Extreme Poultry: Hunting Really Fresh Chicken

Like most Americans, I eat a significant amount of poultry-mostly supermarket poultry, that innocuous white bread of the protein world. I’m not sure that I exceed the national annual average of 81 pounds per person, which is about equal to three cutlets a week. But as it’s so convenient, and hard to botch up, I put away a good deal of it.

For this reason I can’t help but wince every time I buy a bird from, say, Tyson or Perdue, well knowing that it has been shot up with more growth hormones than Barry Bonds. Yes, there are organic and so-called “free-range” chickens (an elastic term), but as of yet, few major supermarket chains carry them. And if they do, they most likely come from large-scale free-range farms which, by USDA definition, need only provide the birds unobstructed access to the outdoors. In practice, however, most remain in the barn with hundreds or thousands of other birds, because that’s where the food is.

I have always been intrigued by the live poultry markets that can be found in some of the ethnic neighborhoods in the city-mostly Latino and Asian. Recently, I drove past a busy one on 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Called La Granja Live Poultry #2 (the original is farther north, in Inwood), it is a penitential-looking, two-story cement rectangle with iron bars covering two boarded-over windows-really stimulates the appetite.

I did not have time to drop in that day, but I decided to return and maybe make some purchases in several of these markets in order to see how they operate (are they clean? Are they rigorously inspected?), how the animals are treated, who shops there and, just as important, how the chickens taste.

Poultry has been in the news for some months now because of outbreaks of the disease avian influenza, most seriously in the U.S. in Delaware and Maryland-an affliction that, in its most virulent stage, can wipe out tens of thousands of chickens. Avian influenza does not affect a chicken’s meat, and it is extremely rare for humans to contract the disease.

My sidekick on this mission was Barry Wine, who was-for the benefit of readers born after the Watergate break-in-one of the most influential chefs of the past 25 years at his groundbreaking American restaurant, the Quilted Giraffe, which operated in Manhattan from 1979 to 1992. The man knows his chicken.

On a blustery Thursday afternoon, we hopped into Barry’s Mercedes and, with scant help from his fancy dashboard mapping gizmo, eventually arrived at a dispiriting stretch of 122nd Street in East Harlem. In the middle of the block was a garage-like space with corrugated metal doors and the pastoral name Chicken Farm New York.

In the front was a tollbooth-sized office, but no one inside; the long rectangular space held five seven-foot-high stacked steel cages that were teeming with all sorts of feathered inmates: white chickens, black-feathered chickens (new to me), small turkeys, brown-feathered hens, sizable ducks and (cute) rabbits.

Some of the cages were more densely populated than others, with several holding so many birds that they could barely turn around. This roommate problem was gradually ameliorated, however, with every visit of the grim reaper.

I had expected a horrendous stench, but it wasn’t too bad, owing in large part to a bent, knotty old man who was hosing down the place with great zeal. As he seemed to be the only employee on the premises, I asked him, both in English and in Spanish, how we could go about buying a chicken. Apparently he was unfamiliar with both tongues. He looked at me with bewilderment until I gestured, performing my best mime of a man holding a sizable bird.

He pointed at a glass partition, where we saw an aproned woman, a Mexican, taking a cleaver to a couple of recently departed chickens. The long rectangular room with stainless-steel counters was quite clean, having recently been hosed down by our friend.

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets strictly monitors the approximately 70 live-animal markets in the five boroughs. State officials and representatives of the poultry industry had told me that live-poultry markets are shrinking in most American cities, but in New York they continue to expand to meet the demands of arriving immigrants.

Inspectors are supposed to visit the markets monthly to assess their cleanliness, the health of the animals and their treatment. Four times a year, the markets are required to close for several days to receive a major disinfecting.

Whereas major outbreaks of avian influenza in Texas and Delaware involved live-poultry markets, New York so far has been spared.

“We have the most strict regulations in the nation for live-poultry markets,” said Jessica A. Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the department. “Public health is No. 1; the health of the birds is a close second.” Fines for violations are relatively minor, starting with $300 for a first offense and $600 for a second. After that, Ms. Chittenden said, the department moves in to help them correct the violations.

“We really don’t have a lot of problems with them,” she maintained.

Most of the birds sold in New York City’s live-poultry markets come from small end mid-size breeders in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They are not necessarily organic or free-range.

” ¡Hola, como estás! ” I called out to the woman. Carmen Acevedo Jimenez had been working at Chicken Farm New York for a month-though you wouldn’t know it watching her eviscerate a chicken with the speed of a Vegas poker dealer. Since the boss wasn’t there, she invited us to follow a bird from its clucking cell to a plastic shopping bag. (It gets a little gory here, so you might want to send the kids to bed.)

The first stop was a holding room with a long stainless-steel table inset with what resembled several inverted megaphones. Carmen first passed a knife over the chicken’s throat, then placed it, head down, into one of the cones so the blood would drain out.

In about five minutes, the chicken was transferred to an amazing defeathering machine. A steel bowl about four feet across held what looked like a huge ball bearing that was studded with corrugated rubber cylinders. The ball bearing rotates at blinding speed, and when the chicken is tossed in, the feathers are removed in seconds.

At this point, Carmen removed the internal organs (“Youwantfeetand head?”), rinsed them and placed them in a plastic tote bag-still very warm.

Barry and I each ordered afour-poundchickenat roughly $1.25 per pound, and a duck at $2.50 a pound.

Our next stop was the La Granja Live Poultry #2, in West Harlem. The odor was prevalent here, but not overwhelming. (In the interest of investigative journalism concerning this odor issue, I returned five days later: The stench was so powerful that it nearly blew off my baseball cap. Maybe I had arrived between hosings.)

The menu here was the same as at the first market. The birds were very crowded. Two customers, a creased older woman of Puerto Rican descent and a Dominican woman, stopped by for a single chicken each. I asked the former why she bought live poultry instead of going to the supermarket.

“It’s good. It’s real,” she replied in Spanish. “It’s barato [a good buy].”

The other woman told me that when she was a teenager in the Dominican Republic, they always had fresh chickens.

“Sometimes I got to chop off the head,” she recalled with a smile.

Several workers in long white coats dashed in and out of the execution chamber, while the ladies, both in head scarves, waited patiently.

Dinner in hand, Barry and I took our leave for the taste test. That night, I coated the duck with a zesty spice rub and placed sliced apples and prunes in the cavity (I served it with a prune, orange and red wine reduction). The breast meat was dense and rosy, with a pronounced gamelike flavor. The taut, muscular legs could double as croquet mallets, so they require long braising.

Similarly, the chicken breast was firm and moist, with a lovely golden skin. It tasted like chicken.