I'm in Prague, bundled up in an oversized, second-hand coat and comrade hat. I put on the whole outfit and suddenly I'm aging into my babushka personality. I feel like it gives me an excuse to be cranky and just shuffle from place to place with a plastic bag full of feathered chickens and a loaf of bread. No one ever questions the situation if a babushka is in the kitchen at 9am, hacking at a chicken while sipping on vodka. But when I try to find a live chicken to sacrifice for lunch, everyone is like, awwww, silly American girl. Here's a stack full of worthless Eastern European money and directions to the nearest KFC.
This is exactly what happened in Cambodia. Without the KFC. And instead of vodka it was local rice wine. I was in the tiny village of Poom Prey, home to about 1000 people. This is the sort of place where tourists never go, and the sort of place where locals can go their entire lives without ever seeing a white person. Not only is it four hours away from Phnom Penh, but it's a highly contested area of the country. It's right near the border of Vietnam, so it's been a volatile stretch of land ever since Vietnam invaded Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. These days, Cambodia wants to sell it to Vietnam, basically just for shits and a little money. Everyone who lives in village thinks that in the near future, the area will turn into a war zone that no one will ever hear about or care about.
I'd been in Poom Prey for three days and had gotten used to the ritual of waking up in the morning, weary from listening to the dogs barking all night, and coming back to life with a breakfast of duck eggs and beer over ice, all while listening to the unst-unst-unst techno music blaring from the neighbor's 30 year old speaker system. We sat there for hours, just sipping on beer and swatting mosquitos, attempting to communicate with the local visitors who stopped by to welcome us (or gawk, the motivation was unclear) and have a few breakfast beers. Eventually, a neighbor came by, swinging a live chicken by the feet. I'd spent the last few days paying close attention to the culinary practices of the family I was staying with and helped out when I could. Chopping vegetables distracted me from the fact that I was balls hot and filthy. It also stopped the visitors from pouring me more shots of rice wine at 11am.
When the chicken showed up, I was ready to do whatever I had to do to get that bird on the table. As a chef, I've killed plenty of creatures (mostly sea creatures), but I've always said that I would never eat an animal unless I was prepared to kill it and cook it myself. Though I've spent some time in meat processing factories, gutted live cod in Iceland, and helped kill a goat in Malawi that ultimately fed 30 orphans, I'd never aided a chicken into the afterlife. The time had come.
To be clear, I didn't want to kill the chicken because I harbor dark thoughts about playing God and getting blood on my hands. Rather, I saw this chicken as a sort of symbol of all the times I'd gone to the grocery store, grabbed a shrink wrapped chicken breast, and cooked it without ever remembering that it was once a breathing, living thing. This Cambodian bird, this scrawny, hormone-free skelechicken, had the unfortunate task of becoming an unwanted martyr for all my devoured Western chickens. I was ready to take it in my hands, thank it for giving its life to keep our life going, and send it to the big blue tunnel quickly, and in peace.
I asked to be shown how to properly slit its throat, explaining that I was a chef in the United States. Everyone put down their beer and stared at me. The chicken squawked and tried to wiggle out of it's stronghold. We all just sort of stood there and looked at each other, with the unst-unst-unst bass blaring in the background. No one said a word for a few seconds, and then one of the local neighbors who had stopped by to say hello started laughing, stood up with a rusted cleaver, grabbed the chicken, slit its throat while nearly in hysterics. I'm pretty sure the fact that a white girl wanted to kill the chicken was the funniest god damned thing he'd ever heard.
As the blood pooled into the Cambodian dirt, I said a little prayer for the chicken anyway. It's true that once their head is off, they keep moving. What they don't tell you is that they keep twitching for quite a while. The headless chicken jerked for at least twenty minutes before someone wandered over and started feathering him. A few hours later, we all sat around the table, on little red plastic stools, and passed around a stew made with my new chicken friend. Bland but hearty, served against a pile of rice. A plate of life, and yet another beer on ice.