21 December 2007

Coq au Vin: Preface

When I first made coq au vin I thought of it as a recipe. I’d search out the ingredients and “prepare” it, spending a lot of time on the recipe. My approach to coq au vin has changed over the years, and I now think of coq au vin as an approach. Coq au vin was not developed with the Michelin star system in mind. No one was hoping for a good review that would increase customer traffic, and no one was thinking about the price they could charge for it. It was the home cook with a small flock of poultry out back, who asked, “I’ve got an old rooster who’s mean and tough; how can I prepare him so he tastes good?” Nowadays, in the United States, almost no one can ask that question anymore, and so the prospect of a good coq au vin diminishes accordingly. We don’t ask that because no one has old roosters. (A few poultry terms: a chick is a baby chicken, and the term doesn’t differentiate between the sexes. A hen is a female chicken over one year of age; before that they’re called pullets. A cock or rooster is a male chicken over one year; before that it’s called a cockerel. I use cock [French: coq] and rooster interchangeably.)

I started raising chickens and ducks about five years ago, and it’s certainly one of my better decisions because it’s connected me to an appreciation and understanding of poultry that mirrors my long-time interest in eating from my own garden. I’ve raised old breeds of poultry and have become fascinated with these breeds as much as I’m concerned with old, open-pollinated varieties of vegetables. If, when reading a cookbook a few decades ago, I came across a sentence that said, “First, raise a flock of chickens, being sure to let a few cocks live past their first eight weeks,” I wouldn’t have understood how an old rooster was different from what I buy in the supermarket, nor why it was so essential to the dish. But now I feel that the old rooster is as essential to coq au vin as pumpkin is to pumpkin pie.

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