The Chicken Story


King Henri IV of France was a great king. He was also, perhaps, the world’s first real politician—for in the course of his ten-year battle to secure the French throne for the Bourbon dynasty he began deliberately enlisting public opinion and even invented the political slogan to help him do so. Instinctively knowing the shortest route to his people’s hearts, he told them, “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.”

Henri IV’s choice of chicken to symbolize prosperity was no accident, for it had always been a dish reserved, because of its cost, for special occasions like Sunday dinner, holidays, and celebrations. And for fully three hundred years after Henri’s time, nothing happened to change that. Indeed, as late as 1928 the Republican party, cribbing shamelessly, promised the American people continued prosperity and “a chicken in every pot.” The Republicans, of course, did not deliver on their promises, and the Great Depression ended seventy years of Republican political dominance in this country.


IT IS IRONIC, THEN, NOT to mention instructive, that in the six-plus decades since, the free market has delivered what the politicians could not: cheap chicken. So cheap, in fact, that today the chicken you buy at the supermarket for dinner can cost less than the potatoes you intend to serve with it. How it evolved so quickly from a luxury that only the rich could regularly afford into the cheapest form of quality animal protein available makes a very American—and very capitalist—story.

But there is one major difference between the history of the modern American poultry industry and that of most other segments of the American economy. The oil industry rose under the dominance of John D. Rockefeller. The mass-market automobile was the brainchild of one genius, Henry Ford. The computer revolution of the present day has been ever increasingly influenced by William Gates and Microsoft.

The poultry industry, however, has no single, outstanding figure. Instead, hundreds if not thousands of individuals, each with, at best, only local fame and no intention aforethought, created the modern industry. Many failed and fell by the wayside; others succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. But as these individuals pursued their self-interests with hard work, insight, and the assumption of risk, they greatly benefited the economy as a whole. Collectively, they constitute a nearly perfect example of Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work.

Chickens were among the last of the major domestic animals to come under the sway of man and the only one, aside from the water buffalo, to come from eastern Asia and Africa. But the chicken’s impact —gastronomic, agricultural, religious, literary, economic, and even psychological—has been immense.

Gallus gallus , the red jungle fowl, is still common in the wooded areas of India and Southeast Asia, from the foothills of the Himalayas to Sumatra. It is the ancestor of all domestic chickens; indeed it remains conspecific with them, although a few other chickenlike birds, such as pheasants and other species of jungle fowl, probably contributed genes.

Jungle fowl live in small groups consisting of one cock and several hens. The cock is a gorgeous bird, with a fiery red head and saddle feathers. The hackles (the neck feathers) shade downward from red to yellow while the feathers of the breast and tail are an iridescent green-black. The hen is much plainer, a rusty brown, which helps conceal her during the period of incubation, for these are ground-nesting birds.

The lean, tightly muscled, and undoubtedly tough-as-rubber-bands red jungle fowl weighs only about two pounds when fully mature and was not originally domesticated for purposes of eating. Instead, two peculiar characteristics of the cock probably led to the bird’s coming to live with humankind. One is his habit of crowing very loudly at the first hint of daylight, thus serving as a natural alarm clock in an agricultural community. The crowing bird is still a potent symbol of the dawn generations after most Americans last heard it.

Cockfighting is so exciting, bloody, and freighted with symbolism that it flourishes despite all legal repression.

The second habit that led to domestication is the cock’s extreme and unrelenting, even unto death, aggressiveness toward other, unfamiliar males of his species. It is this characteristic that makes the sport of cockfighting so exciting, so bloody, and so freighted with masculine symbolism that it persists, indeed flourishes, in this country today despite decades of attempted legal repression.