5 Questions You've Always Had About Chickens — Answered!

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On this planet, there are now more chickens than any other bird, and many, many more chickens than humans. Nevertheless, most people know very little about the fowl they devour nearly every day. Last night, we addressed which came first, the chicken or the egg. For the enlightenment of all, here are the answers to five more questions about chickens.

What were the first chickens like, and what activities did they enjoy? And how did they become the modern chicken we love to eat today?

The ancestor of all chickens was a feathered beast we call Gallus gallus, "red junglefowl," that lived in the shade of India and southeastern Asia starting a few million years ago. These primal chickens lived in flocks, and probably liked pecking around, laying eggs, and fighting. At least that's what we presume kept them busy: but who really knows how they felt about the whole thing. Humans may have domesticated their first chickens in Thailand as early as 7500 BC, but G. gallus domesticus didn't arrive in the Mediterranean until much later, between 800 and 500 BC. Such a delay is unjustifiable, and certainly doesn't speak well for early man's priorities.

After that, everybody was eating chickens and chicken eggs. The European chicken, however, tended to be a scraggly barnyard scavenger, dropping eggs where it pleased and swallowing whatever it could, until the 19th century, when larger Chinese breeds were imported and everyone got excited about "exotic" chickens. Europeans and Americans started breeding chickens like the fate of the earth depended on it -- observers called the fad "hen fever" -- and they came out with all sorts of fanciful, colorful, curious beasts. A couple of breeds pulled through as ideal barnyard birds, favored for qualities of egg-laying (like the White Leghorn) or meaty-succulence (like the Cornish). And it was these strains that became the placid layers, roasters, broilers, and fryers we enslave to our own ends today.

If they were so smart, what did ancient Greek philosophers have to say about chickens?

For all the respect he's been given over the years, Plato had a notoriously rough time distinguishing chickens from human beings. One day at his academy, the story goes, Plato decided to define "man"; he wanted to allow plenty of leeway for variation and unknowns, so he left his statement somewhat vague: man is a biped without feathers. In response to this, a cynical rouge in the crowd by the name of Diogenes -- a thinker well-known for living in a tub and aspiring to the simplicity of street-dogs -- presented for peer review a plucked cock. "This is Plato's man," he scoffed. Of course Plato had to revise his definition -- but only slightly: man is a biped without feathers, and with broad, flat nails.

The moral of the story: philosophy is no cakewalk.

You also should know that Plato's beloved mentor, Socrates, mentioned chicken in his famous (if confounding) last words: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing, so Socrates probably meant that he had been cured of some illness and had to thank the god for it. But what was the illness, and what was the cure? There's some controversy in philosophical circles over this. Was the illness unreason, cured by philosophy? Or was the illness life, cured by death? For our purposes, what matters most is that Socrates, the very egg of Western philosophy, had chicken on his mind just before he conked out.

I have excellent taste and refined moral sensibilities -- so what kind of chicken am I supposed to buy at the grocery store?

Chicken packages are dense with code, and sometimes it all gets thick enough to make a poor soul give thought to throwing in the towel. But persist.

Some words simply refer to age and weight: "broilers" and "fryers" are young (6-8 weeks) and weigh less; "roasters" are older (11-20 weeks) and weigh more. (Older chickens are supposed to have more developed flavor.) Most of the other words have to do with a chicken's diet or the conditions in which it lived and was untimely killed. Regular grocery-store chickens are reliably tortured creatures, kept in small cages, immobile, saturated with antibiotics -- lives that we good citizens would only wish on America's enemies. "Free range" chickens have some access to the out-of-doors, even if it's only a small outdoor cage connected with the standard small indoor cage. "Organic" chickens eat organic feed and are antibiotic-free. "Natural" can mean almost anything.

"Kosher" and "Halal" chickens are killed according to Jewish and Muslim law, respectively. Both are hand-slaughtered; and kosher chickens are also cold-water de-feathered, soaked, brined, and dried. These are two of the few labels that many tasters agree will actually make a consistent difference in the meat's flavor. A clean, hand-made kill, with good drainage (every assassin's goal), won't result in blot clots that can toughen the meat. And the brining that kosher chickens undergo enhances flavor so much that some cookbooks recommend you do your own brining of any non-kosher chickens you buy.

Finally, it's worth mention that different brands breed for different qualities. Murray's goes for high yield, low fat breast meat. Perdue wants a high ratio of meat to bone. Etcetera.

After all that, it certainly seems that most of us have little choice but to make a half-blind decision and stick with it. Life is very short, and there are many chickens to eat.

Is it true that the Republican Party wants to put a chicken in every American's pot?

hoover-radio.jpgWell, at least it was true. A 1928 Republican Party flyer did promise "a chicken for every pot" -- an idea they adopted from the French king Henry IV, who once wished that no peasant would be so poor as to lack a chicken in his pot on Sunday (for which he earned the tedious nickname, King of the Chicken in the Pot). The flyer was part of Herbert Hoover's presidential campaign; but Hoover never spoke the words himself, and it was his Democratic rival, Al Smith, who attributed this whimsical, easily-mockable statement to Hoover. The promised-chicken soon became a nasty joke as the Depression rolled in, and less people were eating less chicken, less of the time. It was a joke that Republicans couldn't shake for some time. Even FDR and Kennedy were known to make cracks about Hoover's chickens.

I'm not familiar with the current Party position, as far as chickens in American pots. I can only assume they'd rather we all had chickens than nothing.

Why is Werner Herzog afraid of chickens?

Contemporary German filmmaker Werner Herzog has won global acclaim for his artsy films (like Aguirre, The Wrath of God) and documentaries (like Grizzly Man). While explicit themes or ideas don't easily untangle from Herzog's weird, haunting imagery, everyone can agree on one recurrent symbol: the chicken. Even Dwarfs Started Small includes cannibalistic chickens and cock fight footage. Game in the Sand starred four children and a rooster, but wasn't released because Herzog felt the filming "got out of hand." And, climactically, Stroszek ends with a chicken dancing on tabletop for several minutes to a wild, hootin' tune.

What's the deal, Werner? Well, he explained in a 1974 interview, "chickens frighten me. I was the first to show that chickens are cannibalistic and horrible. What is most frightening about them is when you look directly into their eyes: what looks back at you is dullness, death and dullness." Watch enough of Herzog's films and you might consider your next chicken sandwich to be part of a noble crusade.

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February 11, 2009 - 12:20pm
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