The sharp blade of the device slid quickly and effortlessly into tender flesh, instantly drawing blood. A small rivulet of crimson was simultaneously accompanied by an intake of breath and a high pitched shriek…. The hefty, worn shaft of a butcher knife grasped tentatively, the long blade hovering indecisively above its assignment, connecting instead with an unintended target…. Glistening pink, goosefleshed skin. A knife poised for its mission, promptly meeting resistance and then finally an audible crackle…bones crunch, crack and snap, exposing the hidden remnants of internal organs.
A scene from Halloween? Nightmare on Elm Street? Friday the 13th? Chucky? Scream? No, just the Lorenz family kitchen. Scene one, eager kindergartener perched on a kitchen chair, peeling carrots for carrot salad. The next, age sixteen, leftover pot roast on its impending journey to dinner, thinly sliced. Destination…French dip sandwiches. The final scene, the uninstructed first attempt at breaking down a whole chicken into its requisite parts and pieces, ready for the oven.
Each left an indelible mark upon my memory, several also leaving visible scars. The scars are a reminder of why, that for as long as I can remember, I was drawn to baking. Baking produced cakes, cookies, pies, biscuits…. All of the things that you look forward to in a meal but aren’t necessary. They are the added bonus. A gift.
Cooking did not hold the same allure for me as baking. People are always happy to see you when you show up with cookies or brownies, not so much steamed broccoli or grilled halibut.
Additionally, cooking is far more dangerous. My knife skills were developed through trial and error. The vestiges of kitchen mishaps left me leary and avoiding prep work. I now know many of my kitchen calamities were due in large part to one of two things: dull blades and lack of instruction. There was no Google, no Kenji Alt Lopez deftly demonstrating the task of breaking down a chicken in thirty seconds or less.
My dad, Steve, taught woodshop and mechanical drawing at J. M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington. My junior and senior year I attended the same high school where my dad taught. My step-mother Sue taught 5th grade at Stevens Elementary. High school having an earlier start time meant that my dad and I left each morning by 7:00 and returning home most days no later than 4:00. Most days this meant my dad was responsible for dinner. This in turn meant he assumed the duties as head chef, organizing and delineating who did what for the evening’s meat centric dinner. Salad prep was routinely my step-sister Jodi and my responsibility, and was fairly uneventful, most nights. Things were changed up a bit on the occasional evening when my dad had an Experimental Aircraft Association meeting or was ferrying Jodi to/from ballet or swimming lessons.
It was on one of these evenings that I my dad called home, relaying instructions for dinner, “Put the chicken in the oven.” The flesh-tone rotary wall-mount phone cord easily unfurled and stretched the necessary six feet needed to walk over to the refrigerator and looked inside. My eyes searched the shelves for shrink-wrapped white styrofoam, landing instead on a whole chicken encased in thick plastic, a metal band securing the rough cut end of the plastic. “There’s only a whole chicken,” I replied. I had a moment of panic envisioning myself trying to secure the chicken carcass to the Faber Ware rotisserie. “That’s the one. Just break it down,” was my dad’s curt response. My mind wrestled with this, responding hesitantly, “I don’t know how to do that.” My dad’s matter of fact over the phone response and introduction to chicken butchery was, “You’ve eaten chicken, you know what the parts are, you’ll figure it out.” He obviously had more faith in my abilities to carry out this task than I did.
The chicken now sitting resplendently on the cutting board on the kitchen counter in it’s thick plastic casing offered no clues or encouragement. The only thing that scared me more than breaking down the whole chicken was the thought of breaking the chicken down incorrectly and thus disappointing my dad.
“Where to start?” was my first thought. Start small. I pulled the little package of giblets out of the chicken’s internal cavity and tossed them in the garbage. Simple. The next logical and least tricky step seemed to be the wings. Easy enough. Next, drumsticks. I struggled to take hold of the slick, slippery thigh while trying to cut the lower appendage at the joint, separating the drumstick from the thigh and the rest of the chicken. I managed to remove the drumsticks, narrowly missing my finger with the butcher knife. Thigh removal proved more difficult than the drumsticks, as the attachment of the joint was somewhat hidden, not as blatantly obvious as the drumstick. I mangled the thighs a bit in the process, but was successful in their removal nonetheless.
Having spent enough time in the kitchen over the years I knew enough to bring out the kitchen shears at this point. With as much finesse as I could muster I separated the front half of the chicken from the back half. I grimaced as I maneuvered the kitchen shears up the side of the bird, the bones cracking and crunching, sharp edges of bone scraping my fingers and knuckles as I neared the top of the bird. Now to repeat with the other side. Success. Two halves of the bird now lay on the cutting board.
At this point what was revealed inside the bird just was almost enough for me to abandon my task. Instead, I played out my dad’s imagined reaction and decided against this. Like most kids, my favorite parts of the chicken were drumstick, thigh, and wings. I didn’t recall having ever taken a back piece. The inside of the back of the chicken revealed utter carnage. Ribs, and attached to the ribs were remnants of internal organs. Kidneys? Chunks of lung? Veins? Did a chicken have a spleen? What were these mystery chunks? What in the heck was I supposed to do about all of that? Did the butcher do a bad job? I felt sick to my stomach.
I promptly turned on the kitchen faucet and ran the back pieces under the cold water. The stream of water did little to remove these grotesque hunks of who knows what. I got out a spoon and a butter knife hoping to dig out whatever I could. I couldn’t imagine my dad serving a chicken with all of these awful things still attached. I don’t know how long I worked on cleaning out the gory remnants from the ribs, but at some point I deemed it clean enough for someone other than me to eat.
I knew from looking at the back of half of the chicken it was a much bigger, longer piece than what my dad served. By this point in my chicken butchery journey I gave up and left the back of the bird intact. The breasts. Now what? Looking at it from both the outside and inside, I decided to cut the breast in half from the inside. Cutting, or more accurately, hacking through cartilage and bone required quite a bit more of additional pressure than I had anticipated.
Surveying the parts and pieces of the bird, I was done. Although fairly pleased with my efforts, I felt immensely relieved that the whole task was over. I promptly seasoned the chicken and placed it in the preheated oven to cook alongside the baked potatoes, and moved on to prep the salad and set the table for dinner.
Later that evening as we sat down to dinner, I revealed nothing of my feelings of ineptitude, nor of the angst and struggle I had breaking the chicken down just over an hour earlier. As a placed a drumstick on my plate I did my best to stop the replay in my head, chunky remnants of mystery organs lodged inside the chicken’s ribs. My first bite drumstick was unfortunate indeed, as my teeth encountered a snappy tendon attached to the dark meat. I struggled to finish my chicken that night, each bite revealing more of what I was trying to forget….cartilage, vein, tendon. Later, as my dad and I cleared the dinner dishes and put them in the dishwasher, I said with as much conviction as I could muster, “That is the last time I will ever cut up a chicken. Don’t ask me again.”
In the years since, I have successfully managed the art of chicken butchery, trussing pork loins, and more. And if the Food Network has taught me anything it’s that knife accidents happen to the best of them, as Giada De Laurentiis proved during the 2013 Thanksgiving special. Although my knife skills have vastly improved over the years, to this day prepping meat is still one of my least favorite tasks always taking me back to the gold flecked kitchen countertop of 5601 Alder Glen Road where I had my first encounter with a chicken. Suffice it to say baking invokes no fear for me, only joy. No gory chicken parts. No sliced fingers.