Transcript

343:

Poultry Slam 2007
Transcript

Originally aired 11.23.2007

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/343

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's certain conversations that those of us who do not live on farms get into with people who do live on farms, where you know, as somebody from the city or the suburbs, that the farm person that you're talking to is just thinking, you are so naive. Often these conversations have to do with animals and their deaths. Take this example. The woman who started our program's website, Elizabeth Meister, was at the annual exhibition run by the American Poultry Association in Columbus, Ohio. And here she is, standing in a room with 12,000 chickens. And she gets into a conversation with an 11-year-old girl.

Kamiko Overs

I've only been in poultry and water fowl for a year. I'm more into water fowl.

Ira Glass

This is Kamiko Overs from Bliss, New York, who was at the convention to show some of her chickens.

Elizabeth Meister

So do your friends think it's weird? Do they think it's strange that you show chickens and stuff?

Kamiko Overs

No, because a lot of people show. They'll either be showing pigs or cows or rabbits, or something like that. A lot of people at our school show different things.

Ira Glass

Kamiko and Elizabeth talked for a while. And then Elizabeth tried very, very gently to ask a question that was on her mind.

Elizabeth Meister

This is sort of a hard question for me to ask, but do you ever eat them?

Kamiko Overs

Yeah, I do.

Elizabeth Meister

You do?

Kamiko Overs

Yeah.

Elizabeth Meister

And does it make your really sad? I mean, do you raise these chickens from little chicks?

Kamiko Overs

Yeah, we hatch them out. And then-- yep. We get them right from the hen, and we eat them a lot. We do raise a lot for feeding.

Elizabeth Meister

And so when you're cooking up this chicken that you've raised from being a little chick, do you feel a little bit guilty that you're eating this chicken?

Kamiko Overs

No.

Elizabeth Meister

Do you ever eat the chickens that you show?

Kamiko Overs

If they're no good for show. The losers, yeah.

Ira Glass

Kamiko's untroubled by this. If a bird has bad feathers or a lopsided comb, it might be a nice bird, but if it's not going to win competitions, you eat it. That's life. Those of us who don't live on farms, we tend to divide animals often into those we love and those we eat. In Kamiko's world, there isn't such a hard line separating the two. You can get to know a bird on an up close, one-to-one basis, and still eat it.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. And today, during this period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the highest poultry consumption time of the year in these United States, we bring you a program about poultry, our Poultry Slam, stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, birds of all kinds, and our relationships with them.

Poultry Slams have been a not-quite annual tradition on our show around this time of year. And putting together this year's program, a very few particular ideas and questions kept coming up in story after story, without us ever intending for it to happen that way. A lot of this year's show has turned into a kind of referendum about where you draw the line between friend and food.

Act one of today's show, Still Life With Chicken. Food writer Jonathan Gold tells what it's like to pan fry a chicken, with a live chicken watching you the entire time. Act two, Last Meal. When the President of France, Francois Mitterrand, knew he was about to die, he decided that the very last food to cross his lips would be poultry, a tiny bird that is actually illegal to eat in France, a bird that by tradition is eaten with a napkin covering your head. Act three, Chicken Diva. Jack Hitt tells the story of a chicken opera complete with, yes, avian supernumeraries. Act four, The Meaning of a Bird. David Rakoff explains how his life was changed in a single evening in a room full of 5,000 chickens. Stay with us.

Act One. Still Life With Chicken.

Ira Glass

Act One, Still Life With Chicken. It was an accident that Jonathan ended up living with a chicken. He wasn't living the kind of life one usually associates with chickens.

Jonathan Gold

This was during the period when I considered myself to be a performance artist of sorts, a naked performance artist to be specific.

Ira Glass

These days, Jonathan Gold is a food writer in Los Angeles. This all happened 15 years ago. He was putting together a performance. He had a PA system which could put out the requisite amount of annoying feedback sound at high decibels. He had the two full bottles of Glade American Beauty Air Freshener, which he would spray in their entirety in the performance space. And he had a live chicken, which he bought the day before the performance in one of those Chinese poultry markets in Los Angeles. And it comes the day of the show. An audience gathers in a darkened warehouse in West LA.

Jonathan Gold

I don't know if you've been to a lot of performance art, but this was really typical of the stuff that was going on in the period. And I showed up. And I was naked. And I was carrying a machete. And I was blindfolded. And I stood in the middle of this pile of supermarket chickens, the broilers that you buy. And the chicken that I had bought was tethered to a three-foot rope around me. And I hacked up and down blindly with the machete.

Ira Glass

Toward the chicken, or just in general?

Jonathan Gold

Well, I was blindfolded, so I didn't know if it was towards the chicken or not.

And I had fully intended that, in fact, I would kill the chicken in the midst of this performance. But chickens aren't that stupid. And this chicken wanted no part of the machete. It stayed at the end of its rope the entire time, apparently. And after 10 minutes, when I was completely exhausted, I fell to a heap. And everybody left. And the performance was over.

I don't know if you've stuck around after an art performance. But the few minutes after an art performance are some of the most depressing in the world.

Ira Glass

How so?

Jonathan Gold

You've done your wad. You've done your bit for art, which has either worked or it hasn't. But you're sitting there. You're covered with chicken effluvia, in my case. It stinks to high hell. Everybody's gone. And you've got to clean up. And you're naked. It's really not a pretty picture.

Ira Glass

So Jonathan cleaned up. And when he was done, he had a chicken. And he didn't feel like he could kill the chicken. Destiny had brought them together. He felt like he could not turn his back. He says it was the same as if a kitten shows up on your back door, scratching and lonely and needy. So he took the chicken home. And in doing that, he stumbled across that thin, thin line that separates food items on the one hand, from pets on the other, that divides the animals we eat from the animals we love.

Jonathan Gold

So I get home, and I have this chicken. And I don't know what to do with it. So I spread out some newspaper on the top of my refrigerator. And I put the chicken up there. I get a can of Green Giant brand niblets from under the counter. And I open it. And I put it in a little bowl for the chicken. And I give the chicken a little water. And the chicken's on top of my refrigerator.

Ira Glass

Because you think chickens eat corn. You had read that or something. And that was the available corn.

Jonathan Gold

That was the available corn. I wish I had thought better of the niblets idea.

Ira Glass

Why?

Jonathan Gold

Because, in fact, if you're buying three or four cans of niblets a day, which is what the chicken ate, and you're existing on almost nothing, which I was, then your niblet bill turns out to be some two-figure percentage of your total income each week. I mean, if you could imagine living on $50 a week, but $10 of it goes for niblets. It's just hard to justify an expense like that.

Though at the remove of 15 years, I think I can probably safely admit to you now that one of the reasons that I stuck with niblets is because I liked saying the word niblets so much. And this gave me the excuse to use a word like niblet in general conversation several times a day. Usually it just doesn't come up. And the chicken stayed there on top of my refrigerator for a long time. Months, six months, I think.

Ira Glass

This is like a one-room apartment?

Jonathan Gold

A two-room apartment. I had a kitchen and a bedroom. So I didn't have to look at the chicken when I was sleeping. Though I did have to look at it when I was cooking.

Ira Glass

Did you ever cook chicken?

Jonathan Gold

Of course I cooked chicken.

Ira Glass

Didn't you feel intensely disloyal?

Jonathan Gold

No. I felt no particular loyalty to this chicken. I don't know if you've ever had chickens, but you don't pet chickens. Chickens don't really like you to pet them. And you don't hold them. There's really no love that you feel for a chicken in your life, I don't think.

Ira Glass

But yet you kept the chicken.

Jonathan Gold

I kept the chicken. Because I couldn't bear to do anything else. I mean, it's not like I could have carried it out onto Pico Boulevard and said, "be free, little chicken, be free."

Ira Glass

Did you give the chicken a name?

Jonathan Gold

I never named the chicken. When I referred to the chicken in public, I always called it the hen.

Ira Glass

How did you not name it? It was a creature in your house.

Jonathan Gold

The chicken always seemed temporary. It never occurred to me that I might have the chicken as long as six months. The chicken always seemed like something that I would have for just a couple days.

Ira Glass

And then what did you think was going to happen?

Jonathan Gold

I guess A, I thought about the chicken expiring. B, I have to admit that there was a possibility that someday I would actually cook the chicken. I went through a lot of chicken recipes, hundreds and hundreds of chicken recipes.

Ira Glass

Thinking maybe this will be the recipe for my niblet-fed chicken?

Jonathan Gold

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Possibly, I have to say, the most delicious chicken that you could ever eat because of those niblets.

Jonathan Gold

You can't buy niblet-fed chicken, for love or money, I don't think. I'm not sure that a recipe existed that would have lived up to the fact of the chicken, this animal who you have come to know on fairly intimate terms and who you have raised and who you have put a certain amount of emotion into.

Ira Glass

A chicken, if I might say, who has seen you naked.

Jonathan Gold

The chicken did see me naked, damn it.

Ira Glass

The fact is we need food to be just food. And as soon as it becomes a living thing-- especially if we're city people, we're not used to the conversion of living things into our food-- it's hard to handle without thinking it has to be bigger than food, without wanting to make it ritualized or something bigger than food.

Jonathan Gold

Exactly. Can I tell you a small story?

Ira Glass

Yeah, of course.

Jonathan Gold

A few weeks ago, I was in this Korean restaurant in Koreatown in Los Angeles. It was this place called the Living Fish Center that I'd always wanted to go, because the name of it was so splendid. Living Fish Center. I imagined some sort of vast vivarium where Flipper was jumping through hoops and stuff. And I go in there, and of course it's just a crummy Korean restaurant. I mean, it's not that clean. And there are tanks and stuff, but I don't know what to order.

So I order a fish soup, because it looks like they have a small fish soup specialty on the menu. And it comes. And it's just really strong smelling and not that great. And I try squid, fried with bean sauce and onions, which wasn't that happening. And I'm about to give up and pay the check, and go home with a vast table filled with uneaten stuff, and it suddenly occurs to me what the specialty of the restaurant is.

And I wave the waitress over. And I tell her that I'd like a prawn. And she is puzzled. She didn't expect me to ask for a prawn. But I repeat my question. And she shrugs and goes and tells the sushi chef. And he goes to one side of the restaurant, and he climbs on this chair, this ordinary folding chair. And he reaches into this long tank that's running just below the ceiling.

And he wiggles his fingers in the water. When he wiggles the fingers, the prawns just become enraged. And they start nipping at his fingers. And they start attacking him. And he picks out a couple of the liveliest ones and brings them back to his counter, and-- without washing his hands, mind you-- just makes a few motions over it. And a couple seconds later, the waitress comes over with the prawns on this huge mound of ice.

Now, what he'd done is he'd taken off the exoskeleton. Essentially the head was intact, and that little part of the tail that is always on prawns is still there. But the middle part is naked, like a grub. And I picked up the prawn with my chopsticks. And it was not dead, this prawn. It was extremely alive. And it was wiggling its legs, and it was wiggling its antennas, and its eyes were swiveling madly on its eye stalk.

And it was looking back at me, seeing me as actually the predator, the creature that was going to eat it. And that was a really freakish moment. Because as much stuff as I eat, and as low as I eat on the food chain, and as many prawns as I have dispatched in my life, I have never before killed a living being with my teeth. And the prawn knew what I was going to do, and he did not like it.

And I wasn't quite sure what to do. But if I put it down, the prawn would have died anyway. It's not going to live without its shell, and somebody else would have eaten it, blah-blah-blah. So I bit into it. I bit its body off with my teeth. And the prawn just relaxed in this way that was really eerie.

And the taste of the prawn, the taste of the meat of it was extraordinary. I mean, it was sweet. It was like there was life coursing through it. It was the most alive thing I've ever eaten, obviously literally. But again, it was freaky. It was getting too close to the actual nature of consumption, which is killing a living creature with your teeth.

Ira Glass

When you bit into the prawn, did you actually bite off its head, its living head, and have its head and its eyes in your mouth?

Jonathan Gold

No, I bit off its body. And I held the head in my hands.

Ira Glass

So you held the head in one hand and the tail in the other and you bit the center?

Jonathan Gold

Right. And I thought that I'd killed it. But in fact, when I put it down, it still had so much life in it that it grabbed a piece of salmon sashimi and wouldn't let go of it. And I don't think I ever want to do that again.

Ira Glass

Did you feel like there was something about the experience that made it more-- this word is a little cornier than I intend, but it's the only word that I can think of-- that made it more sacred? That took it out of the mundaneness of the way that we eat, which for most of us is eating without actually tasting and experiencing, and thinking about what we're eating and what on the earth it is that we're killing to survive? Do you think in some way that it's more acceptable to eat an animal if you are more awake to the fact that it is an animal and what's happened to it? Or do you think it really doesn't matter?

Jonathan Gold

I think it matters a great deal. I mean, one of the greatest metaphors in Western civilization is that of Christ, who gave his life so that others might live. And I don't want to be sacrilegious, and I don't want to belittle that myth in any way, but a pig is giving its life so that we might eat. A chicken is giving its life so that we might eat.

And I think the least that we can do is to think about that chicken, to think about that calf that we're eating. Not necessarily to be sad for it, but to celebrate it, to be aware of the being that it was, that it wasn't just this bit of bio-engineered protein that somehow managed to find its way onto our plates.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Gold writes his food column Counter Intelligence for the LA Weekly.

Act Two. Last Meal.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Last Meal. Consider please, poultry consumers, the role of poultry in Francois Mitterrand's last meal. Mitterrand, you'll recall, was President of France who died at the beginning of 1996. A contradictory and enigmatic man. The French press used to call him the Sphinx. He once actually staged his own assassination to help himself in the polls. Obsessed with history and his place in it.

Michael Paterniti wrote about Mitterrand's last meal for the magazine Esquire. Mitterrand found out that he was dying of cancer. Our story begins just weeks before his death.

Michael Paterniti

Right before Christmas, Mitterrand went to Egypt to commune with the pharaohs. Even though he was extremely ill, he decided that he had to go there one last time.

Ira Glass

You said he went to Egypt to commune with the pharaohs?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Like, literally with the pharaohs?

Michael Paterniti

Well, he felt this spiritual connection to these leaders of the past. And he studied the lives, and in particular how many of these people died, what their last gestures were. And he felt that his last gesture would have to be equally fitting.

Ira Glass

Equally grand?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah. And while he was there, he decided that he was going to have this amazing last meal. What he did was call back to France and made sure that they had this menu that he decided would be it, which was this amazing feast of oyster and foie gras and capon, and finally this little songbird called ortolan, which symbolizes the French soul. And it was this completely forbidden thing to eat ortolan. It's illegal in France to do so.

Ira Glass

Because it's an endangered species, right?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah. And people who have served ortolan-- chefs have served it in France-- have been fined. And I think in one case, a chef was imprisoned for serving it.

Ira Glass

Did you look at all into why the ortolan would come to represent the soul of France?

Michael Paterniti

It was the food of kings in France. And once it was caught in these tiny traps, in very old times, they would actually poke the eyes of the bird out so the bird would live in complete darkness and just eat 24 hours a day. And then when it was fattened, they would drown it in a kind of cognac. And there was this ritual associated with the preparation of the bird, as well as with eating the bird. Actually in Proust and Fielding, ortolan appear. And they symbolize seduction and adultery and virginity.

Ira Glass

And one of the things about ortolan is that people eat it with a napkin over their head?

Michael Paterniti

Right. People put a large cloth napkin over their head. And apparently what the napkin does is it keeps the aroma inside this tent in which you're eating. And the French say that it also keeps God from seeing you eating the little birdie.

Ira Glass

Meaning what?

Michael Paterniti

Meaning that it's sinful, that the bird is so innocent--

Ira Glass

And the pleasure so great?

Michael Paterniti

--and the pleasure so great that it's a sin.

Ira Glass

And Mitterrand, when he had his last meal, he knew he was dying. And he continued to survive for quite a while after the last meal, right?

Michael Paterniti

He lived eight days. And he didn't eat or drink during those days.

Ira Glass

He had just decided he wanted the last food that he had eaten to be the ortolan?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah. That was what was most incredible to me, is that he had this huge dinner, and then consciously decided that that would be his last meal and then just readied himself for death.

Ira Glass

So you arranged to go to France to try to taste this bird and have this meal, in fact, to try to recreate Mitterrand's last meal?

Michael Paterniti

Right. And it started with 100 phone calls, just to try to locate somebody who would even entertain the notion. And after literally months, there was one chef in Bordeaux who said that he would cook the meal.

Ira Glass

And so you have this massive meal ending with the bird?

Michael Paterniti

Yes.

Ira Glass

And what do we know about when Mitterrand ate the bird?

Michael Paterniti

Well, we know that during the meal, he slipped in and out of consciousness in between the courses. And he would eat ravenously. And then he would just sort of pass out. And he sat at a table separate from the table where all his guests were seated. There were about 30 people there, extended family and friends. And Mitterrand would rise up with each new course and eat. But he really wasn't talking to many people. And he was really focused on trying to finish the meal and taste, apparently, every note in that meal.

Ira Glass

When you had your meal, do you feel like you were able to achieve that level of awareness where you were tasting every note of the meal? It seems like such a high standard to aspire to.

Michael Paterniti

I felt like it was the most incredible meal I've eaten. And it was because I was very focused on everything that went into my mouth. And also, because when it came to the ortolan, there's no easy way to eat ortolan. You are forced to taste every bite. And it goes from being completely sublime to being excruciating.

Ira Glass

Describe what it's like to eat the bird. We should say that the bird-- you describe it as the size of your thumb, smaller than your thumb.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah. Yeah, it is. It's about the size of your thumb. And it sits in a-- they serve it in a white cassoulet. And you put the napkin over your head and you duck down toward the cassoulet. And so you are in this space that is completely white-- the white napkin, the white plate, the white cassoulet. And then you have the bird on its back that you lift up and put into your mouth. You cool it by breathing in and out.

Ira Glass

And this is the entire bird, every part of it?

Michael Paterniti

Yes. In our case, the chef insisted that we bite off the head and leave the head on the plate. I think in Mitterrand's case, he ate the head too.

Ira Glass

OK. So you bite off the head, you leave the head on the plate.

Michael Paterniti

And then you cool it, and then you begin to chew. And that first bite is incredibly difficult to describe, because it's terrifying. I mean, I was terrified. I was nauseous with the idea of it. But the first bite of the bird changed that. It was incredibly, and almost immediately, delicious. And all these juices were flowing out of it into your mouth, and sort of mingling and co-mingling with everything that was already in your mouth. And it's like this very finely evolved consomme.

And then you begin to taste the meat. And they're little tender bits of meat. And then I think you begin to taste the organs. And it becomes more bitter. So the sweetness and the tenderness turns bitter.

Ira Glass

And then?

Michael Paterniti

And then, well, you keep chewing ortolan until you have chewed it completely. And then you're supposed to swallow it all at once. And there's no other way, really, to consume it. And as you continue to chew, it gets harder and harder, because you're working the bones finally. So the meat and the juices fade, and you suddenly are chewing these bones. And that is when you really, I think, fall into a bit of an existential crisis. Like, what the hell am I doing? And then also, I really think I'm going to throw up.

Ira Glass

And how am I going to swallow these bones?

Michael Paterniti

And how am I going to swallow them? I mean, many people who have never had ortolan before end up spitting it out on the plate. And in fact, at Mitterrand's last meal, a number of the people in the room did spit out their ortolan.

Ira Glass

That seems like incredibly bad form, though. You're spitting out the soul of France.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, you're incredibly gauche if you pull that stunt.

Ira Glass

Writer Mike Paterniti. He says after focusing so intensely on eating that one meal, where, like Mitterrand, he tried to taste every flavor, it felt weird to get back to normal eating. It felt a little dirty not to pay attention.

Michael Paterniti

Because it takes a lot of energy and concentration when you really taste a meal. It takes concentration and silence.

Ira Glass

The way you describe it, it's almost like you're saying that if we were really awake to what the world is giving us in a given meal, it would be hard to eat the meal every single time.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, I feel like we would age really quickly.

Ira Glass

But you're saying that we have to deaden ourselves in order to live.

Michael Paterniti

I think we do. I don't think we make enough time to eat. And if we haven't made enough time to eat, then it's better not to taste what we are eating. It's easier.

Ira Glass

Coming up, tiny Styrofoam balls singing in Italian. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Chicken Diva.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today, during this time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time of year when poultry consumption in this country is at its greatest, we bring you our Poultry Slam, stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, fowl of all kind, and our relationship with them. We have come to act three of our program. Act Three, Chicken Diva. Chickens are what we make of them so much of the time. And if you need any proof of that, we have this story from Jack Hitt.

Jack Hitt

Oddly enough, it wasn't Susan who was obsessed with chickens. It was Kenny, a pal who worked backstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York. His house was filled with chicken cups, chicken masks, porcelain chickens. He got the whole staff onto chickens, including Susan. For a time there in the '80s, poultry related jokes and references became the fast way to get a laugh at the Y. I guess most of us are condemned to see nothing more than the easy comedy of chickens.

But Susan Vitucci saw something else, their potential greatness, their hidden beauty, their grandeur. One day, she glued together some finger puppets for a 10-minute rendition of the Chicken Little story for her nephew. That was 14 years ago. Today, it is a full-length opera, enjoyed by a cult following whenever it goes up in a workshop or a cafe or a small theater. It's still performed with finger puppets, but now it has a complete score written by a noted composer, Henry Krieger, who did Dreamgirls. The Chicken Little opera he wrote with Susan Vitucci is called Love's Fowl. Needless to say, that's F-O-W-L.

Henry Krieger

Well, we were going to start with the opening-- "Siamo del teatro repetorio delle mollette," "we are the clothespin repertory theatre"-- and we have a special singing guest for you, which I don't know--

Jack Hitt

Susan and I are sitting at Henry's baby grand piano. Henry's guest is his Maltese terrier named Toby.

Henry Krieger

Perhaps Toby would be kind enough to join me up here--

Jack Hitt

Yeah, would he sit on your lap for this?

Henry Krieger

--at the piano. Yeah, let's see what we can do.

[PIANO PLAYING]

Jack Hitt

OK, listen carefully. Because once Toby gets going, he actually harmonizes with Henry and Susan.

[MUSIC - "SIAMO DEL TEATRO REPETORIO DELLE MOLLETTE"]

You may have noticed that this libretto is in Italian, just like a real opera.

Susan Vitucci

Before it was just a bunch of puppets in a box with a good idea. And then suddenly, as soon as it went into Italian, it became something bigger than what it had been. And it's because when it's in English, we all know it, and it's really not that interesting. It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah. As soon as it's in Italian, it gives us enough distance that we can come in. It's like the lover who doesn't want you-- you don't want anybody more than you want the one who doesn't want you. Right? And so then it's sort of the same thing.

Jack Hitt

You may recall that when you last heard of Little, back in kindergarten, she was just an average barn-door fowl who had an acorn drop on her head, which she mistakenly understood to be the sky falling. Her alarms excited her friends, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Ducky Lucky. And they join her for a journey to the king to tell him the important news.

On the way, they meet up with Sly Fox, Little's pals eagerly accept his invitation for dinner. Literally, as it turns out. Fortunately for Little, hunger is not enough to distract her from her mission and she treks on. When she meets the King, he tells her that the sky is not falling. It's just an acorn. So the enlightened Chicken Little returns to her coop. And that's where the story ends.

Like Goldilocks and so many children's fables, the actual meaning of the story is obscure. What are we to take away from Little's experience? I like to think it's that Little is rewarded with life, precisely because she went off on this quixotic mission, totally in the grip of a wrong idea. By clinging to that belief, however crazy, she managed to free herself from the ugly, Darwinian world of the barnyard and of its mandate, eat or be eaten.

The children's fable barely figures into the story. It's just one small episode in the life of Chicken Little, now known as La Pulcina Piccola. After the acorn incident, she goes on to become an internationally renowned figure in almost every field imaginable, a diva of politics, academe, theatre, art, derring-do. Like Venus, she arrives from some other world, transported on a scallop shell.

But the triumphs of her life begin after a youthful love affair with a fighting cock ends bitterly. And she consoles herself, as we all do at some point in our lives, by plunging into Shakespeare. She becomes an overnight sensation as an actress, celebrated all over the world for one role. Juliet? Cleopatra? Ophelia?

Susan Vitucci

The company then performs an excerpt, a recreation of her signature role, which is Richard III. Well, you know, Sarah Bernhardt did Hamlet.

Jack Hitt

Well, there's a great tradition of women playing the men's roles in Shakespeare. But I think Richard III is one of the more rare roles to be played by a woman.

Susan Vitucci

Well, that's how adventuresome an actress this chicken was.

Jack Hitt

I can assure you, there's nothing like watching a four-inch tall finger puppet crying out "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," in Italian. Not to mention that that puppet is a chicken surrounded by a whole supporting cast of poultry and other avian supernumeraries. Susan says that artistically, there's something special about chickens.

Susan Vitucci

They're a clean slate, in a way. You can put anything on them. You can project anything onto them. Because it's not like they have-- to me, at least-- a very strong personality.

Jack Hitt

Except for La Pulcina. In the opera, she moves into the field of archaeology-- masters it, needless to say-- and makes a great discovery, the last tomb of Gallapatra. But not before she sails the seven seas, is shipwrecked, gets rescued, but it's by pirates, and then she meets the pirate king.

Susan Vitucci

As soon as he meets her, he falls in love with her, because of her sweet spirit. Because she comes in, and she says, here you see a little chicken who, although I'm dripping wet, I'm proud and yellow.

Jack Hitt

Let me repeat that lyric for you in a pure translation. "Although I stand before you, a chicken, who is dripping wet, I am proud, and I am yellow." OK, back to Susan.

Susan Vitucci

And although I've loved and I have lost, I have learned to follow the call of adventure. So let's sail on.

Jack Hitt

Keep in mind that all of the action-- like everything that occurs in every Susan Vitucci production, ever since the first one for her nephew and continuing to this day-- occurs among characters created by sticking a small painted Styrofoam ball onto a larger painted Styrofoam ball, poking in two map tacks for eyes, gluing on a tiny felt beak, and then impaling the whole thing on top of one of those really old-fashioned clothespins that a '40s cartoon figure would clamp to his nose around a chunk of Limburger cheese.

And I could go on. She takes a cowboy lover on the American frontier while on a lecture tour. Then there's an affair with an Italian professor, modeled on a real 15th century naturalist who wrote a treatise on chickens. There's always another adventure, even outside the opera. Susan has written-- or as she puts it, translated-- La Pulcina Piccola's diaries, which detail the other adventures that happen in between those in the opera. There are 60 pages so far, excerpts of which have appeared in Clotheslines, the official fan club newsletter of the opera. It's masthead lists every category of donor.

Jack Hitt

Zealot, fanatic, worshiper, admirer. A zealot has to give $250, a fanatic $100. Do you have any zealots?

Susan Vitucci

Oh yeah. In fact, actually, you can just give however much you want and call yourself whatever you want, so that we have people called-- what is it-- belli amici pennuti, which means fine feathered friends. We have a couple of those. And we have lovers. We have a couple of lovers.

Jack Hitt

I'm not joking when I tell you that the high-end donation is $500. People take this campy finger-puppet opera quite seriously. When I was talking to Henry Krieger, he recalled the night he first saw a bare-bones production of it at the West Bank Cafe in New York. And it was Krieger who approached Vitucci, begging to write music for it. Love's Fowl has this strange effect on people.

I didn't understand it until Susan loaned me a videotape of one performance. To be honest, I thought I would be annoyed at the intentional irony and hokiness of the puppets. But there I was with my three-year-old daughter, who loved the show, watching a plastic bird pantomime one of the simplest human moments, but also one of the most profound-- the confession of a great love, in this case, with a Cock Robin.

Susan Vitucci

The song that she sings as she enters goes, "I am a chicken and ready for love. My heart is as fragile as the egg from which I was born. Treat me gently, and so will I treat you. Together from earthly love, we will reach for the divine." And then she sings, "I'm a chicken and I can't fly without love. My heart is as strong as the egg from which I was born." And so forth. And so it is only with Cock Robin that she flies.

Jack Hitt

And after they've agreed to fly together and they are soaring in the air, Cock Robin is shot and killed, murdered by a jealous sparrow. I couldn't believe it, but I was getting choked up, especially when Cock Robin appeared on the stage, his Styrofoam body spray-painted black for the lament, his little magic marker eyes drawn as X's. I gathered my daughter in my arms and held on tight, as I was helplessly drawn into an expression of the grief and suffering of this little sad bird.

In this era of slick special effects, there was something unexpectedly liberating in the marriage of this crude medium-- painted Styrofoam balls bobbing up and down behind a cardboard box-- and the high, melodramatic art of Italian opera. Picture it.

I want a subscription to that newsletter.

Jack Hitt

Are you going to do this? I mean, are you going to be working with Pulcina Piccola, you think, for the rest of your life?

Susan Vitucci

It's possible. And I like working with her because I get to go into a world that's inhabited by a very sweet spirit. And because it's very small. I could never have afforded to produce this show with people. But I could afford to do it with clothespins.

So I can do as big a production as I want with clothespins. I can have stuff fly in and out and come in from traps. And I can have all kinds of fancy, flashy stuff that costs millions of dollars to do on Broadway. And it would cost me $200, because I had to buy lots and lots and lots of Styrofoam and clothespins and stuff, and all this, and a new table maybe. And I get to do whatever I want.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt lives in New Haven. The online home of the opera is pulcina.org.

Act Four. The Meaning Of A Bird.

Ira Glass

Act Four, The Meaning of a Chicken. We close our show today with this story from David Rakoff, which begins far from any chicken house.

David Rakoff

Friday nights of my childhood and early adolescence were spent at weekly meetings of a Socialist, Zionist youth movement. My brother, sister, and I were members. The meetings took a variety of forms. There were the earnest discussions of Marx and the great Labor Zionist thinkers like Theodore Herzl and A. D. Gordon, bull sessions about who in the group had hurt whose feelings, and playing air guitar to "Come Sail Away" by Styx. All activities that formed us into pretty deeply committed young Socialists, ready at the age of 15 for the ultimate prize the movement could bestow, a summer living and working on a kibbutz, one of the collective farms that were a central part of settling the Jewish state.

There we would meet other members of the movement from all over the world, and spend many a happy hour engaged in honest labor, laughingly baling sheaves of wheat, picking olives, oranges, peaches, grapes, the sweat on our brows a shining reminder of the nobility of collective farming. In the evenings, we would gather together and dance around the fire, sing Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young songs, and if one's older siblings were any indication, lose our virginity. Years later, we would renounce our bourgeois upbringings and return to Israel, making lives of simple, agrarian bliss.

This would all change for me in one single evening in a shed of 5,000 chickens. The kibbutz I was assigned to was one of the oldest in Israel, settled in 1928 by Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany. For the most part, our arrival was met with little to no notice. We were just another group of volunteers, no different from the countless other Europeans and Australians just passing through, taking time out to pick fruit, work on their tans, and contracts cystitis from their rampant and unchecked coitus.

But we were different. We were members of the movement. I thought that our political ardor would be immediately apparent. I had visions of our bus being greeted by garlanded, folk-dancing youth, so happy to have us there to share in their dream. I had been raised on a fairly steady diet of just such Socialist Utopian Ziegfeld numbers, songs, film strips, and oral histories that all attested to just this scenario. Trees weren't simply trees. They were jungle gyms of plenty with smiling children clambering over their branches. A field was somewhere you brought your guitar, so that your comrades could dance down the rows after the day's work was over.

I was assigned to pick pears. Work would begin at 4:00 AM and finish sometime mid-morning before the heat had set in. How filled with fervor I was that first morning, the light barely dawning as I headed out in the back of the truck, wearing my simple work shirt, a pair of shorts, and the traditional sun hat worn by so many pioneers who had come before me to make the desert bloom. I should pause here to point out that we actually said things like, "make the desert bloom" all of the time. So off I headed to the orchard.

I know I sound like the Central Casting New Yorker I've turned myself into with single-minded determination when I say this. But the main problem with working in the fields is that the sun is just always shining. Dyed-in-the-wool Northerner that I am, it became apparent after about two days that I was completely unsuited to working outside, and I was moved around among the kibbutz's various interior jobs, the furniture factory, the metal irrigation parts factory, and the kitchen, assured all the while by the group leader that there was nothing emasculating or ersatz Socialist in being moved inside. After all, each according to his needs, each according to his abilities. My abilities seemed lie in passing out from heat stroke after a scant two hours in an orchard.

This continued for weeks. It was a somewhat idyllic, if not a mite monotonous, existence. That is, until the long night of the chickens. The boys of our group were gathered together one day, and told in the hushed tones reserved for trying to avert impending disaster, that we would forgo our regular work details and spend the night from midnight until dawn packing truckloads of poultry.

Why this needed to be done with such urgent secrecy under cover of night, and why the girls were excused, was never explained to us, and we didn't ask. We greeted the news with the respectful Hemingway silence of the Y chromosome. No dopey girls allowed. It was all imbued with nocturnal, testicular melodrama, like some summer stock production of Das Boot.

We slept that evening from 9:00 to 11:00, what I would come to know later, in a far different context, as a disco nap. We rose, drank some tea. The girls sprayed perfume into some handkerchiefs for us to wear around our noses and mouths. And we were off in trucks to do battle with the insurgent chickens. The scene had everything but the diner waitress standing in the road watching us go, worriedly wiping her hands on her gingham apron.

The chicken coop of the kibbutz was a one-storied structure of corrugated iron, about half the size of a football field. It emitted a low rumbling, a vague buzz that you could hear from far away. And of course, from even farther away, there was the smell, a smell of such head-kicking intensity as to make a perfume-sprayed handkerchief almost adorable in its valiant naivety, Wile E. Coyote warding off a falling boulder with his paper parasol.

Chicken [BLEEP] is horrible stuff, Unlike cow manure, which according to David Foster Wallace smells "warm and herbal and blameless," chicken [BLEEP] is an olfactory insult, a snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac, cheesy smell, needlessly gratuitously disgusting. A stench of such assaultive tenacity that it burns your eyes. Rather than making you never want to eat a chicken again, it simply makes you angry. It makes you hold a grudge. You'll eat chicken again, by God, and you'll chew really, really hard.

One of the barrel-chested Israelis shows us what to do. Pick up four chickens in each hand. This is done by grabbing hold of the birds by one leg. "If the leg snaps," he says, "it doesn't matter. Just to get four in each hand. B'seder," he says, "OK?" He faces us holding the requisite eight, four in each hand, living masses of writhing feathers. He looks like some German expressionist cheerleader, his pompoms alive, convulsing, filthy. "Who will see their dreams fall away into the abyss and eventually succumb to the crushing sadness and meaningless of it all? We will! And what does that spell? Madness! Louder, I can't hear you!"

He crams the chickens roughly into a blue plastic crate smeared with wet guano. "And you close the lid and chick chack," he tells us, clapping his hands with that's-that finality. Before I even try, I know that I will not be able to do this. It is midnight, and we will be here until dawn, or until the truck is piled to capacity with crated birds. I walk out into the sea of chickens. I reach down and grab one. Its leg a slightly thicker segmented chopstick.

I recoil and stand up. I take a fetid breath, regroup, and bend down with new resolve, grab the chicken by its body with both hands, thinking somehow that might be preferable. Although how I think I'm going to get eight of them this way, I'm not sure. Its ribs expand and contract under my fingers, a dirty, warm, live umbrella. I drop the bird as if it were boiling hot.

My friends are all grabbing handfuls of poultry and shoving them into crates, unmindful of splayed wings, attempted peckings of their forearms, and the horrible premorbid squawking of birds on their way to slaughter. My sensibilities are not offended by the processing of animals for foods. I don't care about chickens. I fairly define anthropocentric. I'm crazy about the food chain and love being at the top of it. But like the making of sausages, federal legislation, and the heartwarming film work of Robin Williams, there are some things I just don't want to witness.

I leave the coop and go out to the trucks. Hoisting myself up onto the flatbed, I start to help with the stacking of the full crates. I know that my unilateral decision to change my task is met with displeasure on the part of the men who run the coop, but I do not care. [SPEAKING HEBREW] "What's the matter with him," the head of the work detail asks when he sees me on the truck. [SPEAKING HEBREW] He has answered using the female pronoun when referring to me. "The lady doesn't like the chickens."

It would be years before I was referred to as "she" again, and then very rarely and only as a joke by friends. I turn around to look at the men, making it quite clear to them that I understand what they're saying. The man who called me "she" avoids my eyes and busies himself with straightening a pile of crates and tightening the tarpaulin on the side of the truck. "You're right," I tell him in Hebrew. "She doesn't like the chickens."

At that very moment, I saw that I would never live on a kibbutz. I would not lose my virginity that summer to any of the girls from the group. Indeed, I would not care to do so. I am grateful to that macho blowhard. He made me consciously realize what I had always known but been somehow unable to say to myself. He's right. I don't like chickens. I like men.

Now I live in Manhattan, the un-kibbutz, where the words Karl and Marx generally bring up associations of Lagerfeld and Groucho. At camp when I was young, I, and the other children of affluent professionals, would gather under the trees every day to sing before going in to lunch. One of the songs was always "The Internationale," the hymn of the proletariat. One summer, we were even told to sing it with our left fists raised. We were, none of us, by any stretch of the imagination, what could be described as prisoners of starvation, wretched of the earth or enthralled slaves. Admittedly, they are all catchier metaphors and easier to scan than arise ye children of psychiatrists. But they had little to nothing to do with us personally.

And yet for those few moments when we were singing, those words seemed so true. How can I describe to you that 11-year-old's sense of purpose? That thrill of belonging to something larger, something outside of my own body? The sheer heart-stopping beauty of a world of justice and perfection rising on new foundations? And that one line, "we have been naught, we shall be all." Naught-- it spoke as much about my wish to be delivered from this pre-adolescent self-loathing as it did to any consciousness of liberating the masses. But it held such promise of what I might hope for that even now, as I write this, I can still call up that old fervor. It still makes my breath catch in my throat.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff's a writer in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder.

Special thanks today to Mark Smith, creator of Chicago's semi-legendary Poetry Slam. Our Poultry Slam is named in tribute to it and to him. The title in no way is intended to demean or denigrate poultry. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia, who describes listening to our program this way.

Michael Paterniti

You really, I think, fall into a bit of an existential crisis. Like, what the hell am I doing? I really think I'm going to throw up.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.