ritual slaughter.
When I asked my Uncle Benny why the shochet was the only one who could kill the chickens, he explained that not only was the shochet trained to examine the chickens, slaughter them in a way that prevented any pain and remove the blood that Jews are forbidden to eat, but the shochet also had studied the laws that required the special treatment for chickens to be kosher. So I knew from an early age that a shochet is less a slaughterer than a lawyer for the animals. But the pain-free part I wasn’t convinced about until I was allowed to watch the process enough to convince a skeptical ten year old.
I watched carefully as the shochet meticulously sharpened his knives until they were honed to a perfect edge with no imperfections. I saw how, after wrapping himself in one of the large white aprons that my aunt made sure were kept sparkling clean, he carefully removed one of the selected hens from a temporary cage, soothed her until her feathers were no longer ruffled and she clucked contentedly, and then with a motion almost too rapid to see, stretched her neck and drew the knife across, producing a stream of blood but not a squawk. After five or six squawkless slaughters, I was convinced that the shochet was killing but not hurting the hens.
I was also very interested in watching the shochet remove and examine the entrails of the slaughtered chickens to be sure there was no abnormality that would disqualify the bird for certifying her as kosher. Part of my interest was learning about the internal organs.
Part was the delight in describing the process to my more squeamish relatives until I was sent away from the dinner table for doing so. But the most compelling reason was the potential of finding the eggs that had formed inside some of the hens and claiming them as a special delicacy shared with one of my uncles.
The part of the process I was least fond of was the plucking. That was carried out by my uncles’ assistant, an old toothless man, Willie, in a rubber apron, who would sit on a stool in a hall near enough to the door so that the feathers could be swept out, but not close enough so that they would blow around. Still, the feathers would fly as Willie grabbed handfuls and yanked them from the carcass. And the dog, Rex, who considered the doorway his to guard, would wind up covered with feathers and looking like a monster. It was a laborious process since, unlike non-kosher chickens that are usually scalded before plucking, loosening the feathers, kosher chickens cannot be dipped in hot water first. To do so partially cooks them, and the chickens would not qualify as kosher if cooked so early in the process.
Next the chickens need to be hung by their feet to drain out most of the blood. And then, to be sure that all the blood has been removed, they are soaked in salt water. This procedure, part of the Jewish tradition for millennia, has recently emerged in haute cuisine recipes and is called brining. And once that step is carried out, the kosher chicken is ready for cooking. Well, almost. Given the plucking without scalding, there are almost always a few pin feathers left to remove. A good pair of tweezers comes in handy for this removal.
In traditional Jewish cooking, every part of the chicken, except for the head, is used. The feet are cleaned and used with internal organs (blood removed of course) along with little meatballs in a dish called chicken fricassee. The neck skin is sewn into a pouch and stuffed with matzoh meal and spices moistened with chicken soup and baked; this wonderful treat is called “helzel.” Even the fat is rendered with onions and this “schmaltz” is either spread on bread or used in other dishes. In Mexico, chicken fat can substitute for lard to make many dishes kosher, including tlayudas. And finally, the bones are used to prepare chicken soup, otherwise known as Jewish penicillin.
Essentially the same process is used to prepare other eligible fowl such as duck, turkey and geese to meet kosher standards. Because of the rule that a fowl cannot be damaged in any way before the shochet slaughters it and the law about a pain-free death, no birds brought down by a gun or bow and arrow can ever be kosher. And many specific kinds of birds are totally forbidden – mainly raptors. These rules were written down hundreds of years ago, or in some cases thousands of years ago, in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Today, the rules followed at my uncles’ butcher shop are still being applied in butcher shops around the world. But kosher fowl are now also being mass-produced in factory settings by large companies in countries with sizable Jewish populations, such as the US, Mexico and Canada. These large companies follow the same Jewish laws about animal treatment and are supervised by ritually-trained individuals. In addition, the companies must also follow strict Jewish laws about fairness in employer-employee relationships.
So while you are enjoying the wonderful taste of kosher chicken, you can also feel satisfied about the working conditions of those who prepared it. And you can be thankful that the kosher free-range chicken who previously crossed the road definitely didn’t get clipped by a car.