I survived WashU’s chicken butchering class
Anyone who’s ever been on WebSTAC paging through course listings would quickly discover that WashU offers fascinating classes. From psychology seminars that revolutionize your mindset to deep dives into St. Louis’ history and culture, WashU’s hallowed halls offer a wealth of knowledge. Despite the abundance of classes, two weeks into the semester, I was looking for something more… true to life.
No, what I sought out to do could not be summarized in a syllabus or captured in the classroom. To find it, I had to brave the daring trek to the Village Café. Twenty minutes to 6 p.m. on a dark and almost-stormy Thursday evening, armed with only my trusty tote bag, the entire Apple ecosystem, and flanked with all the friends I could drag away from improv auditions, we began the journey: ready to learn the Real Life Skill of butchering a whole chicken.
On arrival, we were led to a small, partially partitioned area off the side of the main food service area that constituted the “private dining room.” Throughout the cooking process, there were several times when people craned their necks over the divider to watch us struggle to handle knives. The whole experience has given me great empathy for Jimmy John’s sandwich assemblers. Free smells only!
There, we met Claire Conroy, the Special Event Coordinator for WashU Dining Services. As we noshed on a platter of fancy cheeses, assorted berries, and sliced sausage, I learned that Cooking Around the World classes, like the one I was attending, are offered a handful of times each semester as a collaboration between the Rec Center and Dining Services. Classes are free and provide small group instruction on various cultural dishes with the Dining Team dieticians and chefs.
With that, a tray of raw, pink whole chickens was carried out. Seeing them laid out in an unceremonious jumble made the task at hand seem almost more daunting. See, I think I failed to mention one crucial fact about myself at the outset — I am a vegetarian. Not a staunch one (don’t tell me what’s in refried beans or broccoli cheddar soup!), but the salad bar in Paws and Go has really become a fixed pillar of my life.
So why was I taking this class? Well, firstly it seemed like a really funny thing to do, and that’s the primary basis for most of my life decisions. Other than that, I just wanted to learn how to do it. I had never handled raw meat in my life, but it felt like a basic step to take in becoming the “Real Adult” who cooks; never mind the fact that I lead a lifestyle in which anything un-microwavable simply does not fit in.
The first steps seemed straightforward enough — we got fitted up in smart black aprons and cut-proof gloves, took a very serious chef photo à la The Bear, and gathered around to watch Executive Chef Corey Fischer show us how to handle a chicken.
The headless and naked chicken stared at me. I, feeling very exposed, stared back. We named it Lenny because naming things gives you power over it or something… My friend, freshman Hannah Crawford, and the other half of my so-called “chicken couple” shook Lenny’s wing. With introductions out of the way, it was time to begin.
The first cut was a struggle. The flesh of the chicken somehow resisted the jabs of our insistent knife and each attempt struck my confidence just a little more. Eventually, we found our stride with the guidance of Campus Executive Chef James Ellison, who possessed chicken butchering experience numbering in the thousands. Sure, Hannah and I were the last ones done (the wing joint was surprisingly hard to find), but we conquered the task of butchering a chicken!
Broken down into parts, the chicken was promptly whisked away for some magic kitchen marination time. After washing our hands, we gathered again to watch Chef Corey prepare “Asian-style” green beans. My stomach growled as the fragrant smell of tossed garlic and ginger filled the dining hall.
When I first entered the class, I had fully made peace with the idea that I would only have green beans and rice for dinner. Heaven (and my roommate) knows that’s not the worst thing I would have eaten that week.
But instead, the dining staff had thoughtfully prepared me tofu steeped in the same marinade used on the chicken. It was flavorful, lightly crisped, and completely devoured by my friends when I left my half-finished plate to conduct a quick interview.
For Conroy, the accessibility of classes is a priority for the dining team. “As a dietitian, I love being able to have classes that are inclusive. We really strive to make sure that every student is able to eat or at least participate,” she said.
Did I ultimately learn anything from the experience? Without a whole chicken in front of me, it’s hard to say. Next time, I might still have to WikiHow it. But maybe what I gained was really the friends along the way (including Lenny).
Fellow chef freshman Noah Zheng was grateful for the free large dinner and reported that “touching raw chicken was fun.” For Zheng, the chicken butchering class (or maybe just any somewhat strange Thursday night situation you throw college students in) was surprisingly a uniquely suited environment for making “eight new friends” (nine, if you take the time to bond with your chicken).
As Conroy put it, “Cooking, to me, is like the best thing you can do with friends. It’s such a bonding experience, and I think it’s just a sort of wonderful thing to bring your friends around a table and eat.”