Above: Admiring the prize chickens at the county fair, 2012
Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
I imagine that every Jewish family had an analog to me in one of their children, someone whose role in life was to run errands. “Sidney, I want you to go to the fruit store and pick up an eighth of a watermelon, and while you’re on 65th Street, stop at Mottel’s and get six bialys…” Indeed, I was so identified with being sent to the store that when I visited Grandmother Bertha, senile and dying in a hospital room following a stroke, she began to reel off a shopping list when she saw me.
As a very young boy, I could be sent to the store but was not to be trusted with money. The storekeepers all knew me, so I could walk in with my list and follow my mother’s instructions to “charge it.” At the grocery store, the accounts were carried in a school composition book kept next to the cheese slicer. The grocer would mark the price of each item on the side of the paper bag before packing and then transfer the sum to his ledger. When my mother stopped in to settle up, he would ferret out our account from the scores of entries and figure the total bill. There were no cash register tapes, no computerized accounts. Back then people simply knew and trusted one another. I suppose the reason for this was the stability of our neighborhood.
Our family lived in the same two-bedroom flat for over eighteen years. Today people like us would be a landlord’s dream. However, then we were not the exception but the rule. All of the side streets in Bensonhurst had six-story apartment houses fronting on Bay Parkway, and you hardly ever saw a moving van in front of any of them. People left a building when they married or died, and in either case they didn’t carry many material possessions with them.
Our next-door neighbors for those eighteen years were the Granicks. By my standards, they were old people. She had gray hair, and they both spoke halting English with a strong Central European accent. In reality, they couldn’t have been all that old, since Mr. Granick had not yet retired when he died. His widow stayed on afterward in their tiny, one-bedroom apartment, living on who knows what source of income. According to my mother, Mrs. Granick was frail, and that is why Esther had taken it upon herself to volunteer my services to buy Mrs. Granick a chicken at the poultry market each and every Friday morning.
There were two live-poultry markets on 65th Street, on the block between Bay Parkway and 23rd Avenue. We patronized Saffron’s because my parents had known the brothers when they all lived on the Lower East Side. The chickens were brought in from New Jersey on big flat-bed trucks. Often I would be walking on 65th Street when a truck lined with shallow wooden cages would pull up. The sound and smell of that truck was as close as I got to the country as a youngster. Saffron’s occupied the northern half of a long, narrow store, the other half of which was a fish market. Both sides had huge, chrome-plated counters open to customers along their entire length. The only difference was that the fish reposed on a bed of chipped ice, while the chickens, a mass of gray feathers and yellow feet, were strewn directly on the counter top.
Most of the Friday morning crowd of customers knew their chickens and pawed the carcasses as if they were in May’s basement. I, on the other hand, was not only shorter than these women, but I was so naïve that I didn’t know the difference between a hen and a rooster. Therefore, instead of approaching the counter directly, I had to seek out one of the Saffron brothers and repeat verbatim Mrs. Granick’s instructions: “Please, I want a small hen for stewing, cut up. Not too much fat, please!” These words, like a prayer to the Almighty, gave me absolution for any of the shortcomings in the chicken I brought back.
Once a feathered specimen had been selected, it was weighed, charged to our account, and then carried to the back of the shop to be dressed. The chicken flicking department had its own area in the back. It was surrounded by walls on three sides with a Dutch door on the remaining side at right angles to the selling floor. From going to Saffron’s every Friday, I got to know the chicken flicker quite well. I never knew his name, but I remember his face, his voice, and his besmeared smock as if it were yesterday.
The first thing the butcher did was to strip the feathers. Rotating the bird against the exposed blades of a noisy plucking machine, he did the job in a trice. Then, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, he gingerly turned the carcass over a gas jet which burned in Saffron’s back room like an eternal flame. This took care of the pin feathers. Now the chicken was carried across the cubicle to a stained wooden butcher block next to the Dutch door. Here it was eviscerated and quartered. The flicker had a battery of knives and cleavers, each of which he used deftly in turn. Although I’ve never dressed a chicken, I’ve watched it done so many times that I feel I could do it in a crisis. I memorized the order in which the flicker used his knives, and when he resorted to his hands to crack the chicken apart. I learned to expect the characteristic sounds made by rent flesh and bone. I knew which of the viscera were to be torn out and discarded and which saved. I knew the viscera not by name but by color and location in the carcass.
One day the flicker did something for me which I’ve never forgotten. After dressing the chicken, he reached under the block and came up with a handful of shimmering orange globes the size of large marbles. Eggs! Yes, in those days you could still buy a stewing hen and find within her a clutch of unlaid eggs, yolks without the white or shells. Boiled, these are one of life’s treats. The flicker had hoarded these eggs from the chickens he processed, unbeknownst to the squeamish lady customers who waited up front. And now he made them my material reward for running Mrs. Granick’s errand. “These are for you,” he said with emphasis, wrapping the eggs separately from the chicken. “Don’t give them to the old woman!” As usual, when I got home, my mother and Mrs. Granick praised me for being “so good.” But it was the flicker who had communicated with me on a level I could appreciate.
There are still live-poultry markets in Brooklyn. This 2011 article from the New York Daily News has photographs which graphically back up Sidney’s account.
It should be noted that Sidney, in later life, became a confirmed vegetarian! He always maintained that his vegetarian propensities resulted from his revulsion at the sights, sounds, and smells of the Brooklyn live-poultry markets.
Thinking about chickens and vegetarianism, it occurred to me that I should add a “whole grain” recipe to this blog post, so I’m doing just that. Turn to page 2 for Kasha and Bow Knots (Varnishkas).
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