The Trouble with Roosters

Eighty years after the plumed poultry patriarchs became all but obsolete, one farmer considers their place in his own flock’s pecking order.

Photo credit: Erin Gleeson

Photo credit: Erin Gleeson

Chanticleer. Who needs him?
He is an earsore, a sexist, an unrepentant polygamist. His “ladies first” gallantry is medieval. He doesn’t lay eggs and refuses to get along with his brothers, so that pasturing him, like you would cattle, is not a profitable option unless you’re grooming him for the fighting ring.

His flesh is tough and stringy anyhow.

Adapt that crack-of-dawn crow to the tardier habits of the nine-to-five set? Never. In an age of increasing specialization, the rooster’s area of specialty is “unacceptable behavior.”

His fate took a nosedive 80 years ago when farmers divided chickens into flocks of egg layers, bred for high orb output, and flocks of meat birds, bred for breast meat. The modern egg house holds tens of thousands of cramped hens—but not a single rooster. (A hen will lay her daily egg whether or not there’s a male to fertilize it.) In the equally overcrowded meat bird operation, the eightweek- to-harvest Cornish Cross breed is the quintessential couch potato, a preadolescent gorger who reaches dispatch weight before the male of the species can even think about strutting his stuff.

And yet the rooster still rules the barnyard of the imagination, the farm depicted on the egg carton, where layers, meat birds and breeders share the same pasture, where the hens are happier to have a mate, where the yeoman whose fingers get pecked when he reaches beneath his hen for an egg must also dream up a recipe to answer the question: What to do with a rooster who no longer breeds? A rooster who cannot get along? What to do with a rooster, period?

Virtually every recipe for coq au vin, even Julia Child’s, substitutes poule for coq.

I am primarily a vegetable farmer, but I like to think of myself as diversified. So there are three roosters in my henhouse, which may be one or two (or even three) too many. Chatterbox is the largest, white with brown-flecked wings. Contrary to popular belief, Chatterbox likes to remind me, roosters do not crow only at daybreak. When he is about to let loose, Chatterbox will flap his wings and then stand up tall and purposefully arch his neck, muscles flexing comb-to-spurs, interior wind valves aligning majestically, as if he had perfected the art of making sound at some prestigious conservatory.

Gus looks like Chatterbox’s twin, a tad trimmer and with perpetually mussed up tail feathers, a bent middle talon on his left foot. Gus’s cock-a-doodle-do has a higher pitch, a quavery, whistling quality that lingers on the air, a second-rate tenor to Chatterbox’s impetuous baritone.

Spaz is smallest, painted in bald eagle tones—black, white and gray—with patches of mallard blue-green that shimmer in sunlight. Spaz relies on his wit to survive among hens who have pecked away his tailfeathers, leaving him lopsided in appearance. His crow is comically garbled—ARK, CROARK, CRARK—as if his craw were full of saltines. When Spaz tries to mount a hen, Chatterbox swoops down like Zeus descending from the clouds to restore world order. A single peck sends the little guy scampering, unfulfilled. With a filched gray feather lodged in his beak, Chatterbox will stand there, upright and contemptuous, until one of his hens plucks the feather from his kisser, removing it from sight. Twenty-two hens and he cannot share a single one.

“The alpha male,” rues Melissa, who has just served me a memorable five-course meal at a 200-year-old inn. “Women always fall for him. I say Chatterbox goes into the pot.” I am at Bolete, the restaurant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a few exits east of my farm. Spry mustardy just-picked greens, pork chops smoked in the kitchen and served over pudding-soft grits. It is a sign of the times that a farmer wishing to babble about his henhouse can find a sympathetic ear at the finest restaurant in town. Well past midnight and we’ve been talking roosters since before the other customers left. Chef Lee Chizmar sits at the bar drinking a tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Lee’s business partner and fiancée, Erin Shea, gets this conversation rolling when she confides her plans to visit the restaurant’s pastured poultry supplier, Happy Farms, so she can personally slaughter a chicken before eating it.

“I need to know where my meat comes from,” Erin tells me. The obligatory rite of passage for the new ethical eater. I would venture to guess that the restaurant of the future will offer the sophisticated diner the option, for a nominal fee (a therapeutic surcharge, we’ll call it) of slipping into the kitchen and cleanly, humanely, dispatching the bird before eating it.

“Before you slaughter the hen,” I say, “you have to get to know her first, spend a week with her.” And the story of my roosters pours forth, including how Gus and Chatterbox had battled bloodily a day earlier, breaking five months of tenuous peace. In a gesture of surrender, Gus had crammed his battered head into a small nook beneath the henhouse but Chatterbox—spurs flying, beak pecking— would accept no terms. I had to push him away again and again. Right there, on the spot, I wanted to put Chatterbox in the pot. Finally, I whacked him on the neck with a board. Bewildered, he cocked his head and fixed one eye on me. I’m a rooster. What did you expect? I separated Gus from the flock for an afternoon “timeout.” When I returned him that evening he was promptly banished to a high plank inside the henhouse, where he took to pacing back and forth while the hens preened and fretted over el macho. Again I intervened, placing a small bowl of feed on Gus’s plank.

A house divided cannot stand. My first instinct had been Melissa’s: The aggressor gets the hatchet. Bully. Loudmouth. Callous beast. Chatterbox had even charged my 11-year-old daughter when she was collecting eggs.

“Keep Chatterbox,” interjects Lee. “He runs the house. Get rid of him and your hens will lay fewer eggs.” It is worth noting that the chef was a boxer in college, but he has a point about my prize rooster. Chatterbox was only protecting his progeny when he pecked my daughter. My knight in white armor would stand in the way of a Mack truck if he thought he could save a single hen by doing so. In a true democracy, one which accounted for the preferences of all who live in my henhouse, the vote would be 23 to two in favor of putting Gus in the pot. How can I represent my layers as “happy hens” if I remove the one who makes them happiest?

In this, my first attempt at animal husbandry, I had planned a bloodless egg operation, one which fulfills every ethical obligation. More than enough pasture to serve up all the grasses and bugs and worms my birds could snatch with unclipped beaks. A diet that would make any Brooklynite jealous, harvested from the surrounding hills: cracked corn, Sangria watermelons, Brandywine tomatoes, Aji Limon peppers, fresh snow. Because I didn’t clip their wings, I get to spend hours chasing them down, trying to get them back into the fenced-in pasture where our resident fox cannot catch them.

They have rewarded me with bright-orange omega 3–rich yolks of the kind every urban homesteader from here to Anchorage boasts about. By that “invisible hand” of the ethical marketplace, the Michael Pollan factor I like to call it, food that is better for my health—grassfed beef, locally grown peas, the rooster I kill by my own hands—is invariably more flavorful, and better for my soul.

It is more expensive, too, but the invisible hand assures me that this cost will be offset by a decrease in doctor bills, and perhaps even earn me a shot at nirvana.

But making the virtuous choice is so much easier from a distance. When, say, I spring for that organic, fair-traded, birdfriendly cup o’ Joe. For the decision before me, I needed to steel myself up like Mrs. Mooney, the butcher’s daughter in James Joyce’s story “The Boarding House,” who “dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat.”

Chatterbox or Gus? “What I really ought to do,” I dissemble, “is get rid of the two fighters, leave Spaz in charge of the henhouse. Start a revolution. Revenge of the nerd.” Poor Spaz. Hopping around half mad, a court jester of sorts. The hens will never pay him any mind so long as Chatterbox is around.

No, I am not as comfortable with the cleaver as Mrs. Mooney.

Mike, who helps run Lee’s kitchen, can see that. “Your first mistake,” Mike says, “was naming them.”

Actually, that was my fourth or fifth mistake. The first was when I turned a partially blind eye to the number of roosters I was taking on when I collected my two-month-old poults and cockerels from the neighbor who had hatched them. The majority of roosters are typically culled out as chicks and ground up into pet food. The luckier ones get castrated and fast-tracked for the capon trade. For me to raise only hens seemed an act of blissful ignorance on a par with preferring to eat only birds who have been sliced into boneless rectangles that bear no resemblance to the original beast. If I ended up with a few roosters too many, I had told myself, maybe I would need to come up with recipes when the time was right.

After the fight in the pasture, I had called around for some worldly options. “If you bring me a rooster,” chef Floyd Cardoz had told me when he was still at the Tabla stoves, “I will make Xacutti.” Pronounced Sha-kooti, it’s a classic dish from the state of Goa, in southwest India. “You chop the rooster up,” Floyd explained, “and braise it in a chile- and coconut-infused masala. The rooster takes longer to braise than a chicken but the flavor is superior. Only promise me you won’t bring me a live one.”

One of the things I love about Floyd is how food stories from India bubble up in his memory. He went on to tell me about when he worked in the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, and the hotel’s owner not only preferred rooster to hen meat but requested that the bird be shown live to her beforehand so she could be assured of his freshness. “No, I didn’t personally slit the rooster’s throat,” Floyd told me. “But what a scene that rooster made in the kitchen. You will butcher him beforehand, right?”

Oh, Mrs. Mooney, where are you when I need you?

“Of course rooster is tastier than chicken,” said Alex Raij, whose restaurant, Txikito, is a temple to Basque cuisine. “I learned about this at the Culinary Institute. A rooster’s muscles have had far more exercise than a younger bird, so they have more myoglobin, which are molecules for storing oxygen in their muscles. Myoglobin makes the meat darker, richer, gamier. It makes incredible stock. In Spain, they make a double-strength broth with sherry, caldito de jerez. Bring the rooster in and I’ll braise the meat in Manzanilla sherry. Gallo de corral en pepitoria—a Spanish version of coq au vin. We’ll use your egg yolks to make picada, an Arabinfluenced gravy that sops up the pan juices with almond flour and breadcrumbs. We’ll even confit the comb. You’ve never had my cresto de gallo, have you?”

Using every part of the rooster, like Alex suggested, the way Native Americans used the whole bison, would bode well for my karma. But since Gus’s cresto de gallo had been roughed up by Chatterbox, I wondered if it was still fit to confit.

“Cacciatore,” recommended chef Dave Pasternack at Esca. “You can substitute rooster for chicken. You braise the tough meat longer. The acid of the wine helps break down the protein. The meat falls off the bone smooth as silk. It is worth the wait to get that rooster flavor. People are getting too lazy in the kitchen. That’s why everything is chicken anymore.”

When you consider that cacciatore means “cooked in the hunter style,” going with rooster instead of chicken made more sense, since a woodsman should prefer that myoglobin-rich gamey flavor.

Still, I am left with the question: Gus or Chatterbox? Circumstances seem to be tipping Gus into the pot. Even Peter Singer—the Princeton bioethics professor and a famous vegetarian—would support cooking Gus, given the bird’s ongoing injuries and banishment.  We’ll call it euthanasia, not slaughter.

“Poor Gus,” says Erin finally. “Why don’t you bring him here?

I’ll take care of him. We have great kitchen scraps.”

“Maybe I can bring him a hen,” I offer, “so he can have company.”

“I know just the place where we can keep him.” So much for the resolve of two conscientious carnivores. Definitely, I should not have named them.

The next morning, with Erin’s offer weighing on my conscience as an option, I let the hens and roosters out onto the pasture and give them grain, fresh water and a half-bushel of overgrown arugula, spinach and lacinato kale. Gus stays inside the henhouse, pacing on his plank. But when I check back a few hours later, I notice a small but significant shift in allegiance has come over the flock. Spaz and one of the lighter leghorn hens, Latte, have flown out of the fenced area and into the back of my pickup truck, where they are pecking at the stash of spinach I’d reserved for my own dinner. Gus stands at the entry to the henhouse, a frond of kale in his beak. Two intrigued hens, Nassau and Spazette, rally to Gus’s side and begin pecking and pulling at his frond. In full view of Chatterbox, Gus is flirting. His bossed eye and damaged cresto de gallo are on the mend. Lovesickness is now the primary cause of his suffering. If it is true that women always fall for the alpha male, experience enables them to see when the Chatterboxes of the world have had their day and a Gus or Spaz might not be such a bad choice.

Chatterbox has cocked an eye several times in the direction of his flirtatious rival at the top of the henhouse ramp. But he is putting up with it. His dominion-ruling talents must take into account the wisdom of his free-ranging subjects. He has lost some ground, even if the better part of the harem still flutters obsequiously near as he oversees the feeding trough.

Then his neck bristles as he flaps his wings, flexes his muscles and sticks that cock-a-doodle-do the way Greg Louganis could stick a two and a half gainer with a full twist.

I’d still like to try rooster, but would prefer someone else’s for now.

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At the height of the growing season, Tim Stark can be found either picking tomatoes, hawking tomatoes, eating tomatoes, juggling tomatoes or sleeping in the back of his truck at the Union Square Greenmarket. His book, Heirloom: Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer, recently came out in paperback.