Pidyon Ha’Hen

I bought my first chickens more than 16 years ago, when we lived in Santa Monica.  We moved to Venice, I went chickenless for years, then about five years ago discovered the Omlet, a clean and cool way to coop them up, and started again.

Now Susan Orleans in The New Yorker has brought the Omlet and chicken raising to the level of sophistication and acceptance only an article in The New Yorker by Susan Orleans can confer.  That just may create an orgy of chicken buying that parallels the Great Beagle Run of the early 60s, when the Snoopy character in the Peanuts comic strip unleashed beagle-mania on America. That had to end badly, as a former beagle owner like myself would know.  (What’s the difference between a beagle and a terrorist?  You can negotiate with a terrorist.)

But… before you buy your chickens from a pet store, hatchery or farm supply store, consider the fourth option: rescue.

Pidyon ha’ben is Hebrew for “redemption of the first born,” an arcane Jewish ritual that involves a symbolic buying back of the first born son from Temple service.  A simple and obvious pun turns it into a redemption of hens from certain slaughter, the fate of many a bird in ethnic markets around big cities.

I get my chickens from John’s Feed Store, which is, in actuality,a Latino butcher shop in the all-Latino area south of downtown LA.  Chickens spend their lives in stacks of cages, awaiting the time when a customer will come in and order a pollo vivo. A worker will pull out a big healthy bird, hold its neck to a rotating razor blade, and bleed it, gut it, and defeather it while you wait. None of this is hidden—you pick your bird, then watch it killed in a window area as if you’re watching a candy maker on the boardwalk.

The idea is that fresh birds taste better.  I wouldn’t know. I’ve never bought a dead bird from one of these places, but I do buy my live birds there.  I ask for a pollo vivo, and then I quickly specify “no muerte”—not dead.  They’ll give you a hen unless you specify a rooster—roosters cost more, because they’re considered to be part supper, part Viagra.  Again, I wouldn’t know. 

The helper always gives me a funny look—I think she thinks I want to bring it home and kill it myself.  She calls to a worker, who stuffs my bird into a filthy cardboard box, and I pay my 6 bucks and take it home.

Since these are mature hens, I end up with eggs within weeks, not the months it takes if you buy chicks or young birds.  And every time I look at the birds, I get the satisfaction of telling them how I saved their lives, how they don’t know how lucky they are. And is there any more pure religious feeling than feeling supremely self-righteous?  I don’t think so.  Even better, mine is a good deed that gives back in fresh eggs. 

If you live in the LA area, you can find a rescue bird from John’s, or from one of the several places in Chinatown that sell live hens.  In San Francisco, Boston and New York’s Chinatown, you’ll also find live bird sellers.

Next week: my rescue goat.

Click here to find Johns.