“Chicken Feet,” by Robert Moll

Mar 13th, 2024 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

When I was a kid, we had chicken for dinner every Friday night. Shortly after my fifth birthday I figured out how these meals worked: your age determined the part of the chicken you ate. As the youngest, I ate wings. My older brother was assigned drumsticks. My much older sister, white meat.

One Friday night my theory got a big boost. I noticed that my grandparents were gnawing on chicken feet. They didn’t look dignified—they were holding the feet like harmonicas while they used their teeth to get as much fat and skin as could be gotten from a claw. Still, their faces said: “The rest of you don’t get it. The feet are the ultimate part of the chicken.”

Their expressions told me that my chicken theory was spot on and came with a final stage: assigned to the oldest people, the feet ranked far above the wings, the legs, the white meat, above everything.

I was certain I would pass through a drumstick stage. White meat? Another sure thing. But despite the indisputable logic before me, eating chicken feet seemed unimaginable.

As my family’s youngest, I was always drawn to baby brothers and sisters in other families. Like me, they spent years on chicken wings, chasing siblings who had reached more advanced chicken parts. This attraction extended to a favorite uncle, my mother’s baby brother. I wanted to be close to him. He gave practical advice. “Always walk with your head down, Robbie,” he would say. “People drop coins all the time, giving you free money.” My fondness for him ran especially deep because he had made it: he had been a soldier in World War II.

I used to tell the story of his return from the war, when he parked his car on the hill above our house, and how, during the night, the car had rolled down and crashed into our porch, scattering glass everywhere. The debris, the family in bathrobes, the nose of the car pressing against a side door—those flashbulb memories colored every retelling. Then, a few years ago, after a particularly vivid recital of the tale, my sister took me aside and pointed out that the crash—exactly as I had described it—had happened before I was born. Oops! Still, my warrior uncle was my guy, my chicken-wing soulmate at the bottom rung of the family ladder, and I felt entitled to tell his stories as an eyewitness.

I grew up. Along the way I passed through drumstick and white meat stages, ultimately settling into a long-running neck phase that persists to this day (I hadn’t heard that chickens had necks when I first put my theory together). Nevertheless, I was always the baby brother, always a few steps and a few chicken parts behind everyone else.

I honored my elders’ take on things, even when I found their choices suspect. My sister once cooked salmon in her dishwasher—I watched her wrap the fish in tin foil, place it on the silverware rack, close the door, and tap “Wash.” Appalled, I wanted to chime in with: “Now let’s put the dirty dishes in the oven!” But deferential, chicken-wing-burdened me could only come out with:


Then I turned 70.

I had arrived at the top rung of life’s ladder. The headwind of being youngest fell away. With strangers I became chatty, almost nosy. With family I became brash—there would be no more free passes for dishwasher salmon. I developed a bit of a swagger; bumper stickers from the 60’s—“Question Authority,” “Rules are Made to be Broken”—spoke to me in a new way.

To mark my arrival at life’s top rung, I felt compelled to try chicken feet. They were on the menu at a local Chinese restaurant, so off I went and ordered a plate. Surprise! They bore almost no resemblance to my grandmother’s. Hers had been boiled to oblivion, with fatty, droopy skin hanging on to bone by the barest of threads. Their Asian cousins were dressed up in chewy brown wrappers that followed the contours of the skeletons within. The restaurant’s feet were delicious. Tasty and greasy with firm bones to chew on, those feet gave me a glimpse of what had lit my grandparents’ faces all those years ago.

A few weeks later I went to a dinner party. The hostess carved a chicken and set the platter of pieces at the center of the table. With a nod she invited me to choose first—she had heard of my system and had included a neck and two feet along with the wings, the legs, and some slices of white meat.

A strong inner voice urged tradition: “Eat your age! Your chicken program has gotten you this far. Go for the feet.”

But I listened to a different voice: “Question authority, Rob—take the neck. You’re 70. You can do whatever you want.”


Robert Moll has co-authored two children’s books and six textbooks in computer science and mathematics. His short piece publications run the gamut from The Funny Times to Colorado History magazine and the Journal of Symbolic Logic. He lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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