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Friday, December 09, 2005
The chicken feet incident
For years my old grade school pal "Phooeyhoo" has taunted me with tales of strange (for me) Vietnamese dishes. One culinary oddity always stood out among the rest: chicken feet. Unlike similar dishes, chicken feet is called just that. No fancy name like Foie Gras or escargot. Just chicken feet.
Since he first mentioned them I wondered how anybody could eat something like that. Is there even the slightest bit of meat on hen toes?
The answer to this mystery was finally resolved when he invited me out for dim sum at Jin Wah, a restaurant in Beaverton. He put in a special order and the waitress returned with a side order of chicken feet in curry sauce. They looked sort of like buffalo wings and didn't taste too bad. The only problems were the numerous tiny bones and the fact that they did indeed look like chicken feet.
In search of a culinary adventure a few Sundays back, I hauled my sister Shanna out to Jin Wah. After a few orders of tea leaf pork wraps and lemon hum bao the time came to put in an order for a round of chicken feet. The waitress looked at me incredulously and encouraged me to order something else. "Nope, we'd really like some chicken feet," I persisted.
A few minutes later she returned but not with a tiny side-order. Instead she brought a platter of fifty pale, steaming feet and a bowl for dipping. These weren't the innocent looking appetizers I'd encountered last time. These things looked like something out of friggin' "Dune."
The photo above is of raw chicken feet so they didn't look quite this freaky. Still, the platter in front of us was pretty close. Up close, you can see the little holes where the feathers have been plucked out.
Shanna immediately refused let them anywhere near her mouth and timidly stared at a single foot on her plate for the remainder of the meal. Out $8.50 and unwilling to let all these feet go completely to waste, I dug in. They tasted nothing like the ones I had encountered during my last visit. They were chewy, slippery and almost impossible to bite into. Once I finally managed to bite off a chunk, they tasted, strangely enough, like udon noodles.
"Not bad," I declared, reaching for another one. Occasionally a staff member would walk by and shake their heads. I'm sure there were plenty of jokes going around the kitchen about the people that had ordered chicken feet. I looked around the room. No one else had a plate of platter o' feet on their table. Obviously this was a dish only ordered by Anglo-Saxon schmucks like me.
The waitress wandered back with the check.
ME: "So do a lot of customers order these?"
WAITRESS: "Oh, sure. I occasionally get them as take out and eat them as snacks. Like nachos. They're very popular overseas."
Maybe she was telling the truth but I still suspected she was holding back a laugh.
Now one question remained: what to do with all these leftover chicken feet?
The choice was obvious: get a to-go box and take them over to Mom and Dad's house. This culinary practical joke needed at least two more victims.
The feet were waiting in the fridge as our parents returned from a trip to Washington Square. The second my father entered through the back door he was yelling, "WHAT IS THAT? IT SMELLS LIKE ROTTING CABBAGE IN HERE!" After being around the feet for over an hour, Shanna and I had become immune to their scent.
He looked in the fridge, spotted the feet and immediately knew who was behind this. This isn't the first time his children have brought home unwanted culinary treats as presents. We're sort of like cats that way. He knew where to find us- in front of the GameCube. "I don't care what they are, get them out of here," he said before storming off to putter in the garage.
My mother was more willing to play along. She watched as I took a foot out of the box and ate one as she cringed. Her open-mindedness evaporated around the time I offered the family dog one. "I don't care where take them. Outside. Now." The pooch followed me all the way downstairs, sniffing wildly, and up to the front door. At least someone around the house had some guts.
How does someone dispose of 45 lukewarm chicken feet at 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon? I wasn't going to take them home and let them infect my place with their odor until trash day came. Fortunately, my folks live across the street from a public park.
I snuck over, trying to look as nonchalant as possible as two city employees were running around nearby with leaf blowers. If they caught me this would count as illegal dumping. Fortunately, they didn't notice the guy standing over by the dumpster with a few dozen chicken feet in his possession. I lifted the lid and tossed the feet in, now feeling like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story.
Satisfied, I headed back home to find my parents opening every window in the house to get rid of the smell. Fortunately, they had yet to discover that the smell had infected their Camry, which we had borrowed to head out to the restaurant.
They've probably removed me from their will over this.
So that's the chicken feet story. Cute, right? Maybe it brought a smile to your face or at least a slight smirk. But this tale comes with a chilling postscript!
A few nights later I was sitting at my computer around one in the morning, editing some photos from Tokyo when a tiny knock came at the door. It was almost inaudible over the TV and I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. Then a second knock.
I reached for the phone and dialed 9 and 1. Who could be at the door at that hour? "Who is it," I said with a stutter.
"Brock. Brock," came a tiny voice.
"What," I asked.
I live near Lewis and Clark. Figuring some pre-law punks were screwing with me, I went to the kitchen and grabbed the fire extinguisher.
I threw open the door, in an attack-ready stance and there they were.
45 ROTTING CHICKEN FEET!
Tiny little bones jutting out of their sides. Covered in dirt and tiny bits of other people's trash. One of them had part of a Taco Bell wrapper stuck it.
45 ROTTING CHICKEN FEET!
They swarmed. I was no match for them.
I woke up on the lawn the next morning, covered in cuts, bruises and dumpster trash. Glued to my head was a message written on a pink Post-It Note.
"That's what you get for wasting perfectly good food, arsehole!"
Now at some point this whole thing drifted from the realm of fact to fiction. Can you figure it out?
[hint, look for the helpful dotted line]