Just 100 years ago, chickens were both a delicacy of the privileged and the workaday staple of the average American’s diet. High society adored the fine white meat of domesticated chickens, while the working classes – who utilized chickens mostly for their eggs – threw tougher, older birds into the kettle for Sunday suppers and special occasions. No other food was held in such high esteem in all walks of American life.
Today, a trip to your local supermarket confirms the chicken’s reign as America’s favorite meat. But those frigid rows of perfectly packaged poultry and all their boneless, skinless options conceal two very important facts: 1) Today’s birds have virtually no flavor; and 2) they are raised in such morally and hygienically compromised settings that they aren’t even good for you.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you should throw out your coq au vin and chicken pot recipes. There are delicious and healthy alternatives out there. All you need is a little understanding of what makes for a good chicken, and then some tips on where to find it.
Hen and Now
Let’s start with a quick history lesson: All chickens are descended from Gallus Domesticus, whose ancestors were wild jungle fowl. The first known domestication of chickens took place in India and China, roughly four thousand years ago. By a.d. 200 the Romans and Celts were breeding chickens specifically for large breast size. Not much has changed since.
The Asian breeds arrived in Europe in the 18th century. These species were better (i.e., more frequent) egg layers and responded more favorably to Western breeders’ efforts to increase both breast size and meat tenderness. By the 1830s, life had become more urbanized, and the mania for chicken breeding intersected with a need for a cheap, reliable food-supply system. The results were nothing short of revolutionary.
Breeders introduced Americans to Indian game fowl, which they renamed Cornish game hen for political and marketing purposes; to the Leghorn, a prolific egg-laying Mediterranean bird; and to an Asian crossbreed called The Rhode Island Red, which became a real favorite for its plump breast meat, pristine white flesh, pale yellow skin and proclivity for early growth spurts. And thus began America’s ceaseless and ill-advised pursuit of maximum poultry-production efficiency, an effort that eventually succeeded in turning a flavorful and healthy food into an inexpensive but largely worthless commodity – one as potentially dangerous to your health as it is flavorless to the palate.
Today’s commercially bred chickens are technically not much different than their ancestors, but the methods used to raise them are shocking. According to the USDA, more than 7 billion birds were raised for consumption in 1998 alone. Ninety-seven percent of all egg layers are confined to cramped cages that are designed for maximum egg-production efficiency. According to the Animal Protection Institute (www.api4animals.org), five or six hens share each cage, which is roughly 16 inches wide. They are forced to produce 10 times the eggs per year than they would in the wild. This increased output taxes the hens’ bodies so severely that many of them suffer from diseases such as “fatty-liver syndrome” and “cage-layer fatigue.” To shock hens’ bodies into another egg-laying cycle, commercial poultry farms often force their birds to molt by starving them and denying them water for up to 18 days.
And that’s just the start of it. Disease and cannibalism are rampant in this polluted environment, so antibiotics are relied on to keep the birds “safe” for human consumption. The resulting immune-system suppression is not only harmful for the chickens but also bad for anyone who eats them. Then there are the hormones and genetic engineering to rush growth and swell breasts, the de-beaking and toe clipping to prevent the overcrowded birds from killing each other, and the male chick slaughter (males are of little use to the producers). Add to these atrocities the moisture and chemical additives used to maintain water weight and extend shelf life and you have a food product that has been so thoroughly compromised that it is practically inedible, not to mention ethically reprehensible. It’s no wonder that our poultry offended the Russians so much that they blocked exports to their country for more than seven months in 2001 alone.
Chicken producers routinely state that they rely on these methods to keep costs at a level the American consumer will respond to. This means that it’s up to us buyers to persuade supermarkets to stock chickens that are raised in healthier conditions. What does that look like? A good chicken is raised on organic feed. It is allowed to move freely (free-range) in uncrowded spaces, which will decrease the risk of cannibalism and diseases such as avian flu. It is not given any antibiotics or growth hormones.
Yes, quality birds raised with care may cost more, but in my mind there is no question they are worth it. The more organic and free-range chickens that you purchase, the louder the message to the commercial chicken suppliers will be…and the better your birds will taste.