When it comes to preparing for Thanksgiving, Malak Abdel Malak and many other Angelenos would rather do it just like the Pilgrims.
Forsaking the ritual of long lines, canned music and frozen gobblers found in modern-day supermarkets, the Egyptian-born Culver City auto mechanic spent his lunch hour Wednesday picking out his own turkey--and slaughtering it himself.
"We don't have anything frozen in Cairo, and we buy everything fresh here too," declared Malak, 35, after butchering the bird in a back room at Superior Poultry Co. "I like everything fresh--I like the taste and it's healthier too."
As usual, the day before Thanksgiving meant a flurry of activity for the handful of live poultry purveyors in Los Angeles, whose customers choose for themselves the chickens, ducks, quail and guinea hens that will end up on their holiday table.
"Other than Chinese New Year's, this is our busiest day of the year," said Charlie Solis, Superior's longtime manager, as he raced between scale, plucking machines and cages.
In most cases, shop employees do the actual slaughtering, cutting the birds' windpipes with razor-sharp knives and then flinging the carcasses into storage containers.
But there are those like Malak who prefer to kill their bird themselves while saying prayers of thanks for the coming feast. And finally, there are the handful like Banh Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who--to ensure maximum freshness--picked out his own fryer, paid for it and then had Solis put it, live, into a brown paper bag that he then placed inside a plastic shopping bag.
This season, with a glut of turkeys on the market, retail prices in supermarkets have plummeted so much that some stores are practically giving away the birds. Nonetheless, such live poultry purveyors as Superior and Canton Poultry, within a block of each other on Broadway in Chinatown, sold hundreds of freshly slaughtered chickens and turkeys Wednesday--at $1 a pound--to those who swear by their taste and texture.
The ambiance of live poultry shops may be less enticing than that of supermarkets--what with the wafting odors and the cacophony of caged birds clucking and feathers flapping.
But to regulars like Jacqueline Koster, such sounds and sights are invigorating.
"You feel like you're in the countryside," said the French-born Hollywood restaurateur. "This is what my grandmother did, what my mother did and now I do the same thing. . . . Everyone says frozen turkey is dry so I don't buy it. For the palate, you've got to spend a little."
This afternoon, Koster said, she will serve 10 relatives and friends a cognac-basted turkey as well as two guinea hens that Solis guaranteed would prove a worthy substitute for pheasant, of which he was temporarily out of stock.
By and large, the county's dozen licensed live poultry shops cater to immigrants who not only prefer the taste but also insist on sticking to their traditional customs and values, said inspector Arthur K. Endo of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
"Once they are more Americanized over a period of time, the more they get used to the American way--which is food packaged in the supermarket," Endo said. "Then, they don't have to go through the hassle of the stinky feathers and whatnot. . . . They can go to a nice clean place without birds flopping around."
Still, the inspector added, live shops "are pretty well run--they are catering to people who demand quality insofar as freshness and are quite critical, so the shops in essence are self-policing."
Measure of Status
Superior Poultry, for one, has been in business for more than five decades and has even attained that true measure of Los Angeles status: Tour buses regularly stop out front to allow for photographs, according to Solis.
"Some people even buy our live poultry to play a joke on somebody--say, stick them inside someone's locker," he said.
At Canton Poultry, the management talks turkey with its customers. "Not Responsible for Live Birds After Leaving Store," reads a sign over the busy front counter.
For consumers who feel that fowl is foul even if it is bought freshly killed, there is still one even more esoteric possibility, the county's only state-licensed live goat and pig retailer.
"We've sold probably 20 or 30 pigs for Thanksgiving," said John Spaw of the Goat Ranch in Wilmington. "We have the live pigs and goats and people come in and pick them and we butcher it for them.
"Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. I don't have time to raise my head," Spaw added.