All I want them in is one time to buy my fresh-killed chickens," says Anthony Pisciotta. "Then I know they're hooked, because there is nothing like the taste."
We stand in the big open space, like a very clean two-car garage lined with chicken cages, that is Arrow Liver Poultry (915 5th St. NW, ME 8-8792). Around our feet strut a couple of small black bantam roosters, sort of temporary pets who have been given the run of the place.
Mr. Pisciotta's chickens do taste different. They have firmer flesh, more flavor, less watery waste - and they're much healthier. Even at their best, commercially killed chickens have been soaked in a cold-water bath after plucking, so that they absorb up to 20 per cent of their body weight in water, and incidentally pass around any infection that any one of them might have. Julia Child, in her latest cookbook, says that she rinses the body cavity of all her chickens with boiling water before cooking them. Other cookbooks insist that if you ever cut up a chicken yourself, you should very carefully wash the knife and the cutting board before it is used for anything else.
At their worst, supermarket chickens have been gorged with concentrated feed so that they grow - or swell - to fryer size in a few weeks. They have been frozen, then partially thawed and put in the meat bin, then refrozen, then put out for sale again - a process instinct for the right word, call "slushing up." And they come shrink wrapped in neat little cardboard trays, with a puddle of blood (or bloody icewater) in the bottom.
Arrow chickens come live - one of the workmen pulls them squalling out of the cages (you can select your own if you want) and sets them on the scale, where they usually quiet down. Then each one goes back to the killing room where someone cuts its throat on a spotless stainless steel table, drops it in a stainless steel bin so it won't break a wing in all the post-mortem flutters and twitches, then runs it through a machine with hundreds of long rubber fingers that picks it clean in less than a minute. It is not necessary to watch all this - but it's probably good for you if you do.
"You take some farms," says Mr. Pisciotta. "All they're interested in is turnover - every nine weeks, like clockwork, they're shipping those birds out of there. Keep them in coops where they can't move, keep the lights turned on 24 hours a day so the chicken can't sleep - all they can do is eat. I get my birds from Lancaster, where I have Amish farmers under contract. Very conscientious farmers, you know. So they keep the birds for me.
"A broiler-fryer is three, four months old. A roaster is a year old. That's what you want for roasting - a hen just old enough so she's about to lay her first egg. She has all the flavor, but the tenderness is still there. In most of these markets all they're doing is picking out the biggest fryers and selling them for roasters."
Fresh-killed poultry is not the cheapest kind. At arrow, fryers are 66 cents a pound, roasters 78 cents. Since you pay for feathers, head and feet, figure that that adds another 6 or 7 cents a pound. But you can get the feet if you want - and you should, they are a very good addition to any stockpot or soup. And you get no excess icewater.
During the week, business slows down a little - Saturdays you may have to wait a few minutes in a crowd that includes many Orientals (95 per cent of the Chinese restaurants in D.C. get their chicken from Arrow), Moslems who kill the chickens themselves - reciting a prayer, says Mr. Pisciotta - and a lot of embassy people who have discovered that this chicken tastes like chicken overseas.
"My business is growing by leaps and bounds," says Mr. Pisciotta, who has been running it for 41 years."Used to be 25 fresh killers in D.C. Now we're the only one. All the rest have gone into freezing and coldpacking, who knows what all. We do get a lot of embassy people, but our business is at least half plain local people. Anybody who tastes this chicken knows it's better. All I want them in is one time . . ."