I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING
by Paula Marcoux
“Placing poultry in proximity to the hot coals and smoke of a hardwood fire definitely gets at that primal craving.”
When you lay your hands on really choice foodstuffs in this post-industrial world, you want to do right by them. This urge especially obtains when your local farmer has taken the trouble to conscientiously raise and humanely harvest animals for the table. In this case, simple preparations—those that spotlight intrinsic flavors and textures—are often the most compelling. As evidence, one need look no further than the ideal of the roast chicken.
It’s hard to mess one up, the roast chicken; but kitchen veterans who long ago mastered the dish in the gas or electric range may hunger for a preparation more ancient and satisfying. Placing poultry in proximity to the hot coals and smoke of a hardwood fire definitely gets at that primal craving, and a whole industry of grills and smokers, beer cans and bricks, not to mention a supporting cast of books and videos, has been placed in orbit around that concept. Which is kind of funny, because you can reduce the roasting equipage to a fathom of cotton twine and still produce a delicious specimen of the roast poultry kind.
Truth be told, time served in the kitchen is not key here. This technique is simple enough that a sentient person of any level of inexperience can master it. You make a fire, and when there’s a nice bed of coals, hang up your chicken near it, and give it a little spin. It will rotate a while, then back the other way, and so forth, until it runs out of momentum, and needs a little twist again. Continue until done. That’s it.
You may use this technique to cook a fowl of any size—from quails to turkeys—but it’s easiest to learn with something small and manageable, say, a chicken of two or three pounds, or, as we used for the sake of demonstration, a pair of sweet little Cornish game hens from Copicut Farm (see page 43). Larger birds operate on the same principles; the cook merely remains calm and adopts stouter rigging standards (bigger skewers, tested attachment points) and an experimental attitude. Tip: a hidden benefit of the heavier roast is that it spins for much longer without attention— the magic of physics.
Before you do anything else, figure out how you will rig up your roast. If you’re cooking indoors, look for an attachment point high in the chimney—very often there’s a protruding piece of metal somewhere up there. Or, do like we did in these photos, and just screw a hook or two up into the bottom or face of the mantle. (If your fireplace surround is either elegant or historic, try carefully deploying c-clamps to affix things without damage.)
Outdoors, use a tripod, an overhead branch, a nearby swing set, an old chaise longue, or whatever else comes to hand. More physical science: the greater the throw between the suspension point and the roast, the longer it will twist without your intervention.
Make a hardwood fire, with the understanding that the flaming part of the fire will want to be about 18 inches away—laterally— from the meat. The fire functions to create an ambient heat source, sure, but more importantly, it is forming coals, hot glowing chunks of carbonized wood, for you to scoop up and move around the roast at will.
Rinse and pat dry your bird. Season inside and out with salt and pepper, and other things if you like. (See one recipe suggestion below.) Cross the ankles demurely, and secure with a bit of natural fiber twine—cotton, flax (linen), or hemp. While the twine’s at hand, cut a nice length suitable for hanging the roast up. Twist the wingtips back behind the thing’s neck; sounds gruesome, but the critter should look relaxed when you’re done, like it’s waiting for a beach cocktail. Historically, some cooks would just hang up the fowl by the ankles, but for a few reasons I like to stick a long narrow skewer through the shoulder carriage to make a really solid, centered attachment point where that skewer is accessible at the throat.
Loop in your twine and hang up the bird about four inches above the hearth. Then pick it up out of the way for a moment as you use a shovel, to pull out a pile of coals and ash from below the fire and arrange it right below the roast. Give the roast a spin, and feed the fire with more dry hardwood; small pieces are best.
Find something to use to catch the drippings. Earthen pots are nice, but a small cast-iron pan works, too. Start out with hot water in it, a half-inch deep. Wait until the chicken is beginning to spit some juices down onto the coals, then nest your dripping pan in the coal bed to catch them. Use the shovel to drag out another load of coals and spread them on the hearth between the fire and the roast. They should be radiating obliquely toward it.
That’s pretty much it. Keep the thing spinning, brush pan juices on the bird every now and again, pull out coals to refresh the heat supply from time-to-time, feed the fire from the back. You are engineering things so that the meat is just cooked through top and bottom at the same moment that the skin gets crisp. An instant-read thermometer poked in near the thigh joint reads 165° F and gives you confidence.
This is a simple and surpassingly delicious Palestinian chicken treatment I ate (as often as possible) in East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley a couple decades ago, and never forgot—moussakhan. I’ve adapted it to use locally-raised game hens and a New England hearth. Besides its sheer succulence, a singular advantage of this recipe is its near-magical capacity to feed a tableful of people on a small amount of meat.