y neighbor Kamijo Ryotaro grew his own food, made his own clothes, and even served as midwife when his wife gave birth in their old wooden courtyard home in Dali, Yunnan Province.
My in-laws in Shenyang heard about him through the grapevine, and asked if we knew him. Apparently if someone else lives in a beautiful old courtyard, it’s charming – not so much if it’s your own daughter.
The lease on his home was up, and his landlord had plans to tear it down and put up a three-story concrete building.
Ryo decided to leave Dali, so I bought his free range chickens, wanting to have fresh eggs for my family every day.
Another neighbor, Xiyue, agreed to take care of the chickens on her nearby organic farm. We would split the eggs.
I went to pick up the chickens on the day Ryo was moving out. He was quite busy so my wife and I went out back to catch them.
Chickens don’t fly very well, but they are quite quick on their feet.
Ryo caught one for us, and tied it up by its legs and left it hanging from a rafter. This seemed quite harsh to me, so out of kindness I decided to put them in a sack.
Chickens are actually very beautiful birds. Most chickens in our village are brown or black. But Ryo’s were each a different type of local heirloom heritage bird, with distinctly different coloring.
Although my wife’s dad has a farm, she wasn’t much help catching the birds, because most of her life she was studying, or working as an investment banker. We would corner them, but if the birds tried to escape in her direction, she would make a cute little-girl squealing noise and let them pass.
The birds were quite frightened, and actually injured themselves trying to escape from me. Once I grabbed them, however, they went limp, and did not try to fight back, which I am grateful for, because they have pretty strong beaks.
The first chicken I tried to catch, a distinctive red and white bird, made it to the gate, which we had forgotten to close, and half jumped and half flew over Ryo’s courtyard wall to freedom. Ryo said it would come back.
The rest of the chickens I caught and gave to my wife, who tied their legs and put them in the bag.
When it was time to go, one of the birds had died of heat exhaustion, because out of supposed kindness I had decided to put them in a sack instead of hanging them upside down. My chicken farming career was not starting well.
The chickens had a brand new, shady coop at their new home, and about a week later, Xiyue brought over two eggs. Those were the last eggs we ever got.
The hens would not lay eggs. I don’t know why, and neither did Xiyue. We waited for six months, and they still wouldn’t lay eggs. Xiyue figured they were too old.
So we killed the first bird, planning to eat it a week later.
For us Westerners, a two-year-old chicken is too tough to eat. There is one dish, Coq au Vin, that is designed for a leathery old hen. It requires keeping the dead chicken in the refrigerator for a week to soften it up, and then slowly steaming it in wine and spices.
To my surprise, when I got home that evening, there was chicken for dinner. Our cleaning lady, from the local Bai ethnic group, was indignant when she found out I planned to leave the chicken for a week, saying this would ruin a perfectly good bird.
She insisted on cooking it in the pressure cooker, twice, and made a local stew.
It was delicious. Probably not as good as my Coq au Vin would have been, but close.
We will be having twice-pressure cooked fresh chicken every few weeks over the winter. Considering the cost of buying the hens, feeding them, and building the coop, these are some of the most expensive birds I’ll ever eat. They did have a good life, however, with natural food every day and space to walk around.
The other day I was walking my dog up the mountain near my house. At a shrine, the dog growled and lunged, almost pulling me over. Suddenly I saw in front of me a red and white blur streak by.
I smiled. It was the chicken that escaped from me. After all this time, it was still happy, healthy, and truly free range.