By Gulnaz Saiyed
Pick up a chicken labeled “fresh” at the supermarket. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it has never been kept at temperatures below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. Touch it through its cool, vacuum-packed plastic. The product won’t feel ice-cold and rock-hard, but will feel supple under your fingers.
Touch fresh chicken at the poultry shop on 2731 W. Lawrence Ave., however, and it will likely squawk.
At Aden Live Poultry, the creature will feel warm with life and its feathers will likely ruffle. Instead of checking to see how long it will keep it in the fridge, you can look it in the eye.
Live poultry is not for the weak. The smell is out of place in an urban environment. The clucking is an unfamiliar cacophony. Your dinner, it’s still breathing.
Addas Aldafri, owner of Aden Live Poultry, has dealt with customers like me who are taken aback by birds in his store. Meat is meat, he reminded me: “It’s the same thing even if you buy it at the market. There’s not a tree where you can grow it.”
Live poultry shops allow you to see the truth of your meal and take home a freshly butchered, still-warm chicken, rabbit, guinea hen or turkey. For me, shops like Aden provide access to meat that’s halaal, butchered according to Islamic dietary guidelines – it’s kind of a Muslim equivalent of kosher.
These markets, however, are located all around the city and cater to all types of Chicagoans and their unique tastes.
And taste is ultimately what brings business. Ray Ziyad, owner of John’s Live Poultry, which supplies organic, free-range poultry in Belmont Cragin, said people love that “it’s fresh.”
Just not that fresh. Aldafri said poultry markets are not licensed to sell living animals, so it is best not to decide you need a pet while browsing the selection. Although I walked into the shop having mentally prepared and committed myself to taking home a dead chicken, I was squeamish about condemning my dinner personally. That, and had no idea what to look for, so I asked the butcher to do the work for me.
Aldafri recommended a smaller, white-feathered chickens for newbies like me, those familiar with packaged, store-bought poultry. “It makes a great soup,” he said.
The larger red hens and roosters provide more meat. The flesh is tough, though, and can take hours to cook thoroughly. Niche cooks or those preparing for a special occasion can find the turkey, duck, rabbit, quail or pheasant to meet their needs, but what’s in stock varies. The pigeons, which are generally on hand, Aldafri says, are different from those frequenting your balcony. (I had to ask, didn’t I?) They are raised on farms and did not, thank goodness, ever “eat trash in the street.”
Pigeon, and other freshly-butchered poultry will last indefinitely in the freezer and for a few days in the refrigerator. After you choose, the live animal is weighed and priced. Aden Live Poultry sells their white chickens for $1.59 a pound and turkeys for $1.89 a pound.
Then comes the end of one life and the beginning, well, midpoint, of your culinary adventure. You don’t have to watch – despite my journalistic spirit, I chose not to – but you can hear screeching, squawking and a thump followed by silence.
Dr. Michael Greger, director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States, said what you overhear may not be the most humane method of slaughter, but better than the main alternative,“kind of an electrified spin bath.” He says, unlike at large assembly-line slaughterhouses, at a local live poultry store, there is no chance the “bird ends up being scalded alive.”
Many Chicago live poultry shops slaughter according to Islamic guidelines, which Aldafri said require first cutting the animal’s throat. He also drains its blood, submerges it into boiling water, spins it in a feather-removing machine and cleans it, inside and out, with plain water. In order to kill salmonella, the USDA allows slaughterhouses to rinse poultry with chlorine diluted in water. Aldafri said his customer prefer the taste because he doesn’t do that.
Live poultry shops are, however, held to strict health codes and cleanliness guidelines. Ziyad said health inspectors regularly visit and he believes he must “keep up and clean up.”
Regulatory guidelines bar customers from being allowed to take home blood, fur and feathers, said Aldafri. After the butchering process, however, specific requests for preparing the meat can be made. Since the carcass is prepared by hand, Aldafri said he can only debone the breasts. You can ask to keep the head and feet; he recommends keeping the skin on for roasting chicken and keeping the stomach for “that great soup” he mentioned.
I decided I couldn’t stomach (no pun intended) dealing with the innards, so had him throw them out and took home a skinned, whole chicken to roast for dinner. On slow business days, from choosing your poultry to having it handed to you, packaged, takes about five to 10 minutes, Aldafri said.
He and Ziyad agreed that it’s worth it not to purchase prepackaged poultry at the supermarket. “My store has been around for 40-50 years,” he said, “people want to eat fresh.” It is “fresh, awesome, better” said Aldafri.
Chicago’s live poultry shops can be found all over the city:
Aden Live Poultry
2731 W. Lawrence Ave.
Chicago Live Poultry
6421 N Western Ave.
Chicago Live Poultry House
2601 S. Ridgeway Ave.
Ciales Poultry Store
2141 W Armitage Ave.
John’s Live Poultry
5955 W Fullerton Ave.
Windy City Poultry Co.
4601 S. Kedzie Ave.
244 W. 26th St.
Alliance Poultry Farms
1636 W. Chicago Ave.