Talk about boxing yourself in.
I’ve been packing madly, nonessentials first, and yesterday found a flaw in the master plan. I’d packed all my books, and once i’d devoured all the periodicals on hand, there was nothing to read. And since i’m exhausting myself in all the preparations for my move, i need to sit down and read periodically to get some rest.
But then i realized that, wait, i’d not packed my cookbooks, and there was the Larousse Gastronomique, 1100 pages of double column 6pt. type. That ought to last me ’till the 21st. Ummmm, no. Too much like reading a dictionary straight through even though i do have the English translation.
And then i spotted Harold McGee’s spectacular On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, the great revised second edition of 2004. Oh yes. I’d been leafing around in it for years but had not actually read it, so i started. A hundred pages into it i got to the section on game birds and read about the chukar, which prompted a memory.
Along about 1986 i read that Hoffman Game Birds up in Sonoma County grew chukars and thought, hey, i’ll drive up in my new blue Honda CRX and get a couple for Allen and me. So i went up to their place way out in the country near Sebastopol and crunched up the gravel driveway so the farm dogs could do their watchdog thing and come barking up to the car while this guy comes running out of the house to call ’em off.
Turned out it was Bud Hoffman himself, and when i told him i wanted to buy a couple of chukars, he got this worried look and asked, “Did you order?”
When i responded that i hadn’t, he told me that if i’d ordered, he could have had ’em dressed for me. I told him i’d just take ’em as they were, and he led me down to the pen. By a coincidence, i’m sure, to get to the pen where the chukars lived, we had to go through his collection of breathtakingly beautiful show pheasants, all of which he identified proudly as we passed their cages.
I refrained from describing a single one as looking good enough to eat.
When we finally got to where the comestible birds lived, he called out to his wife, “Net a couple more for me, Marg.” Which she did and clipped off their beaks this little thing he explained was to keep ’em from fighting.
He put them in an onion sack, i paid him, and returned to my car and put them in the back. No sooner than i’d got up to highway speed, they started fighting inside the bag like unruly kids. So of course i just reached back and slapped the bag, which quieted them down by giving them something else to think about for the remainder of the trip, a technique i learned from my father that still worked.
By the time i got home, i was too tired to, ummm, process them, so i just stuck ’em in this old laundry sink on the back landing and laid a piece of plywood over the top. Well, after putting a cup of water in there for them since i didn’t want ’em to suffer, which would have degraded my karma and their quality.
Went on to bed before Allen got home, but when he did, he noticed through the window onto the porch the plywood over the sink and was curious. Went out there and took a look, only to find two little birds looking up at him. Somehow, he sensed that i’d not bought them as pets, so the next morning over coffee he casually mentioned having seen a couple of adorable little birds in the sink, and sooooo cute with their gorgeous breast plumage.
So when he was safely out of the house, i steeled my heart and a large chef’s knife, and gently, gently carried them one at a time into the kitchen and, over the sink, whacked their little heads off. I hope i die so fast.
And then hung them for a few days by the feet in the cool, shady passageway beside my building, out of Allen’s sight and out of reach of the frustrated cats prowling below.
I dry plucked them, gutted them, braised them gently with turnips, and served them with fresh haricots verts and a nice Chablis. They were sublime. This was only the second time in my life i’d eaten them, and they’re like giant quail.
Coda: Some years later, after Mr. Hoffman had died of a surfeit of fried game birds, Margaret Hoffman opened a stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market where her birds, including chickens but not, alas, chukars, were so popular that you had to get there in the first couple of hours the market was open or she was already sold out and gone. She retired in 2007 and turned the business, by then located in Manteca, over to her children, who now sell exclusively to the restaurant trade. She died in August of this year, a delightful woman.
Meanwhile, no pics of chukars, but here’s some heirloom tomatoes on sale at the Serendipity Farms booth in the Castro Farmers’ Market.