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Monday, March 28, 2011

Chicken Scrawlish

Originally published on the old VRZHU Bullets of Love Blog - January 23, 2008

Chicken Scrawlish
Why is Vrzhu blogging a recipe today?  By way of justification we offer:
“Jay Parini, a Frost scholar and professor at Middlebury College, also described the difficulty of reading Frost’s “chicken scrawlish” handwriting.” –from “Editing of Frost Notebooks in Dispute” By Motoko Rich - New York Times, Jan. 22, 2008 
We here at Vrzhu have been puzzling over the reference in the quote above to the traditional Hungarian dish, Chicken Scrawlish.  Perhaps Mr. Parini was giving a tip of the hat to Hungary as one of the great producers of world-class poets, far in excess of larger countries, with a respect for and tradition of poetry comparable to, say, Ireland? Or is he referring to the rumor that, while in England, Frost was able to employ an immigrant Hungarian as a housekeeper for about a month in the fall of 1913, and afterwards Frost would sometimes make a folksy reference to her “chicken scrawlish?.”
This is indeed a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a flour tortilla. But Vrzhu is in search of a key.
To start, here is an unpublished article from Gourmand Monthly we have obtained which sheds some light on the culinary trompe langue that is Chicken Scrawlish:
Chicken Scrawlish (Chicken SzcralĂ­s) – Originally a peasant dish from the Northern Medium Mountain region of northern Hungary, which is part of the Southern Carpathian Mountains of  southwestern Slovakia.  A dense stew that is formed into loaves for the winter, Chicken Scrawlish is undoubtedly the least popular dish in Hungary.  Georgi Mandi, a noted culinary archivist, has said that “if paprikash is considered the royalty of Hungarian cooking, then the concoction known as Chicken Scrawlish must be rated as Hungary’s failed apprentice pig herder. Famed Hungarian chef Egbert Esterhaszy concurs: “To a Hungarian, paprikash, sausage, poppy seed noodles—these all say “mother.” Chicken Scrawlish, on the other hand, says “idiot third cousin kept hidden from company in the root cellar.”

But generally, most Hungarians either deny the existence of a dish called Chicken Scrawlish, or vociferously insist that it is not Hungarian but Slovakian. At the same time Slovak citizens in the Carpathian mountains across the border from Hungary will swear that only a Hungarian would be able to eat a dish like chicken scrawlish. There are local city ordinances still extant stating that “persons found to have a loaf or block of Szcralis on their body or among their belongings will be fined 1,000 korunas.”

Old Hungarian woodcut of traveling
Scrawlish vendor, who plied his
poultry cakes from town to town.
Pictured with his companion Boglarka,
whose melismatic bleating announced
 their arrival to townsfolk.
These laws may have been an attempt to discourage “Scrawlishmen.” Because of the difficulties inherent in preparing Chicken Scrawlish, it became common for unemployed men or men who had fallen off their horses onto their heads to become itinerant Chicken Scrawlish vendors, or Scrawlishmen, going from farm to farm and village to village trying to trick the more slatternly wives into buying a jar of potted Scrawlish.  Often runners from one farm would speed ahead to the next farm to warn of the approaching Scrawlishman, so that an adequate supply of stones of sufficient heft could be gathered to throw at him.

Despite this, dedicated, perhaps foolhardy, foodies, inspired by culinary adventurers (such as Anthony Bordain) who sample puffin jerky, or warthog chitterlings, have been looking for a traditional recipe—or any recipe—for the infamous Chicken Scrawlish.

Recently, American investigatory cooks, Jack and Michelle Gurning, have interviewed several immigrants from the region, and found a recipe for the dish hidden in an old bible written in Hungarian. Curiously the recipe was on previously-used vellum and sandwiched between pages of the Book of Revelation.  The Gurnings, in their book, Into Thick Soup –  A Personal Account of Delight and Disaster Amongst the Wild Dishes of the Carpathians, provide their deciphered and translated rendition of the recipe.  Their only introductory description of Chicken Scrawlish is “a dish only H. P. Lovecraft could love. Or adequately describe.”

Chicken Scrawlish
One unplucked chicken, preferably dead.
16 oz rendered badger fat
4 oz dry-cured chicken liver
18 oz unhulled groats
2 teaspoons rock salt
2 teaspoons chopped baitfish, such as minnow
6 to 8 cups goat broth, or squirrel broth
1 cup chopped celery root
1 cup chopped sun-dried beet
1 cup chopped kohlrabi, root and leaves
1/2 cup onion grass
4 oz juniper berries
1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon devil’s parsley
¼ cup hyssop sour wine or hyssop white vinegar.
¼ cup woodruff jam

1. First, the chicken must be “saddled.” After gutting the bird, spatchcock it*, retaining the neck and head. Press it flat, pulling to extend the wings and legs as much as possible.

2. Place the spatchcocked chicken between the saddle and the horse, feathered side down (alternatively the chicken may be pressed between two goats). After a three day ride** remove the chicken and soak in 5 gallons of water mixed with one cup of lye for at least 24 hours, making sure the neck and head of the chicken are draped over the side of the pot to vent properly.

3. Drain, rinse and dry the chicken. At this point the feathers should have formed a fused bed underneath the meat. Carefully peel back the feather bed from the chicken and discard some distance from any habitation. The chicken should be tender and malleable at this point, translucent with a gelatinous consistency.

4. Soak the groats until tender. Soak the dry cured chicken livers until al dente and then grind finely along with the rock salt and chopped baitfish.

5. Drain the groats, put them into a large mixing bowl and add badger fat, celery root, sun-dried beet, kohlrabi, onion grass, juniper berries, hot paprika and devil’s parsley. Stir in the chicken liver mixture. Beat until the mixture is slightly glutinous. Stir in the goat or squirrel broth.

6. Force the chicken through a sieve into the groat mixture, taking care not to put your face or hands directly over the bowl.

7. Cover the bowl with wire mesh and a damp cloth and allow to ferment outside for about 1 hour.

8. Stir and pour into a large dutch oven. Cook in a 325 degree oven for about 3 hours. If the Scrawlish dries out DO NOT add water! Discard immediately. Either start over or lead a Christian life.***

9. At this point the Chicken Scrawlish can be served as a stew, the so-called White Scrawlish. It is customarily served on a bed of boiled nettles as a late supper after the men have returned home drunk. But typically, much larger amounts of Chicken Scrawlish were made and some of the scrawlish was “put up” in loaves.

For Chicken Scrawlish Loaf, or Black Scrawlish

10. Let the Scrawlish settle and then pour off as much of the top fluid as possible.

11. Turn the Scrawlish out onto a floured board and knead for about 20 minutes, alternately adding the Hyssop vinegar and Woodruff jam, until it is elastic and not too lumpy. At this point the Scrawlish dough should be unpleasant to look at and touch. You can’t really get used to it. Form into a roughly loaf-shaped mass and place on a baking sheet you intend to discard afterwards. Bake at 275 degrees for 12 hours in a very well-ventilated room.

12. Remove and allow the loaf to cool completely. The loaf will keep indefinitely. Loaves were often passed down from generation to generation.

Serves all or none.
Nutritional information: unknown.

To conclude, as the dish migrated down from the Carpathians into the plains and cities of Hungary, it was considerably tamed.  However, it retained its air of mystery as a “special” dish, and throughout most the 19th century the eating of it was considered a venal sin.

To spatchcock a fowl: Place the bird breast side down on as clean a surface as you can find. Using a very sharp knife cut from the neck to the tail end along both sides of the backbone to remove. This takes some force. Make a small slit in the cartilage at the bottom end of the breast bone, then with both hands placed on the rib cage, crack open the bird by opening it, like a book, towards the cutting surface.  This will reveal the keel bone. Run you fingers up along wither side of the cartilage in between in between the breasts to loosen it from the flesh, then grab the keel bone and pull it up to remove it, along with the attached cartilage.  Flip over and smooth the skin.  The bird is now spatchcocked.
**Although a three day ride is sufficient for an authentic Chicken Scrawlish, Scrawlishes were often distinguished and rated by the length of time continuously “saddled.” In addition to this recipe of Three Day Scrawlish, there was Five Day Scrawlish, Eight Day Scrawlish, and for special occasions, Campaign Scrawlish, where the chicken was “saddled” for an entire military campaign or until the rider returned home.  This Scrawlish was also called “Funeral Scrawlish” or “Missing Limb Scrawlish.”
*** The exact meaning of this sentence in the original is in dispute. The original recipe continues: “Immediately start a novena for protection against the Unclean One. And spit thrice upon leaving or entering the house for the following week.”


Originally published on the old VRZHU Bullets of Love Blog - January 23, 2008

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kim Roberts on Capitol Hill

Kim Roberts reading from her new book of poems.

We had a wonderful reading last night on Capitol Hill.
The Capitol Hill Reading Series hosts themed readings and visiting writers on the third Tuesday of each month.  Many thanks for all the people who showed up last night to hear Kim Roberts read from her splendid new book Animal Magnetism (Pearl Books).

We had a full house and Kim graced us all with these fantastic poems about medical museums and imaginary husbands.  It was a delightful evening.
Next month we'll have Judith Valente and Cliff Bernier.  More at the reading site.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Grace Cavalieri

Great news!  The inimitable wonder that is Grace Cavalieri has created a wonderful site with audio recordings about various poets she's known and interviewed over the years.  What a trove!  

Current pieces include commentary and reflections on Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, Donald Hall, Carl Sandburg, Stanley Kunitz, ee cummings, Richard Wilbur, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Hass. 

Find it all here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Get Well Coleman Barks

Just read over at Don Share's blog that the poet and translator Coleman Barks has suffered a stroke.  He is recovering and seems in good spirits:
I am mostly sleeping as much as I can (grace) and listening to recordings of my old voice in my kitchen and talking along (practice). I am not answering the phone or the door, or emails (only a few). Please forgive me these reclusive measures. Think of me as an old dormant bear, healing. 
Barks read at the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2008 and I was profoundly moved by his powerful work and generous spirit.  Here's hoping he has a speedy recovery.

Below is a delightful recording of his interview and reading with the Paul Winter Consort, from Bill Moyers' 1995 Language of Life mini-series recorded at the Dodge Festival.