The Barnes & Noble Review
As restaurant reviewer for The New York Times, William Grimes was very familiar with chicken -- sautéed, fricasseed, baked, roasted, minced, deboned, stuffed, shredded, or jerked. None of these gustatory experiences, however, prepared him for the sight of the live chicken that arrived in his backyard one winter and proceeded to settle in.
"My policy towards animals is pure hypocrisy," writes Grimes. "Once I meet them, I don't want to eat them." And so, an interspecies relationship began. This story of a man and his chicken is pure charm, lighter than a feather, an urban folktale founded in reality.
The new arrival, jet black with a crimson comb, seemed happy with its newly found digs in the Grimeses' backyard in Astoria, Queens. It scratched its way up the ladder in the backyard society of stray cats, elbowing Cookie, Bruiser, Crusher, and Yowzer from their bowls of cat food. With the advent of spring, it even started laying eggs once a day.
Grimes and his wife, Nancy, resisted attempts to give the fowl a name, but it soon acquired a capital letter, becoming the Chicken. Gradually, a connection of sorts was established: Grimes put out food for the Chicken, and the Chicken came to eat it. You wouldn't confuse it with the kind of bonding that occurs between dogs and humans, or even cats and humans. But it was something.
Prompted by his new friend, Grimes starts pecking his way through chicken history. He seeks advice from urban and rural agrarians on chicken preferences in sleeping, eating, and scratching. He gets even more advice once he writes a column about the Chicken in the Times. A photographer with a giant telephoto lens arrives to play paparazzo.
Shortly thereafter, the chicken disappears -- the result of chick-anery, perhaps, or a bird's reluctance to become a star, or the onset of wanderlust. Heartsick, the Grimeses scan the skies for weeks, to no avail. At last report, they were still birdless in Queens.
The arrival of a particularly cheeky chicken in his Queens neighborhood gives New York Times food critic Grimes the impetus for this entertaining little book about the unusual visitor and all things fowl. The bird touches down in Grimes's backyard without warning, and the reaction of the animal-loving author and his wife turns from surprise to delight when the chicken makes a home among their family of cats, staking out its own patch of turf in their backyard and brazenly taking its place in the "cafeteria line" for cat food. Grimes deftly sprinkles historical background and anecdotes about chickens into his chronicle of the bird's behavior and the reaction of neighbors and colleagues. He muses on the small adjustments he made in his own lifestyle to accommodate the chicken as a pet, and offers subtle, compelling observations about the ancient relationships between animals and humans, which have their place even in the city. The bird's moment of fame is short-lived it vanishes as mysteriously as it came only a few days after Grimes begins writing about the chicken in his column. The moment is a sad one for Grimes and his wife, but the chicken's short hiatus in Queens will be a boon for readers who chuckle their way through this well-told tale, proving once again that a good writer can make a meaningful story out of anything. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
As restaurant critic for the New York Times, Grimes knew something about chickens: "deep-fried, fricasseed, poached, boiled, broiled, jerked Jamaican, and coated in a luscious Albufera sauce." But when a large black hen appeared one winter day in his Queens backyard and happily settled down at the foot of a pine tree, Grimes and his wife were stymied. Where did it come from? Did it escape from the Bangladeshi neighbors' soup pot or from the live poultry market a few blocks away? In this charming if slight expansion of his Times article, Grimes recounts his growing fascination with the Chicken (as he came to call it) as it took over the yard, scratching for food and bullying the resident cats. He studied up on poultry lore and, when the Chicken started laying eggs, conducted comparison taste tests between his eggs and commercial organic products. (The Chicken won hands down.) Tragically, a few days after the Times story appeared, the Chicken disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived. Was it a victim of fowl play? Did evil walk the streets of Astoria? An amusing trifle; for larger collections. (Illustrations not seen.) Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
New York Times restaurant critic Grimes's tale of the chicken that came to visit one day and settled in to live in the backyard. Times readers may recall Grimes's charming and wildly popular article about the chicken's mysterious appearance behind the house. Here, he's expanded the story into the slimmest, most charming of tales, tracing the trajectory of his and his wife's relationship with the unexpected visitor. Grimes lives in Astoria, Queens, a "quiet, workaday place" with almost no hint of the rural, other than scattered patches of scruffy lawn. Although he and his wife had, historically, fed a small community of stray cats, this was their first experience with a stray bird. Bemused by and somewhat concerned about their avian friend, the two dove into research about how best to feed and care for it, and Grimes now shares their discoveries. Chickens, it turns out, will eat "just about anything short of plastic lawn furniture." Despite their ubiquity in today's supermarkets, they were seen more as a source of entertainment than food until the 19th century, when cockfighting was outlawed. Then in 1845, when Queen Victoria received a gift of Cochin chickens, chicken mania arrived. Grimes's bird, he found on perusing a breeder's guide, was most likely a Black Australorp, the result of international breeding to produce a "mild-mannered superchicken." While all of these chicken facts are instructive, the author's true flair lies in describing the bird itself, with its looks, moods, and inscrutable origins, its scraps with cats, its egglaying, scratching, and pecking. "As far as I could tell," says Grimes, "it had nothing to do, but it did nothing with a grand flourish." And that's as gooda description as any for My Fine Feathered Friend. Delightful.
Read an Excerpt
One day in the dead of winter, I looked out my back window and saw a chicken. It was jet black with a crimson comb, and in classic barnyard fashion, it was scratching and pecking and clucking as it moved across the tiny rectangle of my lawn. It was, in every way, a normal chicken, except for one thing. It was in the middle of New York City.
I looked closer, blinked a few times, and shrugged off the apparition. Birds come and go in New York. Usually they're pigeons, not chickens, but like other birds, this one had wings and would probably use them. Or so I thought.
Night fell. Day broke. I looked out the back window and the chicken was still there, large as life. A little larger, actually. It looked content. It certainly showed no sign of wanting to move on. I sensed that this fly-by-night visitor was thinking about becoming a permanent resident. New York, the city of immigrants, was getting another one.
It was a fine-looking bird. Tired and poor, perhaps, but no wretched refuse. This chicken was huge, and it had obviously been eating well. Its black feathers shone, giving off a greenish purple iridescence in bright sunlight. Its beady brownish orange eyes had a healthy sparkle. They looked like the glass eyes on a stuffed toy animal. Its legs, thick and strong, supported it like two heavy-duty tripods. In Russian folklore, there's a witch, Baba Yaga, who lives deep in the forest. Her home is a hut that rests on chicken legs. I'd always found that description puzzling. Now I understood. Two chicken legs would be ideal for supporting a hut. These particular legs gave the chicken a lurching, confident gait. With its chest puffed out, it paced self-importantly, like a mid-level bureaucrat. As far as I could tell, it had nothing special to do, but it did nothing with a grand flourish. One moment it looked overweight, pompous, and slightly ridiculous. The next it seemed rather imposing, a dashing black figure on a mysterious mission.
It was the right bird in the wrong spot. The chicken may be a domestic creature, but it's not meant for the city, and that's exactly where this country cousin had come to roost. Astoria, my neighborhood, is just across the East River from Manhattan only three or four subway stops from Bloomingdale's, in fact. It's a quiet, workaday sort of place, with three-story apartment buildings and small houses in two styles: square boxes covered in aluminum siding and brick "Tudor" houses with steeply pitched slate roofs. My own house is one of the square boxes, with gray siding and a narrow walkway on either side. With outspread arms, you can easily touch my house and the one next to it. There's very little about the house, or the area, that would entice a chicken. Even humans find it hard to get excited about Queens, New York's least charismatic borough. Except for Staten Island. Thank God for Staten Island.
Anyway, nothing much happens in Astoria. People go to work, then come home. They wash their cars, leave Christmas and Halloween decorations up for months on end, and spend far too much time looking for parking. Nancy, my wife, once dropped her wallet on the sidewalk. Someone returned it. When she looked inside, the money was still there. The only really shocking event that I can recall in my twenty years in Astoria is the day a deranged cabdriver walked into his bank, withdrew thirty thousand dollars in savings, and threw the bills up in the air on the sidewalk outside.
It's not quite fair to say that the neighborhood is a blank. Astoria has a history of sorts, starting with its name. Like most of Queens, it simply dozed for the two centuries after the Dutch sailed into New York Harbor. Then in 1839 a fur merchant named Stephen A. Halsey saw opportunity. Hoping to flatter John Jacob Astor, king of all fur traders, and entice him into a partnership, he asked the state legislature to change the area's name from Dutch Kills to Astoria. There's no evidence that Astor paid any attention, but wealthy New Yorkers noticed that bucolic Astoria, with its gently rolling hills, offered fine views of the East River and plenty of fresh air. They began building mansions near the water.
Look at the map, and you'll see that Queens is on Long Island. The opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and an elevated subway in 1917 touched off a half century land rush that turned that island's pristine woodlands, wetlands, and potato farms into a continuous, densely populated suburb of Manhattan. Astoria was the first stop along the way.
Copyright (c) 2002 William Grimes