Give any New Orleans cook – professional or amateur – a bird, and after some quality time in the kitchen the resulting feast will be worthy of any holiday celebration.
In years past, that bird, if not home grown, would have been purchased live and either dispatched and cleaned at home or ordered “dressed.”
Today only the Saturday market in New Orleans East might have live ducks, but in the past, markets citywide would have cages of live birds available. Some locations continued for years. In the 1880s George Heck, a wholesale vendor on the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Poydras streets, advertised live poultry for sale. Attorney Walter Carroll recalled stacks of poultry cages in that area of Poydras as late as the 1960s.
There was, of course, the French Market, and Betty McDermott remembered a corner grocery on Magazine Street with live chickens in the 1940s Justin Winston noted one on Oak Street in the ’50s and Judy LaBorde, living in Algiers in the ’60s, bought a live turkey for Thanksgiving at the market on Teche Street. “They would put out the cages on the sidewalk and you could pick the one you wanted,” she says.
As late as Nov. 25, 1987, an article in The Times-Picayune described the operations at Universal Meat Market, 2425 Iberville St., where live birds were cleaned and dressed while customers waited.
Today, live chickens are still found in New Orleans, and some run wild in the streets.
No one can legally keep a rooster in Orleans Parish – city ordinances classify them as “exotic,” according to Amanda Pumilia, manager of the SPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement Department. “There’s no in-between on chickens,” Pumilia notes. “People either like them or they don’t.”
“Street chickens create babies and they start roaming around. Some become roosters and they irritate neighbors,” she adds. Gathering in a flock of chickens takes a team effort:
“Once a week we do sweeps – that’s usually how we catch the chickens. It’s a good team bonding experience.”
(Those “team bonding” events can get dicey. Dr. Brobson Lutz observing one chicken hunt from his Napoleon Avenue office, felt it was overly intrusive and protested, whereupon the SPCA called the New Orleans Police, who informed him he could be arrested for interfering, according to his Aug. 19, 2015 letter to the editor of The Advocate.)
Other city chickens are living and laying happily in coops around town. If you want advice on how to start, visit BackyardChickens.com, check the Internet and Craigslist for baby chicks (buy females), and then go to a location of Jefferson Feed, Pet and Garden Center (4421 Jefferson Highway 209 N. Carrollton Ave. or 6047 Magazine St.) “We sell 40 to 50 50-pound sacks of feed a week,” says Zach Flores, Carrollton Avenue manager. (You can order a coop, too.)
Jeanne Firth, assistant director of the Grow Dat Youth Farm in City Park, is an experienced urban chicken keeper. “If you’re going to have chickens you have to take full responsibility for the whole life cycle,” she warns. Do you want a pet with a name, or do you want an egg layer who might be culled (and cooked) when laying days are over (in about five years)?
Firth has even known people who keep chickens indoors: “You can order little diapers for them on Etsy.com,” she advises.
Those wild chickens, Firth proposes, might be small because of inbreeding and also poor nutrition. She recommended against eating eggs found in the wild because, “You don’t know how old they are.”
The New Orleans tradition of backyard chickens is being passed on at Langston Hughes Academy, 3519 Trafalger St., where Amy Nau is the FirstLine Schools garden educator.
Besides the chickens, there are goats and rabbits in the garden area, all part of “life cycle learning” with some math and science included.
With Thanksgiving coming up, is anyone raising turkeys? Jacob Kadinger of Metairie, who has sold baby chicks on Facebook and Craigslist, has been raising chickens for eight years and has involved his family as well. “My mom just got two turkeys in August – they’ll only get to about 16 pounds, but they’ll look a lot bigger because of the feathers.”
Except, of course, they presumably won’t be wearing feathers on the platter that Thursday.