Thursday, June 20, 2024

A Chicken Book

On one of his visits to the Bahamas, Christopher Columbus tasted iguana. In his log he wrote “the meat is white and tastes like chicken.”  On his second voyage, in fact, Columbus brought along a small flock of egg laying hens. This familiar creature had a long history with humans, going back 8000 to 10,000 years. 

Emelyn Rude’s book, titled Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, is an exploration of the New World history of this domestic fowl. The author’s focus is on the ups and downs of chicken popularity in America after Columbus and many others brought the chicken over here. 

It’s fun to read. I enjoyed the many historic recipes that Rude included to illustrate a variety of attitudes towards chicken. Like Columbus’s chickens, most of the early birds worked as egg producers, and a chicken dinner was unusual, especially because red meat was generally preferred to white meat. 

The development of the beef and pork industries in the late 19th and early 20th century meant the creation of a network of transportation, feed lots, and slaughtering facilities to deliver safe-to-eat red meat to urban consumers. Getting chickens on the tables of Americans took more time and different infrastructure. Tastes Like Chicken documents the development of chicken farms in California, the DelMarVa Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) and in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries. The invention of huge-scale chicken houses, battery farms, and slaughter houses was critical to the mass produced birds that we now consume. 

The mass production of chickens is attributed to Cecile Steele in the DelMarVa Penninsula in the 1920s.
When she received 500 baby chicks instead of the 50 she had ordered, she figured out how to raise them.
Her profitable larger-scale chicken farm was the start of the chicken industry as it operates today.

Another key development of the 1950s and after was the creation of chicken breeds that produced plenty of tender meat faster and more efficiently. I was interested in the recurring challenges of chicken diseases and the use of antibiotics: controversial issues throughout the years. The book also describes the logistics of chicken transport from farm to city tables, and issues such as monopolies and corruption in government oversight.

I enjoyed learning how more and more chicken recipes were invented — from McNuggets to General Tso’s chicken. For each era of chicken consumption, the author includes contemporary recipes from cookbooks and newspaper articles, which illustrate how the bird would have been eaten by people of differing social and economic levels. For example, chicken salad was a dish served at upscale restaurants and hotels in the late 19th century — its preparation was quite elaborate.

My favorite part of the book was the description of how the chicken industry convinced American consumers to barbecue chickens in the 1950s. Backyard barbecue pits and grills were coming into fashion in the post-war years when domestic life was rebounding and being redefined. Huge quantities of chicken for the troops overseas had sustained chicken producers, but no longer were needed. All forms of rationing and self-denial were over — so everyone wanted beef! What did the chicken industry do? Promote “Chick-N-Que.”

Mid-20th Century promotion of a chicken barbecue using Wesson Oil, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce,
Tabasco Sauce, Reynold’s Wrap, Coke, and broiler chickens from the National Broiler Council.

Have you heard people complain that industrially raised chickens don’t have any taste? That the old-fashioned farmers’ chickens were more delicious? Well, that seems to be wrong when subjected to actual taste tests. Chicken never did have that strong a taste which is why so many meats “taste like chicken.”

Review © 2024 mae sander


Yvonne said...

This sounds like a very interseting book, but I guess it does not go into the big industrial method of raising chickens totally indoors, packed so close together that they can hardly move. Other than that, it does sound like good reading.

Boud said...

Where does "A chicken in every pot" fit in? I find the free range chicken I buy bears no resemblance to supermarket chicken in taste. So I wonder about the dismissal of that experience.

My name is Erika. said...

That sounds like a fun book. I think it's great to read about every day common things, like chickens. Hope you're staying cool and happy summer. hugs-Erika

Mae Travels said...

Dear Commenters — You are so right about chicken topics that I didn’t talk about in my brief review of this book, but in fact, these topics and many others that I did not mention are covered in some detail in the book itself. Indeed, the author does discuss the whole chicken-raising industry and how it developed and how the chickens are treated. In a short blog post I couldn’t even list all the ideas that are in the book.

best… mae

Valerie-Jael said...

Chicken is the only meat that I eat occasionally, but always from a local place where they raise their own poultry. But I do miss the Friday evening roasyt chicken we always had as children! Have a great day, Valerie

Divers and Sundry said...

What I remember about chickens from years past is how much smaller chicken breasts were. Chicken breasts now are ginormous!!!

eileeninmd said...

Great review and an interesting book.
I am sure there are many chickens in the USA being BBQ right now. I am always looking for new ways to prepare chicken.
I often wonder about the chicken I eat and where it comes from, do I want to know? Maybe not. Take care, have a great day and happy weekend.

eileeninmd said...

Hello Mae,
I am stopping back to say thank you for linking up and sharing your post.
The chicken photo is amazing, I can imagine raising 500 chicks.
Take care, have a wonderful weekend. PS, thank you for leaving me a comment.

Iris Flavia said...

Very interesting.
The most interesting for me was the Broiler.
I grew up in West Germany and when the wall fell many asked if I want a "Broiler".
What??? What is that???

And ever since I thought this is an East--German word.
I was wrong!

As they were not "free" many parents gave their children American names to symbolize freedom.
Reckon that´s why BBQ-chicken was named Broiler, too.
Thank you.

I like chicken because you can GIVE them taste, you are right they are per se rather tasteless.

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

That's interesting. I grew up in an area with lots of chicken houses. (in Arkansas) How about that cranberry sauce? That brings back memories too!

Vagabonde said...

This might be an interesting book, but one I am unlikely to read. I don’t like chicken meat and try to avoid it as much as possible, which is not easy in Nashville, the city of « hot chicken. ». So anything to do with chicken I stay away from. But in a way it’s funny because when we bought our house in Georgia the former owner’s son had built a chicken coop in the backyard and there were about 10 hens there and one rooster (that would wake us up early…)Our little girls love them, so we kept them and even bought several different breeds. They were pets really with their own names. We had them for years and gave their eggs to our neighbors. We would never have eaten our chickens, our daughters would have been horrified. I did not think about it, but maybe that’s why both my daughters don’t like to eat chicken either.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

Fried chicken every Sunday when I lived at home. Special holidays got ham, duck, or rabbit. Chicken was for us, not company. I would like to find this book. It definitely sounds interesting.