Many Americans today probably think that chicken is a "food product," one of those compositions infused with partially hydrogenated soybean oil and other embalming fluids, manufactured on an assembly line in standard bite-sized pieces. Finicky fast-food eaters would be repelled by a drumstick or thigh with actual bones and veins, and would be shocked to learn that the juicy golden filet on a bun pictured in television ads starts out as part of a living creature with wings, feathers, a gizzard and a beating heart.
Anyone who grew up on pan-fried chicken served at shrines such as the Green Parrot in Kansas City knows better. We chicken lovers scoff at chicken "nuggets" and "fingers." To us, the mass-produced creatures forcefed in factories and marketed in groceries as "chickens" are not real chickens at all.
Corby Kummer discussed the shameful degradation of chicken in a recent Atlantic Monthly article. Kummer lamented the disappearance of the "grainy and muscular yet succulent meat of my childhood," and scornfully referred to grocery store chicken as "wet cardboard."
He praised the Slow Food movement for promoting humane and healthy chicken husbandry and rhapsodized about small-scale operations that raise chickens according to pasturing methods. These birds "eat grass and peck for bugs rather than standing in miserably cramped pens," he wrote. "They spend the daylight hours outdoors. Their meat tastes so good it's hard to believe you're eating chicken and not some special game bird. The dark meat is much darker because the birds have actually exercised; all of the meat has sinew and taste. The fat is deep gold rather than an anemic yellow."
Kummer's words excited me, because I love chicken. Delicacies such as chicken fricassee, chicken a la king, chicken cacciatore and even the lowly chicken pot pie appear often in my dreams. As a young man, it was nothing for me to polish off 20 pieces of fried chicken in a single sitting. My chicken-eating exploits won me the name of "Chicken George." All-you-can-eat chicken shacks dreaded my approach. I put many of them out of business.
Though my appetite has moderated with age, chicken remains my favorite food. I've been raising my own chickens in pursuit of just the kind of chicken Kummer was talking about. Alas, though I've employed the free-range methods he praised and shunned artificial growth stimulants, they have proved to be indistinguishable from the chickens you buy in a store.
These birds have been genetically engineered to put on weight at a freakish speed and are ready for market at 6-8 weeks. Some grow so fast that their legs can't support them. They waddle rather than walk. Occasionally they topple over, a depressing sight. Mortality is high. One chicken raiser I met lost 79 out of 90 of these birds to the heat.
Kummer's article gave me a ray of hope. He made reference to Frank Reese of Lindsborg, a pioneer in the preservation of heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. According to Reese, birds designed for unnatural rates of growth will taste bland no matter how you grow them. Taste depends on breed as much as what the birds are fed. Reese sent me to a colleague who's been raising chickens for the New York gourmet restaurant market. I returned from his farm with 41 three-week-old Cornish chicks in the back seat of my car.
The differences between these birds and the ones I'd been raising were dramatic. The Cornish were robust, handsome, full of curiosity and energy. They even had distinct personalities. One - the smallest of the bunch - attacked me fearlessly whenever I entered her quarters, pecking furiously at my shoes. The Cornish birds took twice as long to reach market weight as the genetically engineered ones and were far hardier. I didn't lose a single one. It was a pleasure to watch them exploring their outdoor pen, pecking at weeds and chasing bugs. To deprive them of the freedom to run and fly would have been a kind of crime.
We disparage the intelligence of chickens, but it's hard not to see some similarities between them and us. Though they live in a kind of utopia with all the necessities of life provided free of charge, some instinctive discontent inspires them constantly to quarrel. They can't walk past one another without inflicting a few gratuitous pecks or at least flinging an insulting squawk.
Even as little puffballs, the cockerels pair off and fly at one another like game cocks in training. One moment peace and the Golden Rule reign. Then at some imperceptible signal, the entire flock erupts in a cacophonous riot. A chicken minding its own business is an irresistible target for others who, out of meanness or mere boredom, are looking to pick a fight. Just as with us, peaceful coexistence is not in their genes.
I spared a few birds from the trip to the processor, keeping them for egg layers and propagators of more chicks. Though the Cornish birds come in two colors, jet black and piebald white, the roosters make no distinctions between "Us" and "Them," at least when it comes to sex. I'm fond of my birds, even though most of them end up in my freezer. By keeping a few for reproduction, I like to think that I'm participating in the perpetuation of a unique and noble breed. Regarding those who meet their doom at the processor's, may each of us go to our ultimate "market" as philosophically and with as much dignity as they do.
As for my little tormentor, the one who pecked so annoyingly at my shoes, I ate her first. I hope the rest taste just as good.