Happiness and community/connectedness

Happiness and community/connectedness

New York Local

Eating the fruits of the five boroughs.

by Adam Gopnik

September 3, 2007

Twelve-thirty on a beautiful summer day, and the chicken committee of the City Chicken Project is meeting at the Garden of Happiness, in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx. The chicken committee is devoted to the proliferation of egg-laying chickens in the outer boroughs, giving hens to people and having them raise the birds in community gardens and eat and even sell the eggs (“passing on the gift,” as this is called in the project), and thereby gain experience of chicken, eggs, and community-or fowl, food, and fellowship, as one of the more alliterative-minded organizers has said. It is the pet program of Just Food, a small organization that is administered by a startlingly young-looking woman named Jacquie Berger, who is silently monitoring the proceedings.

The Garden of Happiness is a sunny community garden with vegetable plots, a chicken coop, a corrugated-tin shed, and a few chairs beneath a grape arbor, where the chicken committee is meeting. The chicken committee is a lot more committee than chicken, its deliberations filled with references to “existing chicken situations” and “pursuit of newer egg opportunities,” and the slightly skeptical neighborhood people have to be gently won over by the carefully beaming professionals. They provide the nudging, let’s-get-back-on-track counsel that chicken-caring community organizers have to give potentially disorganized community chicken-carers.

“It’s, like, a long questionnaire, you know?” one of the neighborhood people says, about a form to be handed out to potential chicken-carers.

“Well, don”t you think that someone who isn”t prepared to fill out a few questions isn”t-don”t you have to question their commitment to caring for a chicken over the winter?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But it’s a long thing. All these questions.”

The Garden of Happiness has the semi-magical ability, common to any place in the city with trees and plants and animals, to secede from its environment and become what most of the world is, a bit out in the country somewhere. A hen in the coop starts clucking. A scruffy pit bull in a neighboring yard begins to growl and then bark. Undiscouraged, the hen goes on clucking, and a second hen joins her. Together they drown out the dog. The sun shines down through the arbor on the chicken committee, and the animal sounds drown out its complicated pleadings.

I had come to the Garden of Happiness not only to see a New York City chicken committee in operation but also to get myself a chicken. This was why, a few moments later, I was trying to arrange, privately, for a hit on a fowl. Getting a chicken that has been raised and slaughtered in New York City is harder than it might seem, laws and bylaws entangling the transaction: I wanted to eat a chicken that had been raised in the city, and insiders who cannot be named said that, though the City Chickens are raised strictly for their eggs, in private a poultry whacking could be arranged, for a price. I had been set up with a chicken keeper I”ll call Freddie.

from the issuecartoon banke-mail this”Looks like you”ve got, you know, chickens,” I said, sidling up to him in what I imagined to be the best Washington Square marijuana-buying manner, as we stared at his coop.

“Yeah.” Long pause.

Euphemism, I saw, would get you only so far in the poultry-whacking game. “I was wondering if maybe, on Friday or Saturday, you could get me a chicken,” I said. “You know. The kind that people can eat.” I tried to give the words a Soprano-like significance.

“Yeah, I understand,” Freddie said, not making eye contact. Another long silence.

‘so.” I took a deep breath. ‘so, uh, you think there”ll be a chicken?”

After another pause, he said, with exactly the kind of ominous serenity you want in a hit man, “Why not? Come on Saturday. You be there. There”ll be a chicken.”

I felt unreasonably pleased with myself; the chicken was going to be hit, and I would pay for the action.

I was arranging to kill a Bronx chicken as part of a project that I had begun a month or so before-to spend a week eating only food grown or raised within the five boroughs of New York City. “Localism” (or “locavore” eating, as it’s sometimes called) is, as many people now know, a movement that has rules, Web pages, and books devoted to it. Its central idea is that one should try to eat only things grown within a narrow “foodshed” around one’s own home, and in the past year localism has been the subject of a couple of folksy, how-we-did-it books, records of how their authors nailed down their diet to the local goods: “Plenty,” by Alisa Smith and J. B. Mackinnon, which recounts the authors” yearlong experience of eating only from a foodshed around their Vancouver home, and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” by Barbara Kingsolver, which tells of a similar dogmatic diet, undertaken for a year around Kingsolver’s house in southwest Virginia.

The point of localism is to encourage sustainable agriculture by eating things that nearby friends and farmers grow or raise and that don”t have to be shipped halfway around the world, guzzling fossil fuel, to get to your table. The rules generally involve eating within a radius of a hundred or sometimes three hundred miles, and are undertaken in places, like Berkeley and the Pacific Northwest, that have a lot of nice produce and plump animals within their circles.

For the full happiness story – click here.