Chicken Under a Schism

If Legume has a signature dish, it’s probably the Chicken Cooked Under a Skillet, which is basically our version of the Italian “chicken under a brick,” which is a spatchcock chicken roasted in a pan with a weight on top of it, forming a crispy skin and a juicy texture. It’s a dish that used to be on the menu every single day, and many folks would come specifically for it.  

We used to have this on the menu every day we were open, but as Legume evolved, and we began to think more deeply about how we source things, we began to question how we were sourcing our chicken. First of all, when I asked the farmer if I could visit the operation, they said no. Secondly, the topic of what the chickens actually ate, and whether or not the feed was GMO, was difficult to have, because the GMO issue wasn’t on their radar. I surmised that what we were getting, though certainly “local” as the crow flies and honestly quite tasty, wasn’t really the kind of “local” we were going for.

(That word–”local.” It’s a word that’s used a lot by businesses these days, but what does it really mean? I certainly don’t claim that my definition is the most correct one, but I do think it’s clear that the word means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. However, in terms of being an adjective meant to describe an inherent quality in food, it’s been rendered almost meaningless.)

At some point, we began working with Pete Burns from Burns Heritage Farm. Pete was open to farm visits, and was already in the process of transitioning to a GMO-free feed when we met him. The Burns’ chicken are on fresh pasture every day, and it shows in the flavor of the birds. It also means it is available in the summer only, when there is fresh pasture to be had. Once the cold weather comes, and there is no more fresh pasture, they close shop for the year.

This is the explanation for why our signature dish only appears on the summer menu these days. We plan to have it on the menu most days from now until the end of October, but there will be some weeks, like this past one, when Pete doesn’t have enough chickens of the appropriate size, and we don’t have enough for the week. We’re also cooking a limited number each day. Cooking whole chicken to order really gums up the wheels of the kitchen and can slow things down, so we’re preparing only what we think we’ll sell for the evening.  

Most people these days don’t have time to stand in a long line for the hyped-up food thing that may or not be there in the end. I certainly don’t, and am really sorry if this chicken thing comes across like that. I understand: sometimes you just want what you want, and you want it to be there. If that’s the case, let us know when you make your reservation and we’ll do our best to set an order aside for you if it’s on the menu that day. The chickens are slaughtered on Wednesday and come to us Thursday. Since we like to let the birds marinate overnight, this means the most reliable days to find it on the menu are Friday, Saturday and Monday, though most weeks we will have it every single day.  We want to make this work for the people who love this dish. Thanks for working with us.

I don’t want to pretend that everything we do at Legume is organic and local and perfect, because it’s not. There will be plenty of things I’m not especially excited to cook this winter: farmed Arctic char from Iceland, potatoes from Idaho for fries (once the local storage ones are depleted), and lots of other things. I can’t really explain why it is it feels so hard to compromise on the chicken and switch to a lesser-quality bird for the winter until Pete’s are available the next May.

Perhaps it’s because of the connection I feel with the Burns’ farm: the conversations I get to have with Pete, witnessing his creative process, visiting the farm and seeing how beautifully it operates in a holistic and life-centered way, and, of course, the pleasure of putting hands on food of great quality. It’s almost as if the relationship heightens the sense of sacrilege when it comes to compromise in a way that is not noticed with things we have no chance of a connection to, things like pineapples, chocolate and white sugar.  This feeling of mine is a burden too, because I know there are many folks who just want the damn chicken, no matter how it’s sourced. We’ve had four-tops walk out of the restaurant upon discovering chicken wasn’t on the menu that day, and that’s painful to watch.

That’s the tension that is always happening at Legume, between making beautiful art and maintaining a broad-enough appeal so that the business stays afloat. As cheesy as this sounds, I got into cooking in order to re-live moments of my childhood when I felt a strong connection to the earth: gathering mussels in front of my grandmother’s house, foraging for fiddleheads with my dad, picking blackberries with my friend Joe in a secret patch in the fields behind our houses, gardening, fishing. The art of Legume is in trying to keep these Peter Pan moments lasting for as long as we can. That’s the most important thing.

Thanks for your support and being a part of Legume.

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