THIS season millions of Americans will celebrate with turkey on the table. The turkey is, after all, the native North American animal that Benjamin Franklin considered “a much more respectable bird” than the scavenging bald eagle. But while the eagle landed on the country’s Great Seal and the turkey gets pride of place at our holiday dinners, neither bird can claim to have changed American culture more than their lowly avian cousin, the chicken.
English settlers arriving at Jamestown in 1607 brought a flock of chickens that helped the struggling colony survive its first harsh winters, and the bird was on the Mayflower 13 years later. But the popularity of the Old World fowl soon faded, as turkey, goose, pigeon, duck and other tastier native game were plentiful. Click here to read the rest of the article.
This proved a boon for enslaved Africans. Fearful that human chattel could buy their freedom from profits made by selling animals, the Virginia General Assembly in 1692 made it illegal for slaves to own horses, cattle or pigs. Poultry, though, wasn’t considered worth mentioning.
This loophole offered an opportunity. Most slaves came from West Africa, where raising chickens had a long history. Soon, African-Americans in the colonial South — both enslaved and free — emerged as the “general chicken merchants,” wrote one white planter. At George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, slaves were forbidden to raise ducks or geese, making the chicken “the only pleasure allowed to Negroes,” one visitor noted. The pleasure was not just culinary, but financial: In 1775, Thomas Jefferson paid two silver Spanish bits to slaves in exchange for three chickens. Such sales were common.
Black cooks were in a position to influence their masters’ choice of dishes, and they naturally favored the meat raised by their friends and relatives. One of the West African specialties that caught on among white people was chicken pieces fried in oil — the meal that now, around the world, is considered quintessentially American.
Slaves laid the foundation for the American appetite for chicken, but it was the forced opening of China by the West in the 1840s that made the modern bird possible. American ships brought specimens of Asian chickens never seen in America. Breeders crossed the large and colorful exotics with their smaller but hardier Western counterparts to produce a bird that could lay more eggs and provide more meat. The results were famous varieties, like the Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Red, that appeared just as the nation began to industrialize.
Still, chicken rearing in the United States remained a small-scale family business; American meat-eating tended toward pork and beef, with chickens used mostly for eggs.
That began to change with the arrival of millions of Eastern European Jews, who relied on chicken as a meat source. By 1900, New York City boasted 1,500 kosher butcher shops, stocked by train cars filled with live chickens that arrived mainly from farms in the Midwest, where rural women, who ran much of the poultry business at the time, took advantage of the growing demand.
Their market soon extended beyond immigrant Jews. Millions of people were leaving their Midwestern and Southern farms for factory jobs in the expanding cities in the North. Finding a reliable and cheap source of protein was critical. Pork and beef were expensive for urban shoppers, and there were not enough eggs produced in the United States to satisfy their appetites. The chicken business started to take off.
World War I gave chickens another boost, when beef and pork stocks were diverted to the troops. Then, in 1923, an entrepreneurial Delaware woman named Celia Steele began sending the first broilers to New York, birthing a multibillion-dollar industry. For the first time, chickens began to be sold solely for their meat on a mass scale.
The rise of the chicken continued through the Great Depression, when chicken farming helped many farmers get by. Henry A. Wallace, a sometime vegetarian pacifist from Iowa who also served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary and vice president, argued that the chicken was the savior of poverty-stricken rural Americans. The company he helped found in the 1920s is now the world’s largest single producer of egg-laying hens. Finally, in the 1950s, engineers and scientists created a bird that could grow quickly with minimal feed — and the chicken we know today emerged.
Today chicken is cheap, and it has become America’s favorite meat. In the land of the hamburger, we eat more of it than beef. And while we enjoy turkey at Thanksgiving, over the course of the year we will consume five times as much chicken.
The bonanza of cheap meat and eggs has been a boon in many ways, but it has come at a largely hidden cost. Billions of chickens, both layers and broilers, live in vast warehouses locked behind fences and unprotected by federal regulations, which don’t consider poultry raised for food as animals. Then there are the low-paid workers who labor in the cold and dark of processing plants with high rates of injury, and the environmental degradation that sullies our waterways. And today’s industrial bird is a relatively tasteless food that we must relentlessly flavor with sauces, marinades and rubs.
So as we celebrate and give thanks this season, take a moment to consider the lowly chicken, and how its story and that of our country are so deeply entwined. The bird that gets little respect is the creature that has given us more than we know.
Andrew Lawler is the author of “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization.”