Saturday, November 29, 2014

Guest Essay: In Defense of the Chicken

My friend Hank Shaw is a journalist, hunter, forager and author. Recently he published an essay on what we think of as the most boring meat imaginable, the chicken. He excoriates those who brought this once noble bird to its current lowly state, and makes the case for why we should gladly pay $5 a pound for it. He gave me permission to post an excerpt, and I encourage you to click through to read the entire essay.

I bought a chicken the other day. To virtually every other American, this is an event akin to taking out the trash, or driving to work — a commonplace barely worth noting. But there’s something you should know: I have not bought meat for the home more than a handful of times over the past decade. So buying any meat is very much an event for me. You might ask why on earth, of all the things that I could have chosen to break my self-imposed fast on domesticated meats, would I buy a chicken?

Because of all the flavors I miss from the store-bought world — ribeyes, skirt steak, a huge pork chop, shrimp — chicken is the one I long for most often. Chicken. You read that right. Chicken deserves respect. It deserves to be reclaimed by the culinary world for what it has been for most of human history: A bird worthy of a king’s table, a gift for cooks to work magic on. A platter of home.

How Americans came to believe that $1 a pound chicken is as inalienable a right as free speech or the right to bear arms is a depressing story of industrial might over right. Suffice to say that when Frank Perdue said it took a tough man to make a tender chicken, he was right. He and his colleague John Tyson needed to be OK with debasing a once prized bird, to polluting environments and destroying whole communities. The industrial chicken is a wretched shadow of its former self. To paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien: “they were chickens once… tortured, and mutilated… a ruined and terrible form of life…now perfected.”

The modern chicken has a breast so big it can barely walk or fly. It’s lethargic, to the point where even if a farmer gives it pasture to roam it won’t. It grows with frightening speed: In 1960 it took about 5 months to raise a meat chicken for market. Now it can be done in 6 weeks. In 1925, a chicken needed to eat 4.7 pounds of feed to gain 1 pound. Now it only needs to eat 1.9 pounds of feed to gain the same pound. Only tilapia, the Soylent Green of fish, has a better feed ratio.

This is the chicken you eat. And we Americans eat a lot of it. Chicken topped beef as America’s favorite meat in 1992. In 2006 we ate an average of 87.7 pounds of these birds, the highest poundage on record. And as you well know, we are not eating all this chicken as a whole bird.

Various shreds of it are glued together to make your McNugget. It’s injected with a saline solution to “plump” it and make the watery, flabby, tasteless meat even more tender; apparently teeth are no longer needed to enjoy your skinless, boneless chicken lump. it’s sliced and diced in so many ways that the concept of roasting a whole chicken — once a bedrock skill every cook possessed — is now so daunting it’s a challenge on Top Chef. (Incidentally, chicken used to be almost always sold whole, with the head and feet on, right up into the 1950s. Why? Consumers judged chickens like fish: Are the eyes clear? Feet fresh looking? People knew what a good chicken looked like. Now if you did that you’d create an incident, unless you are at an Asian market. )

No wonder the average consumer recoils in horror at the notion of $5 a pound chicken. Chicken has become our baseline, our lowest common denominator of meat. It’s our daily bread, a right like free bread in ancient Rome or free gas in modern Saudi Arabia.

Read the rest of this essay.

Top photo by Holly A. Heyser.

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