Wondering through Sainsbury’s today I find myself standing in the condiment aisle looking down into my sparse shopping basket. A bag of pre-cut salad, washed baby potatoes, a bright orange pepper, and ready-peeled prawns. Just the hollandaise sauce to find and I’ll have all of the ingredients for a delicious prawn salad. But as I stand there, at the bottom of the aisle filled with hundreds of condiments a smell wafts up my grotesquely oversized nostrils. Rotisserie Chicken. Yum.
Then I do something that I’ve never done before – something insane. I put my basket down, right there in the aisle. I don’t even replace the items in the right places. I feel crazed by the scent of the rotisserie chicken, its skin crisping under the intense heat of the industrial sized spit, the glistening fat dripping from the chicken as it twirls and dances for me. Before I know what I’m doing my feet have walked me over to the counter and I’m just stood watching those brown birds dance their magical dance.
“Can I help?” the stern faced 50-something year old woman asks me for what is clearly not the first time.
I order the chicken.
As she grabs a chicken from the glass fronted counter and slides it into the paper bag my mind wonders again and I find myself thinking about what genius had discovered that a chicken can be cooked. How they found out if can be a delicious and nutritious food source. Immediately my brain takes me back to the Stone Age. I imagine it went something like this:
A feckless chicken wonders mindlessly into the fire and its feathers burst into flames. It runs around squawking and a caveman hurries to its aid, but before he can something hits his friends nostrils (his grotesquely oversized ones, I quickly decide) and he grabs the caveman by his arm.
“Hang on, Geoff. Just…”
And the chicken drops dead – right there in the fire.
“Can you…” he starts, leaning in towards the fire, “Can you smell that?”
Geoff looks confused and then the smell wonders further still, hitting his nostrils too.
“Bloody hell, Frank. What’s that smell?” He asks, unconsciously licking his lips.
“I think… I think it’s coming from that chicken, Geoff.”
And together they lean towards the fire, sniffing the tender, sizzling chicken. Frank reaches his hand out to touch it, but Geoff again grabs his arm.
“Just wait a minute Frank… Just…”
And the chicken cooks for a while longer, the juices running from its chargrilled and delicious body until finally Geoff and Frank can take it no more. Frank leans in and picks at the flesh, stuffing it into his gap-toothed mouth, his eyes rolling into the back of his head for a moment before peering over his shoulder at Geoff. Frank picks another chunk and pushes it into his mouth. Geoff leaps in too and between them they devower the entire animal, picking every last part of the flesh from its bones.
Then, for the next six months they run around the fields trying to herd chickens into the campfire, as if they were Border Collie’s herding chickens into a coop. Inevitably, of course, one of them will fall on top of a chicken as they sprint around the camp and break its neck. And so the chicken that we know and love (killed, beheaded, removed of its feet, plucked, gutted, and cooked, delivered in a paper bag lined with foil) is born.
I’m brought back to the present by the rotisserie lady who is almost shoving the chicken into my hands, her head shaking so hard that I think it might come unscrewed and fall right off. I’ve clearly been absent for a while. I apologise.
“Sorry, I was just—” but I stop myself. She would never understand.
I take the paper bag and head towards the bakery for a nice, crisp bap. But as I do, I look down at the bag. Inside is a killed, beheaded, removed of its feet, plucked, gutted and delivered to me in a paper bag lined with foil rotisserie chicken. But I didn’t do anything. I just asked a woman for a chicken and there it was. I didn’t ring its neck, or cut off its feet, pull out its guts out or even put it in the bag.
I put the chicken down next to the multipack of crispy baps (another defiant act of revolutionary proportions) and head back to the condiment aisle, picking my basket back up, dropping the hollandaise sauce in alongside the pre-cut salad, the pre-picked bright orange pepper, the washed baby potatoes and the pre-peeled prawns. “Those horrible prawns” I think. Because nobody is supposed to like prawns. It’s just something grown-ups eat. And I smile, because after I’ve paid for these pre-prepared products I’ll get the bus home and arrange them on two plates. One for me, and one for my girlfriend.
I realise then that growing up isn’t about becoming the hunter-gatherer. It isn’t about knowing how to gut a chicken, or the salary I bring home, or whether I know how to put a new bathroom handle on the door (a story for another time) but rather it’s about the life you build for yourself, about the people you love and who love you. This isn’t about growing up, it’s about growing old, and doing it with those that you hold dearest to you. And all of a sudden, I feel ready.
“Now, where’s the pre-packaged cheesecake?”