Chicken Feed

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WHAT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! Chickens? What do they have to do with anything. Chickens!”

This was Elisabeth Aulepp, whose job is to sell advertising for American Heritage , and who evidently didn’t think our chicken feature would make it any easier.

“I mean, I’m going to go to Rolex and tell them we’re doing a story on chickens ?”

To hear her, you’d think she actually knew some chickens, those curiously unwinning birds: Betty MacDonald titled one of the chapters in her tremendous 1945 bestseller The Egg and I “I Learned to Hate Even Baby Chickens.”

“Well,” I temporized feebly, “it isn’t likely to be the cover story.”

“Thank God for that,” said Elisabeth, who then went for lunch at her favorite local place, Kenny Rogers Roasters, where you can have a fine chicken dinner for about the cost of a Big Mac.

Had Elisabeth instead been going to lunch in 1914 at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel (home, six years later, to the legendary “smoke-filled room” that put Warren Harding in the White House), she would have found this: Crabmeat supreme cost sixty cents, prime ribs a dollar and a quarter, imported venison steak twenty-five cents more than that, broiled lobster a dollar sixty—and chicken a whopping two dollars.

If the time-warped Elisabeth wasn’t entertaining a client and chose to dine more modestly (and seven years later) at the coffee shop of the nearby Hotel Sherman, it would have been the same story: “Loin of Milk-fed Veal w/ Kohlrabi au gratin 50¢”; “Roast Ribs of Prime Beef 60¢”; and “Plantation Chicken Short Cake 75¢.”

All across the country, chicken was the costliest of delicacies. The formidable menu of the Hotel Shawnee in Springfield, Ohio, offered breakfasters two lamb chops with bacon or a veal chop for fifty cents, a half spring chicken for seventy. It was the dish of celebration, occupying a place in the gustatory firmament that today would put it somewhere between porterhouse and caviar. There was a candy bar named Chicken Dinner, not because that was what it tasted like but because of the luxe and plenitude those two words suggested. There were songs about chicken; in them, whenever a high roller triumphed at the track or the poker table, the first thing he did was buy a chicken dinner (the meal, not the candy bar). If he held on to his earnings, he’d eat chicken every day for lunch.

Now, of course, chicken has become the great democratic protein, and you can afford to eat it daily if you can afford to eat a hot dog daily. The change happened very fast. For instance, it took my mother, who was born in 1902, wholly by surprise. One night she proudly served her special company dinner—chicken breasts with paprika—to a guest who rubbed his hands together and exclaimed, “Ah! Chicken! Good, cheap, hearty peasant fare!” (After this person had left, my father gave me another glimpse into an earlier era by declaring him a “bounder.”)

This transition from holiday luxury to fast food is the result of a process that John Steele Gordon details within. I think it is not only a fascinating story but an important one. We tend to see great historical shifts reflected in the more picturesque things—in the demise of steam railroading rather than the slow, cool seep of air conditioning that reconfigured the country far more radically. Or in the passing of the great transatlantic ocean liners rather than in . . . chickens. But it is worth remembering, when we consider such matters of historic consequence, that only the most minute percentage of the American population ever rode those gorgeous monsters to Europe. And 100 percent of it has always eaten food.