Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Archive for the ‘30 Years of Living Overseas’ Category

Thanks for inspiring these memories, Amber.

chickenI grew up in the suburbs thinking that the animals which supplied the meat that we ate all grew neatly inside of Styrofoam containers with Saran wrap covers and price labels.  I never though about it much, but I suppose I expected that if I ever went to a chicken farm, there would be thousands of Styrofoam containers hopping around making “cheeping” noises. Then in 1974, when Rhonda and I were 22, we moved to Tehran where we learned differently.

Each meat shop where we lived in Tehran specialized in a different type of animal, and if the animals were small ones, they were alive and running loose in the store. In the poultry store, we would point to the chicken or duck we wanted and the shop owner would chase it down, wring it’s neck, and hand it to us.  Warm, and with the heart still beating!

When we got home the first time, we unwrapped the chicken, and Rhonda and I looked at it and then each other.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” she asked me.

“I think we’re supposed to do something about the feathers,” I replied.

“Yeah, I know that,” she said, “but there are parts inside that we aren’t supposed to eat.”

“Nah, they wouldn’t do that to us, would they?  Just put it in the oven and it’ll be great.”

Fortunately Rhonda had grown up cooking for her family of four and had much more experience with meat than I did.  So we managed to survive our first chicken-cleaning party.  The next time we went to the poultry shop, though, we managed to communicate to the shop owner — using our still unpolished, “grunt and point” Farsi — that we would like him to pluck the feathers and take out the insides.  No, we didn’t want most of the insides (except the liver, which we recognized); he could keep them.

The next big shock was when we went to the cow store.  You’ll be relieved to know that in that store the shopkeeper didn’t chase down a live cow and hand it to us.  Cows have a hard time time making a living in Iran; it’s a long walk between blades of grass.  So entire carcasses were shipped frozen from Australia or Argentina.  When a single carcass arrived at the shop — that was all that our local shop had at any one time — it was hung up on a gigantic hook to await customers.

Other than the mysterious innards, at least Rhonda and I had some some basic knowledge of fowl anatomy.  What we knew about bovine anatomy could have been put on the head of a pin and still have room for all those angels dancing.  Which was unfortunate, since it was apparently our responsibility to instruct the butcher as to which portions of the cow we wanted.  Not that it mattered much, because by the time we got to butcher shop, most of the parts that we would have recognized by name were already gone.

So, we resigned ourselves to eating, “hunk” of beef.  The first half-dozen times, the butcher insisted on putting whatever we bought into the grinder.  Smart butcher!  Eventually, though, we got tired of variations on ground beef, and told him we wanted him to leave the meat in one big piece.  Big mistake!

“What are you going to do with it?” he asked us suspiciously.

“We’re going to eat it,” I answered.

“Do you want me to cut it into small pieces?” he asked.

“No, just leave it like that.”

“Let me slice it really thin for you.”

Finally, I convinced him that we were in the mood for a nice, roast hunk of beef.  He was right to be skeptical.  It was tasteless, tougher than shoe-leather and completely inedible.  There’s a reason why the meat in Persian cooking, which by the way is wonderful, is mostly ground or cut up into tiny pieces and stewed for 3 days.

After a couple of months, we found a store which sold Persian Gulf shrimp for $2 a pound.  Other than taking off the heads and tails, peeling them and taking out the vein, there’s not a lot you have to know about shrimp anatomy.  Shrimp became the staple of our diets.  Boiled shrimp, broiled shrimp, fried shrimp, shrimp fried rice, shrimp soup, shrimp steak, Shrimp Newburg, shrimp cobbler…   Sort of like a menu designed by Bubba in “Forrest Gump,” but 20 years earlier.

Chickens are no longer anywhere where near as mysterious to me as they were in 1974.  Two years after we left Tehran, Rhonda and I spent a summer working on a kibbutz in Israel.  There, I ended up in the chicken houses, caring for 20,000 chickens.  In case you’re wondering, 20,000 chickens produce one hell of a lot of chicken shit.  Chicken shit is one of the most noxious substances known to man when it’s dry.  But that’s nothing compared to when it’s wet.  And yes, wet or dry, someone has to shovel all that chicken shit.

But that’s another story.