In his presidential campaign of 1932 Herbert Hoover promised the American people a "chicken in every pot." How comforting, the thought of a kitchen filled with the aroma of a stewed chicken -- or rooster.
Yes, some, like John Charity, a North Carolinian who until recently worked at Arrow Poultry on 5th Street NW, prefer rooster -- "their broth is much richer," he explains. Charity pours pepper and seasoning salt into his spicy stick-to-the-ribs rooster and dumplings in the pot.
One of 25 brothers and sisters growing up on a farm in Winton, N.C., Charity learned to make rooster and dumplings from his mother, who is now 87. "I never asked my mother any questions, just watched. My recipe is spicier than hers and she cooks hers longer, but it's basically the same as she and her own mother made it."
The reason people don't buy roosters, insists Charity, is that they don't know how to cook them. He believes -- and several of Washington's French chefs agree -- that once you've eaten rooster, properly prepared, you'll never go back to eating chickens.
American chicken-in-the-pot is similar to a French fricassee. First the chicken is fried and then put in a pot or casserole to stew, or merely placed in a spot and stewed in water. Sprinkled with some spices and a little wine, it is usually mild, the kind of bland dish that makes soup with chicken so appealing to the invalid.
Americans have done quite well with their versions of chicken-in-the-pot considering the relatively short time they have had in which to develop a classic dish. After all, the Indians had only turkey -- the first chickens arrived on this continent at Jamestown in 1607. By 1700, chickens were so plentiful they were no longer recorded in the inventories of each family's property. Most chickens, including roosters and older fowl, were roasted on incasseed in rich brown gravy with wild herbs for festive occasions.
Early Americans would have found it difficult to add wine, however, to their chicken-in-the-pot. It was only in 1610 that the French Huguenots came to Virginia to oversee the planting of grapevines. Not until the late 17th century were imported wines and brandies within the price range of the middle class.
But chicken cooked with wine, the classic coq au vin, must have been a favorite of the Huguenots. Almost four centuries before Herbert Hoover promised Americans a chicken in every pot, Henri of Navarre made a similar promise to the French. In 1589, when he was crowned King Henri IV, he said, "If God grants me the usual length of life, I hope to make France so prosperous that every peasant will have a chicken in his pot on Sunday."
The classic example of French chicken in the pot is a braised coq -- cock, or euphemistically, rooster -- combined with red wine, glazed onions, mushrooms and salt pork. It is the favorite of the Marquis Christian d'Ozenay of Burgundy, who, like most of his compatriots, has a strong opinion about food.
"First you slaughter an old rooster, one who has rendered his service to the Republic," he explains. "Then you marinate it overnight in a bottle of red strong wine to tenderize it. he recommends adding clove, pepper, bay leaf, thyme and carrots to the marinade. The next day the bird should be fried in olive oil and bacon with onions and mushrooms. After flambeing it with cognac -- the best way to remove the grease, he says -- it should be simmered covered for six hours. just before serving, the sauce is thickened with the blood reserved from slaughtering to make a rich dark gravy so essential to a good coq au vin.
"Today," mours the Marquis, "you can only get a good coq au vin on a farm. Young chickens cooked too long become dry but if you don't cook the meat long enough the sauce becomes too weak. Only a rooster will do. Louis XVI has gone, de Gaulle has gone, but," he adds, raising the toast, "let coq au vin always remain!"
Although coq au vin probably originated in either Auvergne or Burgundy, improbable legend has it that it was Julius Caesar who served it for the first time, using an old rooster the Gauls had sent into the Roman camp bearing a sign that read, "Bon Appetit." Caesar invited the Gallic generals for dinner and served them the same rooster, which had been marinated in wide and braised in the manner now considered classic French.
That the legend as well as the dish coq au vin endured may have been because, as the Marquis d'Ozenay says, "Only a rooster will do." Or because, as John Charity maintains, "rooster is better eatin' than regular chicken."
CLASSIC COQ AU VIN (Serves 8 to 10) 2 medium fryers, cut into 8 pieces, or one large rooster 1 quart red dry wine 4 slices bacon, chopped into small pieces 7 tablespoons butter 2 dozen (at least) small white onions, peeled 1 clove garlic, chopped fine 2 cups fresh sliced mushrooms (morels would be best) 1 bay leaf 1 teaspoon ground thyme 2 tablespoons fresh parsley 1/4 cup brandy Liver and blood of the chicken (optional) 4 pieces French bread 2 tablespoons flour
The night before serving, place the chicken pieces in the wine to marinate. The next day, remove chicken from the wine, dry and saute in a mixture of rendered bacon fat (with pieces removed to be returned later) and 3 tablespoons of the butter. Then quickly saute the onions and garlic and then the mushrooms in the same fat.
Degrease slightly and return chicken to the heavy pan. Salt and pepper, then add the bay leaf, thyme and parsley to the pan. Heat up, cover and simmer a few minutes. Pour the brandy over all and flambe.
Add the wine to the pan, bring to a boil, cover and simmer over a low flame 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the chicken, until tender. If using a rooster, cook much longer, up to six hours.
If the sauce is not reduced enough when the chicken is done, it can be reduced further and thickened in one of two ways. The original way is to add the blood from the chicken with the liver and 2 tablespoons of the brandy just before serving.
Or you can add a beurre maniere of 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons of butter.
Serve with parsleyed potatoes or peas, and french bread cut in rounds and sauteed in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
Hard cider is a sweeter (and historically American) alternative to wine. Do not marinate the bird all night in the cider, but otherwise proceed as above, substituting cider for wine.
JOHN CHARITY'S CHICKEN (ROOSTER) AND DUMPLINGS (Serves 8 to 10) One 8 1/2-pound rooster or two 4-pound fryers, cut in eights Salt Seasoning salt Water Black pepper 1 large (1 pound) yellow onion, sliced in 1/4-inch rounds 1 carrot, peeled and diced 1 large potato, peeled and diced 2 teaspoons tenderizer (optional)
Wash the rooster thoroughly in warm water. Mix 1 tablespoon of salt with water and wash the rooster again. (Charity says this prevents the rooster from having a bloody taste.) Wash a third time in warm water.
Fill the spot of an 8-quart steamer with 2 quarts of warm water. Place the chicken pieces in the inner basket, put basket in the pot so the fowl is submerged, cover and boil on high heat for a half-hour.
After 30 minutes lift the chicken from the broth and coat the pieces with 1 teaspoon seasoning salt and 2 teaspoons of black pepper. This is a good time to degrease if needed. Return the chicken to the broth and stir. Add sliced onion and carrots to the basket, cover and boil rapidly 20 minutes. Lower heat and simmer 90 minutes more, occasionally adding water if needed. Add potatoes of cooking. Remove the rooster to a large plate and the steamer with vegetables to a bowl. Your cooking time will be considerably less for a chicken, perhaps 50 minutes in all for a fryer. Adjust accordingly.
Alternatively, after the rooster has cooked the initial 50 minutes, remove the meat to a large plate, keeping the vegetables in the basket.
Sprinkle with tenderizer and pour a cup of broth over meat. Set aside. Add 2 cups water to the broth, add the potatoes, stir and simmer, covered, 15 minutes more.
Place 2 tablespoons of the melted butter from the dumplings (see below) in the broth. Then remove the meat from the neck and place the bits in any remaining butter in the saucepan. Heat briefly and add all to the broth. Taste broth. If needed add more seasoning salt, pepper and salt. (Charity, who likes a spicy chicken and dumplings, adds 1/2 teaspoon seasoning salt, 3/4 teaspoon pepper and 2 more teaspoons salt.)
DUMPLINGS 4 cups self-rising flour 1 cup water 1 egg 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon seasoning salt 4 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
Combine the flour and the water. Add the egg and the two salts, mixing well after each addition.Add 1 tablespoon butter, and more flour if needed. Combine well until a soft dought is formed. Roll out the dought as thin as possible, about 1/8 inch thick.
Put the broth into a roaster or any large casserole dish. Determine the length of your dumplings by the size of the casserole. For example, if using a round casserole, cut into strips 2 inches by 6 inches, laying one layer of dupling dough and then crisscrossing like a latticed pie top.
Add another heaping teaspoon of seasoning salt over the top of the dumplings with a heaping teaspoon of pepper and salt sprinkled over the top. Using a spatula, press down so that the gravy covers the dumplings.
Cover, simmer for 5 minutes and press down again, adding 1 1/2 cups warm water. Cover and simmer 10 minutes more. Then add another 3/4 cup water. Cook 5 minutes or until the dumplings are done. Then, using a spatula, remove the dumplings to a separate plate.
Add the onions and the rooster meat to the roaster or casserole and cover with the dumplings. If the sauce is not thick enough, add a cup of warm water to 2 tablespoons of flour, combine well and add to sauce as needed. Cover and simmer, 5 to 10 minutes more as needed.
Serve with string beans or lima beans and coleslaw.