In Praise of Chickens

My apologies – again – for not writing anything in a week. It has been a very busy week, much of it good, but I have something big in store for Easter. Not only was I able to spend the long weekend with friends, cooking (reports to follow), I also finally had the time to finish up the König von Odenwald’s poem in praise of the chicken. So, in time for the eggiest holiday, I give you this:

II Of the Chicken and the Egg
You Will Find Many Things to Say

If I were not so lacking in art
I would want to write some verse.
Whatever may happen to me because of it
I will not forbear. 
If I let the art go to waste
How could I earn
The favour and the gifts of lords
Of knights and servants of high spirit?
Now I will versify as I can
And begin with the seasons:
Beloved summer is coming
Winter is leaving us
We shall gladly let it go
Pale people rejoice
Who were sad before.
Each bird wants to build
Its nest again
And let go of sadness.
They lay eggs in it
And raise small birds.
The meadow is turning green 
For them and for us (lit: those and these)
The forest is wearing leaves
Uncles and cousins
Aunts and female cousins
Enjoy the flowers
That rise from the ground
That has become pregnant;
Violets, lilies, green clover
You now see coming out
And the flowering of May
Shows the goodness of summer.
Hedges seek to
Cover themselves in roses
The heather is never pale
Stork and swallow return
Magpie and jay
Make it more beautiful yet.
You hear the cuckoo calling
That also belongs here
Larks, thrushes, nightingales
How they sing everywhere!
The small birds, too
Are no longer silent,
They are bold now
And their beaks are built
For singing with them now.
That is the custom when summer approaches
But all the singing would be for nothing
If there wasn’t the clucking of the chickens!
Now I will declare:
The chicken is a valued bird
The egg comes from it
And that gives us
Many good dishes
I must make a poem about this!
If you now say it is a useful thing
For me to say what good comes from the egg
I will then speak of this
To men and women.
One man goes on a journey
And boils his eggs hard
The other says “My dear,
Fry my egg plain!”
The third wants the yolks soft
Otherwise he will hit him (the cook)
The fourth does not want to poker around in it
And makes a kolhopfen (Olt: Kugelhupf)
This seems worthless to the fifth
He breaks his egg into the pan
The sixth wants his fried in fat
And sprinkles salt over it
The seventh calls for frying it in butter
He will not change his mind about this
The eighth likes it best 
To break his eggs over cracklings (grieben)
Then the ninth speaks up
“Hand me a pan
And scramble it altogether”
I am also of this number
The tenth is so bold
As to call for pancakes
The eleventh is so strange
To break his eggs into milk
And the twelfth has decided
That he wants his eggs poached (verlorn)
The thirteenth surely calls for
Parsley and vinegar
To cut his eggs into
The fourteenth prepares a little drink (süffelin)
His head hurts 
He wants the pain to go away
The fifteenth wants the shells (?)
And calls for a hirn wallen (?)
The sixteenth calls for an egg porridge
That he wants to sit over
The seventeenth says “I do not care”
And wants an egg fritter (eyerkuochen)
The eighteenth wants to do it a different way
And breaks his egg over a chicken
The nineteenth fills chickens with it
That is also a good custom
The twentieth drops the egg into whey
Easily it becomes two.
Further I will say
They are also put into brain sausages
That you want to be filled with eggs
By someone who knows how to do it.
Egg mus dishes, custards (eyermueser, kachelmutzen)
Of those we must not be silent.
They make women beautiful
So you take pleasure in looking at them.
If a man is wounded,
an egg is good for him
It is made into a plaster
This is no shame.
And egg is needed for ink
For a man who can write.
You dust and stiffen (fabrics) with it,
Someone who makes clothes does this.
You colour wine and crossbows
With eggs, that is a joy.
Eggs are used to treat
Leather for wearing
Gloves, know this,
Are treated assiduously,
And white, comfortable boots
That you wear smartly (kluokeit can mean wisdom, but also fashion sense).
You also break them into fish
That you serve at the table
Pastries large (bastede) and small (krepfelin)
Are both made from eggs.
Eggs “on the breach” (uf dem scharte)
You are glad to wait for.
And still, another thing must be done:
You fill the bellies of young (animals)
Heads and feet, too
You should be happy to welcome with eggs.
Morels, crawfish, and young piglets
Are also filled with eggs.
Fladen (flat bread baked with toppings) succeeds,
The blessed meat for Easter,
Is brushed with eggs.
When it is carried along,
Underneath it, chopped,
Are eggs, the whites and yolks separately
And spiced eggs
Are commonly turned over (stood on their ends?).
When young chickens come of them,
That run around everywhere boldly,
You see them happily,
And call them a new harvest.
It really needs no mention:
If you have a cherished guest,
Friendship will remind you
the hen that is nearest the rooster,
Is held for the best,
You roast that for your guest.
Neither is it forbidden,
To have a chicken boiled,
With parsley sauce over it,
Those who like it will have it.
And it would be stupid not to mention:
You boil an entire chicken completely,
And pound it in a mortar,
Then you call for a cloth,
To pass (literally: wring) it through,
That is good for sick people (gesinde – servants or household members).
A campaign turns out poorly,
When a chicken gives courage (hohen muot)
Counts and free men
They run and shout,
Be they armed or unarmed,
They clamour after the chicken,
With sticks and cudgels,
They throw at its wings,
Knights and sergeants,
Make a great noise,
All shout “Ha! Catch!”,
The chicken is what they seek,
Across fences and ditches,
Whoever grabs it wants to keep it,
One says “Surely,
it will hide in the bushes.”
Another hurries,
To crawl after it,
So he cannot come out by itself,
Unless someone else helps him to that purpose,
They are lucky,
That they are a large group,
And they carry it, sweating (in dem sweize – bloodied?)
Until they wish to eat,
All are out of breath.
All the inedible parts (gehurwe) are removed,
They stand and laugh,
Until a fire is lit,
They call for water to be put on (i.e. a cauldron hung over the fire),
Princes and counts stand and watch,
Until the chicken is plucked,
Scalded and skinned.
One or another then shouts out:
“Bring salt, the liver and the stomach!”
You must get it for them,
They are thrown on the embers,
And even before they are fully cooked,
Each one says “That is my piece”
And pulls it from the coals,
That gives them high spirits,
Those who burn themselves shout “Ow!” (och)
The chicken makes a cook of many men,
The feet and the head of it,
Are allowed the boys,
They can work on them over the day,
And have their pleasure until the night.
They go away and are busy,
While the others are busy roasting,
They are then ordered brought to the table,
The turnspit (der breter) is due the necks,
That are given to him.
They are stuffed with hay,
And stuffed into a travel bag (wotsak),
Until the third day,
Which serves them ill (lit: distresses them).
Each man will order his servant:
“Bring me a chicken,
See how flushed I am!”
One says to another “Come on (zerra hin),
Give me one of yours,
I will give you one of mine (at another time).”
You shall take pleasure in this:
People also set roosters on wagons,
So they call time 
At night when they lie down.
The shiny rooster (feather tail),
Is put on for a dance.
And you see jumping about,
Girls and boys
And once it is no longer good for that,
You have the wisdom,
to take it off.
But the feathers are still useful,
You make a plume from them,
That is firmly set on the helm.
Of the (lords of) Seckendorf and Ehenheim,
They carry them, big and small .
Oh, and the capons!
The grey ones and brown ones,
The black ones and red ones,
Those are a fine roast!
Someone who has many of them,
Keeps a fine house,
Which he owes to the chicken.
You must also have their dung,
You use it to make,
Stiff bedsheets,
Which you lay above and below.
And that is also a miracle,
That the chicken announces the day,
I will not be silent about that.
Truly, I say this:
Many kinds of meat cause you revulsion,
Over the year,
Except for the chicken,
that is good all year round.
I will tell you clearly,
This I say:
You feed your hawks with it. 
Coarse cloth (wotmol) and finest pieces,
The chicken brings both, believe me,
And the nightly chicken – that is their right - 
So say knights and sergeants,
To demand from serfs
Who house them when they arrive.
That has God made for them,
And the king can only confirm it. 
Here ends the fine tale,
Of the chicken that gives joy to many.

There is so much here it is hard to know where to begin. the most fascinating aspect to me is the many ways of cooking with eggs – a sophisticated cuisine we may not expect in the Middle ages. I am not entirely sure what the various preparations are in every case, but clearly there are hard- and soft-boiled eggs, various ways of frying (probably shallow and deep-frying), poaching, and scrambling, as well as custards, pancakes, and recipes that depend on mixing raw egg with liquid, probably to drink it. The kolhopfen that Olt renders as a kugelhupf more likely is a kind of pancake-based pastry cover where a thin batter is run around a pan to coat the sides and then filled. Cooked eggs, meanwhile, are served with vinegar and parsley or used to fill roast chickens and, as well see further down, all kinds of other dishes. Both large pastries (bastede) and small ones (krepfelin) depend on eggs as a base for their filling, something we see reflected over a century later in the recipes of the kuchenmaistrey. Again, I am not sure what preparation eggs uf dem scharte are, but the answer very likely is hiding in some recipe collection or poem I have yet to meet. Fladen , a kind of meat-topped flatbread,are a commonplace dish depending on eggs to bind their meat toppings. The tradition of serving chopped boiled egg, whites and yolks separately, is still found in sixteenth-century recipes for presenting Easter lamb. Eggs, most plentiful in spring and eartly summer, were a staple of Easter cooking and closely associated with spring.

Chicken, too, is prepared in a variety of ways, though it is nowhere near as complex as egg. Basically, it can be roasted, boiled and served with a parsley sauce, or cooked to a mush to feed to invalids (the word gesinde to describe them can, but need not mean servants). The vivid description of hunting down and collectively cooking a single chicken is entertaining and may well reflect the kind of fun young men of standing had on campaign, but it is unlikely to have happened very often.

What makes the chicken stand out in the kitchen is its year-round near-universal availability. Almost everyone had chickens, and unlike other livestock, they were not slaughtered seasonally or tied to a breeding cycle. A chicken could always be slaughtered and served to an honoured guest or – less welcome – to a landlord or official claiming a right to hospitality. The Nachthuhn as part of the feudal duties of serfs must have rankled even where the demand was occasional.

The many technical uses of chicken dung, feathers, and eggs are fascinating in their own right and I am not entirely sure of all of them. They are less numerous than those for the cow, though, making this poem much more food-focused than its companion piece.

Der König vom Odenwald is an otherwise unknown poet whose work is tentatively dated to the 1340s. His title may refer to a senior rank among musicians or entertainers, a Spielmannskönig, but that is speculative. Many of his poems are humorous and deal with aspects of everyday life which makes them quite interesting to us today. The evident relish with which he describes food and the fact his work is first recorded in a manuscript owned by the de Leone family led scholars to consider him the author of the Buoch von Guoter Spise, but that is unlikely.

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