by Kate Heyhoe
"At this point in my life, I fear I've long passed being a 'spring chicken.' I'm not yet a 'tough old bird,' but unlike the days of my youth, I do prefer to go to bed with the chickens, and get up with the early birds. I open my day by checking email and getting my ducks in a row. Then, I begin my Internet research, hoping that Google won't lead me on a wild goose chase, foraging out some cock-and-bull articles that are more hogwash than fact. That sort of stuff really gets my goat!"
As you can see, I'm having a bit of fun here with animal idioms. We use these and similar phrases in daily speech, but oftentimes have no idea how such colorful jargon arose.
Take the "spring chicken" and "tough old bird" idioms for instance. Long before chickens graced our tables in abundance, the birds were valued primarily for their egg-laying abilities. As such, only certain birds were eaten for their flesh. Hens that lived past their egg-laying prime were not worth their feed, and hence became dinner. As egg producers, these birds were never fattened, so when cooked they yielded little flesh, and most of it was tough. Thus, the term "tough old bird" came about, now used to describe a woman of a certain age but who is by no means tender, dainty or fragile.
"Spring chickens," on the other hand, epitomize tenderness and freshness. According to eatethnic.com: "Chicken (in the 1920's) was a seasonal meat (produced from spring eggs, hence the term 'spring chicken') and it took 16 weeks to raise a chick to a two-pound fryer." In her Boston Cooking-School Cook Book of 1918, Fannie Farmer noted "Since incubators have been so much used for hatching chickens, small birds suitable for broiling may be always found in market. Chickens which appear in market during January weighing about one and one-half pounds are called spring chickens. Fowl is found in market throughout the year, but is at its best from March until June." Today's spring chicken may not be hatched in spring at all, but the term still applies to a young bird, from two to ten months old, with tender flesh. As slang, it means a young person.
What to do with a tough old bird or a spring chicken? The recipes below should inspire you to live high off the hog, and give you a whale of time in the kitchen. Of course, feel free to monkey-around with the ingredients, using whatever's on hand or fresh. These recipes work well with standard broilers and fryers commonly found in supermarkets, for unless you live near a chicken farm or have neighbors who raise chickens, true spring chickens and tough old birds are actually not easy to come by.
If you're a chicken fan, I've got great news: My book "A Chicken in Every Pot: Global Recipes for the World's Most Popular Bird" will be released in summer 2003. It contains 150 recipes from every corner of the globe, and some very original dishes as well. Stay tuned!
Kate's Global Kitchen for June 2002:
06/07/02 Spring Chickens and Tough Old Birds
06/14/02 Posh Mâche
06/21/02 Meaty Marinades for Beefy Dads
06/28/02 Yesterday's Pasta: Using Your Noodle
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created June 2002
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