William Grimes - My Fine Feathered Friend

"I knew a lot about the consumption side of the chicken equation and absolutely nothing about the production side." (p. 31)

"I certainly preferred seeing her [the Chicken] eat grain, especially after the evening when I set out a treat for the cats--leftover shreds of chicken from the stockpot--and watched in horror as the Chicken happily joined in." (p. 48)

Few people were born to be writers. I certainly wasn't. William Grimes, however, must have broken the mold. Whether it's critiquing a plate of food, telling a story, or relating the history of the chicken (did you know that the hen inspired no end of superstitions?) he is a pro--a hilarious pro. This short, little book with funny illustrations will have you in stitches and completely engaged. It's better than the best of Seinfeld or a Robert Kirby column.

You'll love My Fine Feathered Friend as will your kids, your significant other, your friends, and anyone else you can share this with. Consumption in one sitting is recommended (and quite doable). Grimes has a gift, and I hope to read more of his writings.

"Time after time I saw the Chicken trot up delicately when [my cat] had his back turned, squawk a couple of times, and then watch as the cat leaped a couple of vertical feet. The Chicken, after a successful ambush, would run off jauntily, with a cackle that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle." (p. 64)
from the publisher:
One day in the dead of winter, New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes looked out the window into his backyard in Queens and saw a chicken, jet black with a crimson comb. Wherever it had come from, it showed no sign of leaving, and it quickly made a place for itself among the society of resident stray cats.

Before long, the chicken became the Chicken, and it began to arouse not only Grimes's protective impulses but also his curiosity. He discovered that chickens were domesticated first as fighters, not as food; that egg laying is triggered by exposure to light; that certain breeds were once a fashion statement. He probed the mysteries of gallinaceous behavior, learning to distinguish a dust bath from a death dance and how to cater to his guest's eclectic palate. And when the Chicken began to repay his hospitality with five or six custom-laid eggs per week, Grimes had an answer to the age-old conundrum of which came first: the Chicken.

And then one day, obeying some bird-brained logic of its own -- or perhaps the victim of fowl play -- the Chicken vanished, leaving Grimes eggless but with this funny, enlightening, and heartwarming tale to tell.

William Grimes is the restaurant critic for The New York Times and the author of Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail. He lives in Astoria, Queens, with his wife and assorted stray cats -- but, alas, no chicken.

"Who knew chickens could be so fascinating -- and lovable -- when they're not roasted, sautéed, or extra crispy? Well, thanks to William Grimes, we all know it now. My Fine Feathered Friend is a charming, funny, and delightful look at one man's relationship with an egg-laying guest." --Peter Gethers, author of The Cat Who'll Live Forever

"A book of great charm that makes the hidden lives of chickens so interesting it may inspire readers to adopt a bird of their own -- or at least to wake up to the wonders in their backyards, whatever lives there." --Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

The following is an excerpt from the book My Fine Feathered Friend by William Grimes.

One day in the dead of winter, I looked out my back window and saw a chicken. It was jet black with a crimson comb, and in classic barnyard fashion, it was scratching and pecking and clucking as it moved across the tiny rectangle of my lawn. It was, in every way, a normal chicken, except for one thing. It was in the middle of New York City.

I looked closer, blinked a few times, and shrugged off the apparition. Birds come and go in New York. Usually they're pigeons, not chickens, but like other birds, this one had wings and would probably use them. Or so I thought.

Night fell. Day broke. I looked out the back window and the chicken was still there, large as life. A little larger, actually. It looked content. It certainly showed no sign of wanting to move on. I sensed that this fly-by-night visitor was thinking about becoming a permanent resident. New York, the city of immigrants, was getting another one.

It was a fine-looking bird. Tired and poor, perhaps, but no wretched refuse. This chicken was huge, and it had obviously been eating well. Its black feathers shone, giving off a greenish purple iridescence in bright sunlight. Its beady brownish orange eyes had a healthy sparkle. They looked like the glass eyes on a stuffed toy animal. Its legs, thick and strong, supported it like two heavy-duty tripods. In Russian folklore, there's a witch, Baba Yaga, who lives deep in the forest. Her home is a hut that rests on chicken legs. I'd always found that description puzzling. Now I understood. Two chicken legs would be ideal for supporting a hut. These particular legs gave the chicken a lurching, confident gait. With its chest puffed out, it paced self-importantly, like a mid-level bureaucrat. As far as I could tell, it had nothing special to do, but it did nothing with a grand flourish. One moment it looked overweight, pompous, and slightly ridiculous. The next it seemed rather imposing, a dashing black figure on a mysterious mission.

It was the right bird in the wrong spot. The chicken may be a domestic creature, but it's not meant for the city, and that's exactly where this country cousin had come to roost. Astoria, my neighborhood, is just across the East River from Manhattan -- only three or four subway stops from Bloomingdale's, in fact. It's a quiet, workaday sort of place, with three-story apartment buildings and small houses in two styles: square boxes covered in aluminum siding and brick "Tudor" houses with steeply pitched slate roofs. My own house is one of the square boxes, with gray siding and a narrow walkway on either side. With outspread arms, you can easily touch my house and the one next to it. There's very little about the house, or the area, that would entice a chicken. Even humans find it hard to get excited about Queens, New York's least charismatic borough. Except for Staten Island. Thank God for Staten Island.

Anyway, nothing much happens in Astoria. People go to work, then come home. They wash their cars, leave Christmas and Halloween decorations up for months on end, and spend far too much time looking for parking. Nancy, my wife, once dropped her wallet on the sidewalk. Someone returned it. When she looked inside, the money was still there. The only really shocking event that I can recall in my twenty years in Astoria is the day a deranged cabdriver walked into his bank, withdrew thirty thousand dollars in savings, and threw the bills up in the air on the sidewalk outside.

It's not quite fair to say that the neighborhood is a blank. Astoria has a history of sorts, starting with its name. Like most of Queens, it simply dozed for the two centuries after the Dutch sailed into New York Harbor. Then in 1839 a fur merchant named Stephen A. Halsey saw opportunity. Hoping to flatter John Jacob Astor, king of all fur traders, and entice him into a partnership, he asked the state legislature to change the area's name from Dutch Kills to Astoria. There's no evidence that Astor paid any attention, but wealthy New Yorkers noticed that bucolic Astoria, with its gently rolling hills, offered fine views of the East River and plenty of fresh air. They began building mansions near the water.

Look at the map, and you'll see that Queens is on Long Island. The opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and an elevated subway in 1917 touched off a half century land rush that turned that island's pristine woodlands, wetlands, and potato farms into a continuous, densely populated suburb of Manhattan. Astoria was the first stop along the way.