I grew up in China in the seventies. My family ate meat on Sundays. The butcher’s big stump of cutting board was in the back of the market after you walked through little piles of dirty potatoes covered with soil and bok choy with leaves perforated by worms. There was always a line-up in front of the butcher, who was hacking a pork with his heavy knife. You just gave the butcher your ration coupon, and he knew how many grams of meat to cut for you. If you were lucky, you arrived at the time when the butcher reached a pork’s leg. If you were not lucky, you got in front when the butcher was dispensing a pork belly. There was no privilege to pick which part of the pig you wanted. The butcher tried his best to ensure that all buyers took home a mix of skin, fat and lean meat. However, a slight angling of the knife when cutting the meat could make a big difference in how much lean meat you got.
My father used to say: “It would be a good deal to marry our daughter to a butcher, so the family can always eat good meat. “
We ate chicken once a year. My mother would buy a live hen weeks before the Chinese New Year to make sure we had a chicken for the festivity. My father would circle ropes around the legs of our little table in the kitchen to make a chicken coop underneath it. It was the children’s job to feed the hen and fatten it before the slaughter. The kitchen would smell of chicken droppings before the New Year.
On the New Year’s Eve, my mother would boil a big pot of water, sharpen the knife, grab the hen’s wings and neck with one hand and slid the sharp knife through its neck with her other hand. She would hold the hen upside down to drain its blood in a bowl, tuck its head under its wing and let it cool down in a corner. Sometimes the corpse still twitched a little. Then Mom would throw the chicken in the hot water and start plucking the feather. The big feathers were easy to pull out. The fine hair all over the body was a piece of work. My mother would give me a pair of tweezers and I would have to spend an hour or two before seeing the skin smooth and hairless. Then my mother would cut the chicken open. All insides of the chicken were edible and to be made into different dishes after much washing, chopping and salting. My mother let me pick the best feathers to make shuttlecocks to play with.
Years later, I left China to study abroad. The first time I walked into a supermarket, I was mesmerized by the abundance, the variety, the impeccably organized display and the gleaming cleanliness. That night I wrote to my parents: “Mom, you won’t believe me. Here you don’t have to kill a chicken and gut it! Everything has been done for you. Even more, you can just buy chicken breast or thighs! And pork meat! You can just buy pork chops, four or six of them, all lean and cut the same size, packed up neatly in a box, ready for the frying pan! Oh Mom, I wish you were here to see it! And Dad, I don’t have to marry a butcher to eat good meat!”