My wife and I recently had a holiday dinner at the home of friends living in rural, south central France. It was a repas extraordinaire of 6 courses, complementary wines, and with just about every item grown or raised by our hosts in their garden or livestock collection. They are hoteliers during the summer season and artisans when the tourists evaporate from the Aveyron, the least populated département in France.
After appetizers, soup, and salad with marinated salmon came the plat principal, an oven baked fowl. It was a rooster, weighing in at 4.4 kilograms, who had been free ranging on their property the day before. The hostess, an American who had lived in France many years, had delivered the bird back to its maker, and then baked it a honey brown. She treated us to its story as it cooled from the oven to be served at the proper temperature.
There had been two roosters and a dozen hens in a large pen to protect them from predators. But within the birds’ haven the battle of the cocks had been decided early on. One rooster, with a plumage of burnt orange and thighs to beat the band, had quickly established his dominance. This rooster survived, at least for now. The second rooster had spent months cowering, hardly lifting its adorned tête. If needed, for reasons not clear, it could be found in some remote recess of the sanctuary, seeking the same from its fellow male. Instead of mating with the hens and cock-a-doodling it ate voraciously, I suppose an alimentary substitute to satisfy its instinctual urges of sex and aggression. It was soon copiously plump and clearly not the keeper when it came to Darwinian considerations of the chicken species kept by our French friends.
Our hostess added, not at all sheepishly, that when preparing the bird she noticed that many of its glands had severely shrunken: dried out, in French. She thought some of these internal organs were what conferred masculinity on the rooster. Since I had no evidence, no samples to inspect, I imagined they were what distinguished males from females or delivered the adrenalin and cortisol needed for fight, not flight. This story could deter a man from enjoying this course but the rooster’s fragrant aroma and soft sheen, from basting and baking with wild champignons, did not seem to prompt any hesitation in the four of our gender at the table.
The rooster was fantastic. His sacrifice was our culinary heaven. Only his bones were left after a couple of generous helpings taken by the Christmas diners.
The cheese followed, and then the dessert and coffee. But no further mention of the doomed yet delicious bird. But I could not put the story or an image of desiccated innards to rest in my mind. We were delivered a story as much Biblical as bird. To wit, witness what happens when we shrink from life, when we live in the shadow of another: not only is our being, our self-regard, diminished but we literally shrink inside, the substance of our literal being is also eaten away.
Tomorrow is another day, another chance for a feathered friend or member of our species. What will it be? Bounty for the reaper, be she a Frenchwoman or a figure more mythic? Or the one who raises its head high, who seizes the day, and burnishes life with zest outside and in? In the end, perhaps the message is don’t be chicken.
Dr. Sederer’s new book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close).