Good Old Chicken
by Norris Chambers
All this talk is leading up to a special flavor I discovered in Piedras Negras while employed down there. I spent long hours across the border from Eagle Pass, enjoying the actions of a border radio station. We arrived very early in the morning and didn't return until after 10:30 at night, so there was a lot of time in Mexico and not too much in Eagle Pass. In Eagle Pass, I had a small room above a cafe. It was the usual cheap room with no cooking facilities and a bath at the end of the hall. My early breakfast consisted of a bowl of cereal of some sort and a can of condensed milk. My inventory of cooking utensils consisted of a bowl, a spoon and a can opener.
I met Juan along the curb at the station. He would watch your car all day for a few cents and see that no one stole it or tampered with it. He was about my age, and spoke English very well. From the first meeting, we were friends. He was well dressed and well groomed, and apparently was a successful business man at that early age.
Juan had a brother that he called Pedro who came by several times a day with a push cart. He was selling tamales and chicken sandwiches. Ordinarily I ate tamales for lunch and chicken for supper. Pedro's chicken had a different and distinctive flavor. After over sixty years, I can still remember exactly how it tasted, but I have difficulty describing it. I will just say that it had a flavor that I liked, and I ate a lot of it.
Juan had still another brother who was a policeman of some sort (at least he wore a uniform). He was older than Juan and Pedro and came by frequently to see if Juan was having any trouble. There were other boys around the station who practiced the same vocation and would offer to watch your car for less. Sometimes some of the older and rougher watchers attempted to drive out the younger and weaker ones. This is where Juan's policeman brother came in very handy. Juan did a good job and kept his regular customers. Often when his cars were scattered, he employed some of the other boys to help him watch.
One Saturday night Juan asked me to spend the night with him and go to the chicken fights the next day. Since the station was practically shut down on Sunday except for recorded programs, I decided it would be fun and accepted the invitation.
We walked to Juan's home, which was just a few blocks from the downtown section of the little town. He lived in a two room building without water or electricity. The back room was closed with a crude door. He told me that his sister lived there, but was seldom home. She worked in a bar. He said his parents lived a few blocks over and had a cafe downtown. The house had a dirt floor which appeared to be well packed and reasonably clean. There was a toilet a few feet from the rear of the house, and I guessed from the smell that it might be used by several other people. There was a clean looking bed in one corner and a table and two chairs about the middle. A lamp was on the table and a box of matches beside it. He had taken one from his pocket and lit the kerosene lamp. "It's not much of a house," he told me, "but it serves the purpose. It doesn't get cold enough to need a fire and I get all my meals at the cafe or from Pedro." With little more conversation we crawled in the bed and were soon asleep.
It was still dark, and I heard someone open the door.
"Wake up, Juan - time to go." It was Pedro. Juan woke up quickly. I was already awake. Pedro had struck a match and lit the lamp. "I've got a lunch in the wagon, so let's get going."
So we got going. I crawled in the back of a rickety wagon. It was loaded with a wooden barrel and a few large boxes and sacks. Juan sat beside me and Pedro crawled on the board seat in front. Two donkeys were hitched to the wagon, and after considerable coaxing they started down the street. Soon we were out of town and heading southwest toward some hilly country. There were a few lights in town, but no one was on the street. We soon rattled into the country and continued down a dirt road. The sun was beginning to show a little red light in the east.
In about a couple of hours we turned off the road and into a lightly wooded forest and in a few minutes we saw a bunch of wagons, buggies, horses and even a few old automobiles.
"This is it," Juan said. "Our first job is to gather some wood for a fire. Pedro is going to heat some water." Pedro walked into a clump of bushes and dragged out an old cast iron wash pot, turned upside down. He turned it upright and placed three charred rocks under the legs. He took two large zinc coated buckets out from under the wagon seat and started up toward a thicket of willows about two hundred yards to the west. "I'll get the water," he explained, "and you two get the wood."
Juan grabbed an ax and we walked into the woods. He told me that they had used most of the dead wood that was close, so we would have to walk a little farther to find some. But it didn't take long, and we soon found an old dead tree on the ground and Juan chopped off two big arm loads for us to carry back.
By the time Pedro got the fire going, there was activity farther down the valley, and a crowd was beginning to gather. Juan and I walked down there and I saw a lot of chicken crates with roosters in them. Someone had dug a round hole about ten feet in diameter and two or three feet deep. Juan told me that the chickens fought in the pit. Two men approached, each carrying a rooster. They were talking to another man in Spanish. Juan told me he was the referee and they were getting their instructions for the first fight. I looked around me and I saw several other men working with their roosters. They were tying some sort of spike on their legs.
"Those are very sharp," Juan explained. "They fight until one of the birds dies. Sometimes it doesn't take very long." Another man was going about in the crowd and people were handing him money. He was making some kind of notation in a black book. "He is taking bets," my interpreter explained. "Would you like to bet?" I told him I would watch a little before I did any betting.
Both of the roosters were red, but one was of a little lighter color. The two men had now entered the pit, along with the referee. I was surprised to see them approach each other and dance around pushing their chickens together. This seemed to be irritating the birds and they were flapping their wings, pecking angrily at each other and squawking a little. Juan told me that they held them by the legs to stay out of the way of the knives. The men were called "handlers" and each one took care of his bird. They called this preliminary activity "billing" and I supposed that was because they were using their bills to peck each other.
They had marked about a three foot square on the ground in the center of the ring, and a long line on each side of the pit. The lines were about six feet apart, and the handlers went to the lines on opposite sides of the ring., each holding his bird. The referee said something, and they lowered their chickens to the ground and turned them loose. Juan told me that this was called "pitting" the birds They flew at each other and started flapping their wings and trying to jump on top of each other, striking with the spurs like trained boxers. There was a continuous fluttering and jumping, the wings apparently serving to balance the birds as they went into the air and landed on each other. Juan told me that they called this "shuffling". There was a lot of blood on the ground, and I figured that one or both of them was injured. I expected the referee to stop the fight, but they kept on going.
Suddenly, they both lay flat on the surface, struggling a little, but apparently unable to separate. "They are hung up," Juan said, "One of them has the spurs stuck in the other. The referee will call for the owner of the stabbed bird to remove the spur. This is so the opponent won't do further damage to the bird by twisting the knife." He was right. One of the handlers reached down between the chickens and apparently removed the reason for the hang up. He lifted his bird carried it to a position behind his line. The opponent did the same on his side. Each looked his bird over, and decided to continue to fight. The referee called on them to pit their birds again, and once more they flew at each other. The injured bird landed a lucky hit when they came together, and I saw an eye disappear and blood start rushing from the head of his opponent.
The fight didn't last much longer. They hung up again, and when they were separated both were bloody and neither one was able to get up. The rooster with the bad eye was pecking into thin air and the other was apparently out of it. The one eyed one quit pecking and the referee held him up and said something.
"He declares that one the winner," Juan told me. "The last one to peck wins when both are disabled." Both handlers were inspecting their chickens, and one of them threw his bird out of the pit. The other did the same. When they hit the ground, I was surprised to see Pedro pick up both of them and carry them toward the pot he was heating water in. "Let's go," said Juan. " We will help Pedro pick the chickens."
Still a little shocked, I followed Juan to the pot area. Pedro was wringing the chickens' necks. One of them was flapping half-hearted on the ground and the other lay still. Pedro tossed the still one in a small tub and started pouring hot water over it. He reached down occasionally and pulled at the feathers, When they would come out freely all around, he handed the bird to Juan. He laid it on the end of the wagon bed and started pulling the feathers out. I stood by watching.
He was finished by the time Pedro brought the other one, and they exchanged birds. While Juan was plucking the feathers from the second one, Pedro was cutting the first one open and removing the internal organs. When he had finished with both birds, he took them on the wagon and laid them in the wooden barrel. With a gallon syrup bucket, he dipped into a big sack of white stuff and started pouring it over the dressed bodies. I asked Juan what that was. "It's a mixture of salt, sugar, salt peter and a few other herbs and spices. They will keep in that barrel for weeks when packed in layers of that mixture."
Another fight was about to start. The losing bettors had paid their debts and were placing wagers on the next fight.
We ate our lunch (chicken, of course) and the fights continued until mid-afternoon. In every fight, there was a chicken for Pedro - sometimes two. One handler took an apparently strong and healthy rooster and wrung his neck there in the pit because he chose not to fight. Juan told me that a rooster that didn't fight was never kept and was executed on the spot. Of course Pedro made good use of him. By the time the fights were over, Pedro had a barrel almost full of chickens and salt. I never knew if Pedro paid for the chickens, or if they were gifts.
I have never attended another chicken fight, although Juan invited me a few times while I was there. I have never cared for chicken after attending the first fight, and more especially I haven't cared for the distinctive flavor of the salt packed chicken. They served that special chicken in the family cafe and had some odd sounding name for it. Many people ate it and liked it - just as I did at first.
I have never forgot Juan, though I never saw him or heard from him again Neither shall I forget the distinctive taste of the "barreled" chicken sandwiches and Pedro's ground rooster tamales.
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