“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.
(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)
The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.
No fried chicken for the Romans.
According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.
Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.
However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.
1 whole chicken
Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat
Kosher salt and ground pepper
Preheat oven to 350o F
Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.
Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.
Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.
Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.