“To you, it smells poopy, but to me, it smells like money.” Chris Morris is the owner of Antonelli Poultry Inc, the only live poultry store in Rhode Island. He is warm and gregarious, and he is watching his language. Growing up, he never imagined that his office door would open onto a slaughtering room. Pointing at the pigeons milling around in their metal cage, Morris explains, “Here, we don’t call them pigeons; they’re squab.” He is listing the selection of live poultry currently housed in the backroom of the grocery store he inherited from his father-in-law over thirty years ago.
At the time, Morris was in his early twenties, working construction and playing amateur hockey. The stench was the biggest obstacle: hundreds of birds defecating in a closed room, only to be eviscerated on site. But familial duty called, and he reluctantly quit his job to become “the chicken guy,” a title he now holds with both modesty and pride. He takes care of the business end and manages a staff of up to ten workers who care for the birds and prepare the meat. Of Portuguese and Italian descent, Morris speaks with a slight Rhode Island accent and is quick to open up. He is tanned from his frequent visits to Florida, and his salt and pepper hair is neatly cropped—his wife is a hairdresser in Westerly. Even though he was not born into the business, he has a salesman’s knack for storytelling; he needs little prompting and gets to the punch line quickly.
It is the end of the month and his stock is low; Antonelli Poultry is already out of ducks, partridge, and quail. As Morris speaks, one of the butchers picks up a guinea hen by its feet and proceeds to weigh and then slaughter it. Guinea hens, he explains, used to act as guard dogs for Austrian royalty. The pilgrim turkeys, one cage over, have their toes cut in infancy to impede their movement and fatten up their legs. “Mateo,” Morris calls out, gesturing to one of the butchers, “make the turkey stand up.” Mateo opens up the cage and lifts up a turkey, Morris doesn’t get his hands dirty anymore.
The evisceration process is an exercise in efficiency: the birds are killed in seconds and are ready to be cooked within minutes. First, the bird is placed headfirst in a reversed traffic cone. The butcher slits the neck, lets the blood drain out, and then dunks the freshly killed animal into a pot of scalding water. The water is hot enough to loosen the feathers, but not so hot that it will cook the meat. From there, the bird is placed in a cylindrical machine that acts like a salad spinner. Instead of removing water from lettuce, though, it is extracting the feathers from the bird. Once the outside is clean, the bird is cut open, and the insides are taken out.
Morris walks over to the cleaning table and asks one of the butchers to pick up a yolk from among the bird’s entrails. It looks just like a yolk that has been separated from its egg white, and it’s edible too. The butchers are finding yolks because the chickens being slaughtered are “spent” but still laying eggs. This is because farmers unload hens that have passed their prime and can no longer produce eggs on a daily cycle. Morris explains: “Just like you produce eggs on a twenty-eight day cycle, if all goes well, these birds are supposed to produce eggs on an eighteen to twenty-one hour cycle.” Once they begin to slow down, they are no longer of use to the farmers, and the menopausal birds are brought to Federal Hill, where their production rate continues to slow down, but never stops entirely.
Sitting behind an unassuming storefront on the De Pasquale Plaza in Federal Hill, Antonelli Poultry is barely noticeable. Restaurant patios, large planters, and a multi-tiered fountain overshadow the store and together make the pedestrian-only square feel much like an obstacle course. The shop itself has been open since 1853, albeit under different names and ownership—Morris’ Italian in-laws bought it from a Jewish family in 1931. The front of the shop is small: wide enough for two people to stand shoulder to shoulder and long enough to house two display fridges on one side and a wall of dry goods and seasonings on the other. There are only a few whole chickens, a dozen cutlets, and a tray of individually wrapped gizzards behind the glass. The sparseness of the display belies the scale of the operation; Antonelli cycles through an average of three to four thousand birds a month.
Beans, tortillas, cornhusks, and other items labeled “Mexican” line the shelves. There are also bags of pasta, chow mein spice packets, and bottles of duck sauce. Antonelli’s ever-changing product list could provide a veritable cultural history of the neighborhood, each incoming group inscribing their preferences and cooking traditions. Morris began working for his father-in-law in the 1960s when the majority of customers were Italian and Portuguese. He believes that for a business to succeed, it must be constantly evolving. And so it has, accommodating the tastes of the Cambodian and Vietnamese community in the ‘70s, the West African immigrants in the ‘80s, and the Latino populace in the early 2000s. Today, the labels and prices are in Spanish, to fit the needs of the shop’s mostly Guatemalan clientele.
The one constant is fresh poultry. Thick plastic curtains separate the retail space from the backroom. A casual shopper might not notice that Antonelli extends beyond the humble storefront. Indeed, the quaint setup of the neighborhood grocer is no preparation for what lies beyond the translucent portal. Hundreds—often thousands—of birds from across New England are delivered weekly and housed in crowded black metal cages. The smell is pungent and appetite-destroying.
This room serves as an à la carte slaughterhouse. Regulars call in their orders. On busy days, the staff can’t keep up with the phone. Holidays are the most hectic, as is the beginning of each month, when federal benefits (Electronic Benefit Transfer, formerly food stamps) are distributed. Customers walk in, grab a number, sometimes even a bird straight out of the cage, and wait their turn. Many watch their birds being butchered. Antonelli’s customers have been known to refuse meat that’s had the chance to cool down, which explains the store’s lackluster presentation upfront: they are winning over customers with their live birds. Although Antonelli birds are ending up on the menus of some of the most influential chefs in Providence, Morris prefers the retail side of the business. For the customers, too, the experience of an Antonelli bird in a restaurant is quite different from one in the shop. The smell is all-enveloping and the sight of the birds is jarring, but just like Morris, customers new to live poultry are sure to be won over. Local meat takes on a very different flavor when it’s close enough to smell.
Chris Morris’ Simple Roasted Whole Chicken
Morris and his wife are health fiends: kale smoothie in the morning and no extra calories in their chicken.
1. Rub the outside of the chicken with salt, garlic, oregano, and turmeric.
2. Poke holes in a whole lemon and slide it inside.
3. Close the backend of the chicken with a skewer.
4. Roast for one hour at 350°F.
Honey and Balsamic Squab
“These aren’t just pigeons we’re picking up off the street; they’re a delicacy,” Chris Morris explained.
What you’ll need:
Squab (cut in half along the back)
1. Mix the ingredients together and marinate the bird for at least 20 minutes.
2. Transfer to broiling pan and roast squab for 25 minutes.
3. Turn oven to broil and crisp up the squab for an extra 3 minutes, or until it is done to your liking.
Whole Roasted Beer Can Chicken
1. Rub the chicken with choice of seasonings.
2. Drink half a can of beer.
3. Holding the chicken by the legs, place it over the can of beer.
4. Set the chicken as is (standing up) in oven and roast for one hour at 350°F.
ANNA ROTMAN B’14 cycles through three-to-four thousand birds a month.