The chicken of the past was a rare bird. Literally, at least when it came to the dinner table. When Herbert Hoover promised “a chicken in every pot” should he win, he wasn't so much referring to the innocuous white meat that chicken has become today, but rather the exclusive meal that chicken used to be. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, chicken was rarely on the dinner table, unless an old hen happened to survive long enough to make it to the soup pot.
There are many reasons that the historical chicken wasn’t typically raised for meat. Our great-great-grandparents’ birds were thrifty little creatures, surviving on kitchen scraps and largely responsible for keeping themselves out of trouble- the kind of trouble with four legs, sharp teeth, and a bottomless appetite. These chickens grew at a much slower rate, taking 4-6 months to reach a size that modern commercial broilers reach in under 2 months. And with a high mortality rate and smaller size, the return on eggs was potentially higher than the single meal a bird would make. Eating a chicken would be like pulling up the whole blueberry bush for a single harvest.
Today’s chicken is a different creature entirely. The hybrid meat birds bred by the commercial chicken industry actually had their genetic start in a 1940s contest called “The Chicken of Tomorrow.” Farmers were cash-incentivized to grow the largest bird with the best feed-to-meat ratio. Their inspiration came in the form of a curvy wax chicken model that was shipped to poultry farmers around the country. Unfortunately, flavor wasn’t one of the standards on the judges’ score cards.
The contest winners of the 1940’s live on in the modern broiler, which is plumper and meatier than ever before. By the time one reaches the butchering age of 7 or 8 weeks, they’re often too big for their own legs to support them. No matter; there isn’t enough room to fall over as current law requires only the size of one sheet of common printer paper per bird. This regulation drastically reduces the investment required in land and -as the birds live out their days inside- sharply reduces the risk of predators, two factors that contribute to chicken’s affordability today.
Feed is another way that we’ve cheapened the modern bird. Commercial broilers are fed a combination of GMO-corn and soy, devoid of most natural nutrients and instead fortified with a calculated blend of synthetics. Added growth hormones ensure rapid development and antibiotics are included to ward off the diseases unavoidable in the compressed environment. What this results in, nutritionally, is a far cry from a heritage bird raised in a free-range environment.
And then we’ve cheated the chicken emotionally. Head towards the meat counter of any grocery store and you find various Styrofoam and plastic-wrapped packages of clean, white meat labeled “Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast” or “Chicken Tenders” or already sitting in a mouth-watering marinade. No meat is less demanding on the consumer in cooking skills, animal association, or flavor acceptance. It’s dodged recommendations from the dietetic gurus to reduce red meat and benefits from lightly regulated terms like “free-range,” “vegetarian-fed,” and “extra omega-3.” As a result, upwards of 22 million chickens are consumed every day with a side of minimal guilt.
While pasture-raised pork and grass-fed beef has become a grocery store staple, it's harder to find truly well-raised chicken. I still remember the first time I bought a locally raised, organic broiler from a new artisan butcher in town. It was a very small -but plump- bird with carotene-yellowed skin, and came with a steep price somewhere north of $20. At the time, I didn’t understand why a bird from just up the road should be so expensive, but after a few seasons of raising my own, I get it.
Many homesteaders are surprised and discouraged when they do the math after their first year of raising meat birds, only to discover that they spent more per bird in feed, materials, and time than they would have if they purchased decent quality, supermarket chicken. But they shouldn’t be. Whether free ranging or not, broilers consume quite a bit of food. This is compounded when the breed is a slower growing heritage or heritage cross, better for flavor but more demanding in time and resources. They need safe housing against predators and daily management to avoid disease and parasites. Processing is its own beast, more often happening in the backyard with a crew of volunteers than at a processing plant, where you would send a larger meat animal.
There are lessons learned with experience, of course, that chip away at this cost per bird, but the biggest lesson to be learned is that chicken IS costly. And that’s an important lesson. Chicken shouldn’t be the thoughtless scoop of protein added to your lunch Caesar, innocuous and white, promising satiety and nailing your grams-of-protein goal. As with all meat, we need to return to an understanding of -and respect for- the animal that provided that nourishment, consuming only birds raised with care and conscientiousness. If you aren’t sure about that entree on the menu or the wings in the butcher cooler, save your chicken for another meal.
The best way to combat the commercial poultry industry is to find and support your local farmers. Check out www.localharvest.org, www.localfarmmarkets.org, or www.eatwild.com/products for a listing in your area.