COQ AU VIN
Last month I got jumped by a rooster. There I was, alone on the top of a mountain, where cell phones don’t work and bobcats and mountain lions roam, fearlessly caring for my friends’ two Savannah cats, two Chihuahuas, seven chickens and one rooster, while they were in Hawaii on their honeymoon. I never imagined that it would be the rooster, not the snarling dogs or the semi-wild cats, that would be my nemesis.
At first the Chihuahuas yapped and yapped, baring their sharp little teeth and refusing to come into the house at nightfall. I imagined finding their mangled bodies in the morning, their long brown-and-white fur matted with blood, or worse, not finding them at all. But no way was I going to let them bite me, so I left them out in the cold, huddled on their pillow bed, snarling.
The next morning I brought Newman’s Peanut Butter Treats. By noon, Poppy and Candy were following me around in silence. By four, I had them in the bathtub. By five, they were snuggling together on the top of a red leather armchair, their big brown eyes fixed lovingly on mine. Okay, so they were waiting for more treats. Still, it felt like true love every day for the next two weeks.
The cats were a bigger challenge. Savannahs are a mix of the wild African Serval and domestic cats. Lenya, the female, had more wild in her than Jag, the big black male. She sat on a beam jutting out from the loft bedroom and glared down at me with shifty yellow-green eyes. She was beautiful to watch, lean and untamed, her golden fur marked with brown striations. She would jump gracefully from table to chair to sofa to the top of her deluxe cat tree and her bowl full of kibble.
Jag was older than Lenya and three times her size. His striations were less visible on his dark coat, and he had the noble sloping nose of a Jaguar or Panther. I was told he was very affectionate and would come around asking to be petted, but for the first three days, I never even saw him. He hid under the bed and only came out to eat when I was outside.
I bought small chicken drumsticks and left a couple, raw of course, in the food bowl. Lenya smelled them immediately, leaped up and devoured one. Not Jag. I watched through the window as he pushed them aside, preferring his dry kibble.
On the fourth day, Jag suddenly appeared and jumped up on the dining room table next to my computer. I put out my hand and he sniffed it, then nudged it, then let me scratch him vigorously behind his ears and tail. His purr startled me: a deep roar punctuated by loud guttural meowing, as if he were talking to me. Thus began our ten-day love fest.
Lenya grew a little bolder as she watched Jag throw himself at me, whether I was sitting at the table or lying on the sofa reading. He would nudge me with his big head and start purring loudly, commanding me to pet him, and when I would come in from the hot tub, he would lick and nibble my toes as if they were lollipops.
On the fifth day, Lenya joined him on the table. I held out my hand, and she sniffed it carefully. Then I went back to rubbing and scratching Jag’s head and neck. All of a sudden, Lenya wrapped her front paws around his neck and started licking his ears. Slowly, I switched my fingers from Jag’s head to hers, and she let me run them down her back to her tail without flinching. I went back and forth between them until she finally relaxed and stretched her thin body against Jag’s huge one.
Every day, I brought raw meat for Lenya and let her eat it out of my hand. Finally, one quiet afternoon, she jumped up on the couch and settled herself on my lap. As I stroked her perfect little head, she started purring, a sound as faint and hesitant as Jag’s was loud and insistent.
I had now tamed the dogs and cats, but the chickens were another story. I would let them out into their pen in the morning and lock them up at night, always nervous that they might peck me to death like a scene from “The Birds,” especially when they pushed past me in a mad flurry of feathers, cackling and beady-eyed. I guess I’m not a chicken person… The rooster always emerged last, looking arrogant and menacing, a magnificent black and white fowl with a bright red crown.
After a week, I had the routine down: unlatch the small coop door, let the brood out, then go around to the big side door and check the grain supply – which was exactly what I was doing when something heavy landed smack on my head, almost knocking me over. Squawking triumphantly, the rooster catapulted himself onto the ground and ran off, crowing in glee. I swore. He had been hiding in the rafters, just waiting for his chance to escape.
I had surely lost the rooster and could not imagine how I would explain his disappearance. No way! I grabbed a rake and started chasing that devious bird through the yard, onto the porch, into the redwood grove, around the trampoline and back to the house. But he was fast and clever, heading me off or turning around to run in the opposite direction, until I finally gave up and went inside, exhausted. I needed a better plan of attack.
After a few hours nursing my trauma and vowing revenge, I had a brilliant idea, at least for someone ignorant of the ways of chickens. I shooed the hens back into their little house and locked them in. Then I opened the door to the pen. This time, that damn rooster would see who was boss. Scaring him with my shouts and brandishing my rake, I cornered him until he had nowhere to run but back inside the enclosure. Eureka!
But the battle was far from over. Imagine my surprise – and anger – the very last afternoon of my guard duty when I arrived and saw that brazen rooster standing like a statue by the front door. The devil had managed to fly out of his pen, as if to say “Ha, ha. I win! Catch me if you can!”
We stared each other down. I flapped my arms, he flapped his wings, and the chase began, a long and arduous one that left me panting with adrenaline but victorious at last. I locked up that cocky rooster and his harem of admirers way before dusk, a punishment he richly deserved.
And that, my friends, is when I decided that coq au vin would always be one of my favorite dishes.