In defense of the chicken leg-piece

My fellow desis, it is with a heavy heart that I begin this epistle to you. The humble chicken leg, which for years had been a principle source of nourishment for the head and heart, is under severe attack from various imperialist forces. My fear is that if we do not act soon, we will be reduced to a spineless people who eat tasteless poached bits of nameless meat in overpriced sandwiches.

The peacock may be our National Bird, but it is all fluff and feather. It cannot be eaten. It does not lay eggs that can be eaten. The only positive attribute it possesses is that virtue of being called a mor in Hindi, it allows countless writers to attempt annoying puns.

The chicken on the other hand is the real National Bird. It originated on our subcontinent. We were one of the first races that domesticated it. Unfortunately, like other good ideas such as basmati rice and turmeric, we never filed for intellectual property protection. Over time, smart people in other parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe stole our idea and ran with it. But, we must never forget that the chicken is an integral part of our heritage. It is our bird.

Further, out of the various parts of the chicken, no other exemplifies desi ingenuity and flexibility like the leg-piece. It is the vahan of the god of jugaad (if one did indeed exist among the 330 million other gods in our veritable patheon).

Consider the practicality of the leg-piece. Because the principal function of a chicken is to feed and fatten itself until it is ready for market, the mechanics of this bird are unique. Chickens are flightless birds with atrophied wings. They stand around all day. It is muscles that form the meat of the two leg-pieces and the thighs which perform the vital job of providing the bird with stability and mobility. It is an inalienable part of fowl. Now, you tell me what is the function of the chicken breast?

Consider the design of the leg-piece. Shaped like an irregular drumstick with a convenient handle at one end for holding with the obligatory right hand- the business end is at the other. There is economy in the design. It is made for people who eat with one hand. You can rotate your right wrist and access all of the delectable meat on the stick for a no-frills experience. It is instinctive. A three year-old can do it. Watch his eyes light up as he expertly chomps the leg-piece. No help from mommy or daddy is required. Let those who use a knife or fork to cut what is natural and into man-made pieces focus their evil machinations on the breast or the thighs.  Leave us our leg-piece.

Consider the flexibility of the leg-piece. You can bake it, grill it, fry it, tandoorify it, chop it into a keema, or curry it in myriad ways. It retains moisture. It pulls flavor from bone and sinew. In curries, it is often overshadowed by the other major, dark portion – the thighs, but the leg-piece truly shines when fried or baked. In addition, it is miles ahead of bland white meat which have given rise to the incorrect notion that everything (and therefore, by extension nothing) tastes like chicken. No fast-food chain pulverized and pasted a chicken leg-piece to make misshapen chicken nuggets. No street-vendor disguised a massive pile of meatless breading to make a chicken lollipop with the respected chicken leg-piece. No one doused its skins and bones in vinegary hot-sauce to make “Buffalo wings”.  It is an honest piece for honest, hard-working people.

Let the Americans gorge on chicken breast (which we with our sense of prioreity will not even pronounce in polite company). Let the Chinese eat chicken feet; one day they’ll realize that the good meat is slightly higher up.

Our earlier generations fought for our right to eat chicken leg-piece. Were their travails in vain?

My immediate ancestors were not vegetarians, but before my father’s time, no one ever ate chicken. It was reviled meat, which even Brahmins in Eastern India who occasionally ate meat did not touch. (Even now, I have relatives who will eat duck eggs, but won’t touch chicken eggs for religious reasons which I cannot comprehend.)

My ancestral home is in a village very close to the Bengal-Orissa border. Not much has changed in decades since my father lived there. He went to school far from the village, in a mofussil town where he became quite rebellious.

One day, my father decided to cook chicken back in the village.  My father was a leader in these types of mischievous adventures. He round up all the other children. They decided that they would buy live chickens from Santhal tribals living on the outskirts of the village. Back then, there were no poultry-raised hens in villages and orthodox Hindus never raised or ate chickens out of fear of being ostracized. (Muslim households and tribals raised chickens).

Once the desi chickens were procured, a plan to butcher the chickens by an ancestral pond was made. The boys and girls would cook rice and chicken by the pond on a mud chula in typical picnic-fashion. There would be singing and poetry recitation. They would eat the meat in a singular act of defiance.

Their fatal flaw was that had not invited one of the youngest members of the extended family, one of my father’s cousins, who, as you can understand, was very upset at being rebuffed. This relative, who I shall not publicly name out of fear of starting a blood-feud among descendants,  spied on the arrangements and decided to report back to the elders in the family.

Back then, my grandfather and his two brothers still had a few annas share in the zamindari system. They were respected for their erudition, but equally feared. The most feared of the trio, was my grandfather’s eldest brother, who I’ve heard fit the physical description of all zamindars – he was a fair-complexioned, tall man with a booming voice. To cite a proverb, he could make “a cow and a tiger drink water from the same ghat.” Never mind, that he probably contributed to the extinction of tigers from our district.

But I digress. Back to the story. The uninvited relative went straight up to zamindar babu and said, “Do you know that all of the others are all by the Nara-Mohanty pond cooking kukra?”

“What!? They are cooking kukra?”  I am sure zamindar babu’s voice could be heard on the other side of the Bengal-Orissa border. Cooking kukra was an inconceivable sin.

Needless to say, my father received a proper thrashing that day.

I retell this story, but I am sure this is not an isolated incident or that my father was the only one who had to rebel on behalf of future generations. The Americans eat turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving – an act of defiance. Why should we be any different? Let us raise our chicken leg-pieces to honor the struggles of our own elders.

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19 thoughts on “In defense of the chicken leg-piece

  1. I enjoy reading your posts but I am sorry to say that this one seemed really ignorant. Your last few lines ‘The Americans eat turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving – an act of defiance. Why should we be any different?…’ shows you are ready to emulate Americans just for the heck of it. Not speaking for or against non-vegetarianism but atleast know a little about factory farming before blogging on chicken legs. We don’t need more Indians to start celebrating eating animals on festivals. Sorry Anirban but I think you can do better than this.

    • Thanks for reading. Clearly, the satirical nature of the piece (which I thought was obvious from the quasi-manifesto tone) was lost on you so much that you felt it necessary to criticize it as being “ignorant”. In addition, you immediately assumed that I had no idea about factory-farming. Of course, that is your prerogative.

      You have very strong views on the topic. You did not enjoy this post. You will probably not enjoy some of the other pieces I’ve written in the past. Or that I will write in the future. I understand.

      As long as some people get where I’m coming from (example: previous commenter) I can live with that.

  2. Lovely piece. Steeped in humour. Yes, I have also noticed the partiality towards duck eggs that some harbour. By the way, duck meat or duck eggs are not easily available outside Bengal — in India that is. Odd!

  3. Interesting. Didn’t know all this about chikkens and how they were domesticated first by us only. Proud to be an Indian *Raising chicken leg*.

  4. If people object to your mourning (actually disguised eulogy) of chicken legs, you may consider editing the piece, or writing it anew, in favour of vulture legs. The species is extinct, anyway, and an elegy wouldn’t be mistaken for eulogy. Two corrective pointers though: (1) ancestors of us Bongs, pan-Mundari speaking Austro-Asiatics, practically survived on chicken legs when edible gourds (lau, chal-kumdo, kumdo, uchhe, patol etc) were scarce; archaeologists are routinely finding chicken bones (and boar-skeletons) in neolothic/chalcolithic sites in Bengal region; and (2) peacocks were eaten (with great gusto on ritualistic occasions at least, as per rare literary references) by the royalty in several early Magadha-based pan-Indian dynasties — the Nandas and Mauryas inclusive and, in relatively recent times by the Mughals. The proscription of ram-pakhi over most of eastern India that lasted between the Islamic age and my childhood was patently a xenophobic sanction by the illiterate priestly caste. Even in Dhoyi’s second rate Pavanaduta (12th century), written in imitation of the Meghadutam, bird-eating wasn’t a taboo. A village in Hooghly off the Delhi Road used to breed and keep quite a number of Pilani peacocks for their plumes and, reportedly, the unfertilised eggs, till a few years ago. I used to run into a stray peahen or two on the way to Calcutta by road from my residence in a small town nearby at least twice or thrice a month. My inquiry revealed that the village people sometimes couldn’t account for the odd ones that went astray; rumour had it that they were much relished by the local boys. I too was once served a huge leg-piece, reportedly of chicken, at a roadside dhaba; it was too tough and fibrous for me if it was chicken.

    • Thanks for your comments.

      I have no doubt that early inhabitants of northern and eastern India ate all manner of prey and fowl and would not suggest otherwise. If some historians are to be believed than the early conquerors (I hesitate to use the word Aryan as that is a subject for another analysis) routinely ate cows and horses too. Of course, as they settled in the Gangetic plains, it became necessary to raise livestock for agricultural purposes. Deciding what was taboo and what was not, was a complicated act over the ages. Certainly, the influence of Buddhists may have influenced exhortation of vegetarianism; certainly caste-stratification played a major role; but the basic economics of non-vegetarianism would have played a central role in this matter.

      Further, the comment regarding peacocks not being eaten was a comment on scale. There is little than humans have not devoured over millennia (and thus there is a whole body of work on what is toxic and what is not; and how to prepare what is not). I myself have tried many “novelty” fowl delicacies from various flightless birds to flighted ones. Usually, what separates them from the poultry hen subtypes is the toughness which you mention and a certain gamey odor. I must confess that I’ve never tried peacocks though, and I would most certainly try it once (if raised in a sustainable manner) for the experience.

  5. Enjoyed it very much!!!
    Here in Assam, elders eat Duck, Pigeon (yes, Pigeon is part of delicacy in Assam), but not Chicken. Can not explain it why, but it can be considered as a caste system, by observing their views over the years. Duck and Pigeon are much above than Chicken in the caste system, and a major factor in it is what these birds eat. Chickens are treated as per with untouchable-communities in villages by elders, they are not even allowed to enter the house. Chicken were always raised by Tribals, but Ducks & Pigeons found home in every house.
    Interestingly, the same elders will not touch mutton (forget about pork), but will eat Deer and Turtle meat.

  6. I am tickled by the way a humorous, light-hearted piece has led to delectable scholarly debate. Will keep my eyes open for a follow-up. And thanks also to the gentleman who sounded so indignant over us Indians “copying” Americans. Take a bow, Sir 🙂

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