Cock of the walk

It has always interested me that the American equivalent of the British cockerel is rooster. Now, both are plainly quite ridiculous words that do not impart any degree of avian dignity but the most striking thing is that the two words are so markedly different from each other. Rooster derives from the verb to roost, of Norse origin. Cockerel originally referred to a young bird with the adult being cock. The slang word for a human male member is directly related to the bird, the idea being that the bird holds itself up proud and struts around, and is also adept at impregnating hens. Despite the English word resembling the French noun coq, there is no linguistic evidence of a common root, though life constantly provides examples that intuitively proves what empirical data cannot substantiate. After all, love is one of the central features of our lives, of our entire civilization, yet is a solidly unscientific and unquantifiable notion. The bird is a national symbol of France, an association that is, deliciously, based on a pun. The Latin for this galline creature is gallus with Gallia being France (as in Julius Caeser’s “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” . . . ), and the pun came about in the Middle Ages. It was in the aftermath of the French Revolution that the animal was assimilated in earnest as a national emblem, quite understandably so as an entirely new iconography was needed to replace the centuries old and profoundly deep-seated focus on the monarchy as the symbol of national unity. It is a prime example of the triumph of figurative value over reality, since the bird is an especially unappealing, undistinguished, and quite repulsive bird, insisting on its territory, strutting furiously, and quite literally ruling the roost. With no political intention in mind, I draw attention to the fact that it takes pride of place atop the gates to the President of the French Republic’s official residence, below, a palace that was once bought by Louis XV as a gift to his mistress, Madame de Pompadour.

ImageGiven its somewhat earthy reputation and its quite unedifying behaviour, it comes as a surprise to note that the rooster possesses wholesome spiritual connotations. In St John’s Gospel, Christ tells Peter that, despite his entreaties of loyalty, he will have denied him not once, not even twice, but thrice before the cock crows (John 13:37-38). According to tradition, Peter awoke every morning in tears for the rest of his life. Another legend embellishes this with the detail that the streams of the saint’s tears carved lachrymose lines into his face, a beautiful idea of guilt physically manifesting itself, whether true or no. In an age before alarm clocks, it served a practical function in marking the beginning of the day. Consequently, the animal represents vigilance and watchfulness, a trope that is best seen in its use as a weather vane, a reminder that we all need to be mindful of our actions, no matter where the wind blows, and all stand in readiness for the sudden return of Christ.

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The bird has become synonymous with French sports and gastronomy, not altogether disassociated in France given that Nutella was an official sponsor of the French national football team. One dish that has come to evoke France in public consciousness is coq au vin. It was really thanks to the efforts of Julia Child that the recipe has become so popular during the past six decades. Julia, however, rather naughtily substituted chicken for cockerel, a breach of history as well as making little gastronomical sense since the meat of the male bird is tougher and requires the oenophilic and chronological tenderizing for which the recipe calls. There is a clip of the inimitable Julia making the dish here. The British equivalent of the American cook was Fanny Cradock and, while the style of each TV chef differed enormously, both are united by a common love of French cuisine as well as being a staple subject of drag queens. There is a stupendous golden rooster in Le Train Bleu, the mythic Parisian restaurant and bar, proudly watching over this hallowed space. I took the image below on one of my visits there (for cocktails rather than food) a couple of years ago.

Train bleu

Cock-fighting, a long and inglorious sport across the world, reveals more about humankind’s inhumanity than anything to do with the bird. A sad remnant of this horrendous sport occurred during World War I with the with the founding of the Order of the White Feather which encouraged women to pin a white feather on men to humiliate them for not being on the field of warfare and to publicly display their supposed cowardice, a phenomenon that features in the first episode of the second season of Downton Abbey. A superstition long held in cockfighting was that a bird sporting a white feather in its tail would not fare well in the ring. Sometimes the men that were targetted by the plume-donating zealots were legitimately absent from the war because of their ideology, disability, or protected profession. The symbol was, happily, later reclaimed by pacifist movements, at the tail end of this tale. A rooster’s tail feather haw a very fetching slender shape, making it very distinctive and not unappealing, and there is a healthy trade in these feathers on sites such as Etsy, since they are readily used in fashion accessories such as millinery adornment.

jan 2012 864

Today’s cufflinks suggest a rooster’s head to me, and are crafted out of beautifully oxidized 820 grade silver. They bear the maker’s mark of Relo, a German firm, and the abstract, mildly brutalist, form hints at the late 1950s to mid-1960s as their creation date.  The choice of the rooster is a rare counterpoint to the more commonly found owl, widely favoured by designers working during this period, that might be roughly -although clumsily- termed Eames Era. I find the contours of the pair as well as the contrast of the hues in the aged silver to be very fetching, though the hypnotic eyes hint at the bird’s long-standing role of watchfulness and vigilance.

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