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Ethnic City: poultry killed to order

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I was walking down Western just north of Devon, through a busy district of Indian restaurants, discount clothing shops, drugstores, electronics and appliance marts, and car dealerships, when I thought I saw a chicken.

As I approached, the chicken, which was in fact a chicken, stayed put. This was not because it wasn't as surprised to see me as I was to see it, but because one of its legs was tied to a wooden crate. When I got a little nearer, it began flapping its orange wings, jerking its head agitatedly, and clucking loudly.

The chicken, it turned out, was there to alert passersby like myself to the grand opening--just in time for the holidays--of Chicago Live Poultry & Grocery at 6421 N. Western, the newest of three live poultry markets owned by the family of Mohammad Ziyad.

At Chicago Live Poultry, customers can select a live chicken--or turkey, or goose, or duck, or pigeon, or rabbit--from one of the store's many metal cages. If they have the stomach for it, they can even witness their dinner being killed, cleaned, and unburdened of its internal organs. If the store's not too busy, a turkey can be butchered and bagged in about ten minutes. It'll cost $1.39 a pound, about 20 cents more per pound than a Butterball from Jewel.

Killing and cleaning poultry on the spot here is called halal zabiha, or fresh meat the Muslim way, explains Ziyad, 32, who came to Chicago from Jerusalem in 1982. But in America, he's learned, it's also the Polish way, the Puerto Rican way, the rural African-American way, and the Russian Jewish way--with slight variations. Indians and Pakistanis, he says, like white chickens with the skin removed. Chinese buy black chickens called silkies and want the dark skin left on; they also purchase a lot of duck. Mexicans want white chickens and rabbits, while Nigerians prefer the hard meat of roosters and large chickens, called roasters.

What they all agree on is that fresher is better, and the meat here is as fresh as it gets. "When you buy something frozen, you don't know how long it's been frozen," says Ziyad.

When he says "frozen," Mohammad Alam, who came to Chicago from Pakistan a year ago, contorts his pleasant face in disgust.

"How much for a white chicken?" asks Alam. Ziyad tells him that the small white chickens cost 99 cents a pound and the large ones cost $1.09 a pound.

"That's a very good price," says Alam, nodding to the customers around him. They nod back in agreement.

One of the store's employees, Adrwro Pdr, who wears a yellow plastic apron and knee-high rubber boots, motions for Alam to follow him down a short hallway to the back of the store. Pdr reaches into one of the cages and grabs a large white chicken by both legs. He takes the squawking bird into another room where the walls and ceiling are stainless steel. Ziyad slits the chicken's throat with a sharp knife and places it headfirst into a metal cone, through which the blood drains into a stainless steel sink. After a few minutes, he transfers it to a metal container that fits inside a stainless steel tub filled with hot water. The chicken is turned seven times in the hot water to loosen its feathers, then it goes into another contraption that plucks it. Jets of water from the plucker occasionally spray us, and a few wet white feathers float to the floor.

In another room, Pdr lays the carcass on a stainless steel table and slices it down the middle. He scoops out the innards and removes the skin, then moves to cut off the head. Alam stops him. "I want the head left on," he says. The feet also remain.

Pdr finishes by giving the bird a blast from a hose, then turns the nozzle on the table to wash the blood and discarded chicken parts into a yellow bucket on the floor. He places the chicken in a plastic bag and hands it to Alam, who says he'll cook it tonight with oil, rice, corn, tomatoes, parsley, and spices.

Chicago Live Poultry & Grocery, whose other shops are at 2601 S. Ridgeway and 5955 W. Fullerton, also takes phone orders, and apparently, large requests are not a problem--Ziyad says he gets calls from immigrants who drive two or three hours to buy 10 or 15 birds at a time. And no matter how far away you come from, according to a green-and-white sticker on the refrigerated case in the Western store, you can pay with your ATM card.

The Western location is open 9 AM to 7 PM Monday through Saturday and 9 AM to 4 PM Sunday. For more info call 773-973-2531.

--Frederick H. Lowe

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mohammad Zlyad photos by Lloyd DeGrane.

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