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The Chicken Story
A CENTURY AGO you’d eat steak and lobster when you couldn’t afford chicken. Today it can cost less than the potatoes you serve with. What happened in the years between was an extraordinary marriage of technology and the market.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Hens, for their part, quickly came to symbolize much that is maternal and feminine. People saw in the tightly structured society of chickens, among the most social of all birds, a mirror of their own species, among the most social of all mammals.
Consequently, no domestic animal other than the dog has so many symbolic connotations as the chicken does. The mammoth new Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang devotes no fewer than six pages to the word chicken and its compounds. Hens, cocks, biddies, chicks , and others take up yet more pages.
The chicken spread from India toward the West and reached Greece at the time of the Persian Wars (Greeks still call chickens “Persian birds"). By the Roman era it was common throughout Western Europe. The Romans and Greeks thought that chickens were useful as diviners of the future, and Roman military leaders would offer a flock grain before a battle. If the birds devoured it, the auguries were good. If they did not, the general often would avoid battle. During the Punic Wars, one Roman admiral was so annoyed when the chickens, perhaps seasick, refused to eat that he threw them overboard, saying, “If they will not eat, let them drink!” and attacked anyway. He lost badly.
Chickens were often carried on shipboard for reasons other than forecasting the outcome of battles, for by Roman times chickens and their eggs had come to be used for food. They made excellent shipboard livestock. They took up little space, would eat nearly anything, and provided both fresh meat and eggs to people who otherwise had to subsist on ship’s biscuits and salted meat.
It is no wonder, then, that chickens arrived in the New World at very nearly the same time as Europeans. By 1609, only two years after its founding, Jamestown, Virginia, had as many as five hundred. The terrible famine in the winter of 1609-10 reduced that population to zero, or very nearly so. But once the colony was restocked from the West Indies the following spring, the chicken’s place in North America was secure.
For a very long time, the Americans’ husbandry of chickens was a casual affair at best, for chickens, unlike most barnyard animals, are quite self-sufficient. Often they weren’t even fed or housed but made their own way by snapping up grain spilled by the other animals, along with bugs, worms, and table scraps. At night they roosted in trees, which is why in those days white-feathered chickens were unpopular, being too easily spotted by foxes, hawks, and other predators.
Traditionally it was the job of the youngest child to hunt for the eggs every day, and surplus eggs sold locally were regarded as a small source of independent income for the farm wife, her so-called egg money.
But the average hen before the twentieth century laid only about thirty eggs a year, mostly in the spring. As a result, eggs varied greatly in price depending on the season, being cheapest in the spring and quite expensive in the late fall and early winter.
Because of this seasonality, the price of chickens in the market also varied considerably over the course of the year. But there was another reason chicken was, even in summer, a luxury dish: The production of chickens was strictly an amateur affair with little if any structure to the commercial channels that led from millions of small farm flocks to urban markets.
As a result, ladies’ magazines of the turn of the century frequently contained advice on how to substitute veal for chicken. Veal was then a drug in the market, a byproduct of an already professionalized and flourishing dairy industry that was at the time popular only with Italians and other immigrants from the Mediterranean.
The first change from the age-old way Americans husbanded chickens came in the 1830s when birds from China were imported as exotics into Britain. These so-called Cochins, which have fluffy plumage and feathered legs, caused a sensation in both the British Empire and the United States and set off a craze for breeding show chickens with extravagant features such as yards-long tail feathers and crests of feathers around the head.