A Call for Coq Au Vin

Story and Photography by Lindsay Sterling                                                                        


Last spring a French woman I met in my spin class at the YMCA taught me how to make authentic coq au vin. Ever since then, I’d been on the look out for the requisite coq (that means “rooster” in French) for the full experience. A promising lead: one of my neighbors acquired twelve baby chicks, and five turned out to be roosters. By fall, their crowing at 4am was generating serious complaints in the neighborhood. The owner asked me if I thought a neighborhood dinner featuring the noisy chicken would make everyone feel better. I jumped in: “Yes, I do. Would you like me to make authentic coq au vin out of them?” 

Ursula carried the roosters from the coup to her clothesline, where her friend Ron tied their feet to the line. Upside down, the birds really did fall instantaneously and conveniently asleep. Miraculously, they stayed asleep while Ron pulled the heads down and sliced through their supple throats. Red blood dripped into a bucket below. Wings flapped frantically. The pet birds, sadly, were dead. Ron dunked them in hot water, pulled off all the beautiful feathers, cut off the heads and feet, and eviscerated them. I was relieved to see the familiar sight of whole, pale-skinned chickens, ready to be cooked. I could take it from there.

Nathalie Petersen from Paris, France, had shown me how to cook coq au vin in her home in Cape Elizabeth. In a cast iron pot she seared bone-in chicken pieces in oil, and then added chopped yellow onion, a couple tablespoons of flour, two cloves of garlic, a bouquet of fresh thyme and sage, and a bottle of red wine. While the chicken and wine were cooking, in a separate pot she cooked pearl onions and mushrooms with a pound of chopped bacon. Once the onions, bacon, and mushrooms were juicy and soft and the chicken was cooked, she combined the chicken and all the vegetables and juices into one pot.

As I reread my notes from Natalie’s house, to my horror I realized that she hadn’t drained off any of the bacon fat. The whole evening would backfire if my neighbors found out how much bacon fat I put in their dinner. What are you trying to do, kill us? We’re kale-smoothie drinkers for crying out loud… Bacon is so uncool. I can’t believe you’d try to get us to eat that...You couldn’t just make a quinoa salad, could you. I tried to make the sauce with less bacon fat, but it was not good at all. I went ahead and served the authentic version, which tasted divine, and made a vague joke about the meal not being exactly fat free, so if someone sued me – she didn’t tell me there was bacon fat in there! – my ass was covered.

The evening was a wild success. Everybody loved the coq au vin, and each other. And no one died. Except, of course, the roosters – and somewhere, a pig. I do wonder why are our theories about animal fat are totally inconsistent with low rates of heart disease in France. I hope the author of The Big Fat Surprise is right, and Americans come around to thinking that animal fat ain’t so bad. Then the next time I make coq au vin, I won’t have to sneak around with the bacon.