The Fat of the Land

Month: March, 2015

Gilding the Chicken

Lialias roast chicken

I have grown used to berries that cost almost $4 a pint, eggs that teeter between $6 and $7 a dozen, ground beef or lamb that rings in around $5 a serving. I exclusively seek out (sometimes) pricy farmers market vegetables, not because of their expense or any illusion of status it implies, but because I so deeply crave their exquisite freshness I’m reluctant to settle for the same item from even the best grocery store. I’m not rolling in expendable income (I work for a farmers market!), but I choose to weave these sometimes-extra costs into my monthly budget, giving up other luxuries (cable TV, a car from the 21st century, good wine), for the ability to transform the abstract numbers of my bank account into the tangible wealth of authentic food.

For all my acceptance of higher food prices (which one could—and should—argue are closer to the real cost of food), I still gasp at the price of a pasture-raised chicken. Knowing that the chicken was happy and free, fed good food and allowed to nibble on forage and insects while roaming under the nourishing sun, that it was compassionately slaughtered and minimally processed to arrive in the cooler at my feet with as much flavor and nutrition as possible, just doesn’t completely remove the sting of its $30 price tag. I want to buy it, but the penny-pinching core of me rejects it, wonders why it costs so much and how it could possibly be worth it.

Life is about tradeoffs. Even within the terms we set for ourselves, we reach a limit to what we’ll accept: maybe pasture-raised chicken is mine, though I suspect it’s not that simple. Chicken holds tightly in our minds to its status as the everyman’s protein: healthy, abundant, and cheap. It has not, in recent history, held distinction in mainstream American culture, as does a prime cut of beef or a filet of salmon. Rather, low-priced chicken has begun to feel like something of a birthright to most meat-eating Americans, myself, apparently, included.

Almost all of the chicken purchased in the US is the product of factory farms, warehouses packed with upwards of 20,000 birds, too crowded to do much of anything in their short, filth-ridden lives than eat antibiotic-laced food that keeps them well enough to survive to a decent slaughter weight. In a factory farm scenario, it takes about two pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken meat. Contrast that with the four pounds of feed (and extended growth period) for one pound of pasture-raised chicken meat, or the seven pounds of feed required for a pound of beef.

The motivation behind the last century’s unprecedented rise in mass chicken production is not difficult to see. Through factory farming innovations, chicken became a protein we could efficiently produce, that found the sweet spot every industry aspires to: good return on investment and a market demand that grew with production capability. As factory farms got better at churning out huge numbers of chickens, consumers were happy to buy them (and, because of their lean muscle, health experts were eager to advocate for them), driving the price of chicken staggeringly low (in the early 2000’s, the average price per pound was around a dollar, now it’s usually double that, still $3-$7 less per pound than its pasture-raised counterpart).

Cheap chicken production comes with hidden costs: environmental costs in the form of heavy pollution near factory farm sites, ethical costs when we must mistreat an animal in order to increase the economic return of raising it, social costs from the loss of family farm diversity and contracted workers tangled in a modern-day form of indentured servitude. And the chicken this system produces is dangerous. Consumer Reports recently conducted a survey that found raw chicken from all major brands had moderate to high levels of food pathogen contamination, including many strains known to be resistant to antibiotics. Even when properly handled and cooked, public health experts estimate that such chicken, still inside its packaging, can potentially transfer enough trace bacteria to make you sick (read more here).

Yet, fear and distrust of one product doesn’t necessarily create desire for another, as with my aversion to $30 chickens. I don’t buy the $8 chickens, either. Perception of value creates desire for a product, and that is a hurdle many well-meaning consumers still need to cross. For starters, we must forget almost everything we thought we knew about chicken—that it’s cheap and abundant and that we deserve it to be so, that its meat is soft and flavorless, that it comes in boneless, skinless segments from which we can no longer identify it as an animal.

We need to rediscover chicken as a whole-animal food, one with depth. Covered and slow-cooked, the firmer muscles of a pasture-raised chicken baste in their own nutritious fat, resulting in tender, flavorful meat and golden-crisp skin (if uncovered for the last ten minutes of its cooking time). The cartilage-rich carcass (especially the feet, if you’re not ready to eat them outright just yet) creates one of the most sultry broths known to the stock pot, rich in minerals and nutrients. All of the chicken’s major organs, save the liver (the bulk of which usually arrive in a neat, if mysterious, packet inside a good quality chicken cavity), enrich the broth or, if cooked as their own simple stock and added to the pan sauce, make delicious gravy.

What chicken needs is ceremony, the sort that changes how it appears to us at the market and on our plates. It comes out of a skilled cook’s oven gilded and steaming aromas as thick and rich as a velvet robe, right there before our eyes, but we have stopped recognizing its royalty. Maybe that $30 price tag is just the sort of stake we need in the game. Maybe less for more is also—when it comes to flavor, food and environmental safety, human and animal welfare—just plain more.

Advertisements

The Kale Effect

IMG_5787

Nearly twenty years ago, I landed my first wage-earning job as a cashier at my small town’s natural foods co-op. A high school sophomore, my qualifications for the position were that I wanted spending money and I had an in with the manager, a family friend. The only items in the store that I knew much about were the processed and packaged ones—blue tortilla chips, carbonated fruit juices, “natural” mac and cheese—that were my family’s translation of the mainstream products I’d spent years coveting in friends’ lunchboxes.

The whole foods were unknown to me; filberts, adzuki beans, bee pollen, Swiss chard, kale, quinoa, and other exotically named ingredients made for a steep learning curve that had me bluffing my way through many an afternoon shift. A year in, some semblance of understanding began to form, though mostly from a spectator’s perspective; I wasn’t a cook and retained my childhood aversion to most vegetables. In the back of the store there was a small vegetarian deli that slowly began to change all that.

Called Pearl’s Kitchen, this literal hole-in-the-wall churned out sandwiches stacked high with fresh vegetables, vibrant salads sold by the pound dressed in boldly flavored vinaigrettes, and a handful of vegetarian entrees. Pearl, the sole-proprietress, was a soft-spoken woman whose narrow, smooth face cracked with radiance when she smiled. Her sandy, fine-textured hair cut stylishly short and her tasteful clothes gathered at the waist with a long canvas apron, she exuded a casual sophistication the Birkenstock-and-jeans-wearing co-op staff and I couldn’t match.

It was the mid-1990’s and in my part of the Midwest, hummus was still counterculture; greens like arugula, mustard, and kale were downright mysterious to the average small-town Wisconsinite. It was Pearl’s cooking alone that got me to cough up some of that newly-earned spending money for things like bok choy salad, BBQ tempeh, or wraps filled with spiced lentils. My mom’s influence and instruction are what made me a cook, but Pearl’s Kitchen and the Whole Earth Co-op planted the seeds of my palette. By the time I left for college, I was a dedicated vegetarian with a hotplate intent on cooking most of my own meals atop my dorm room desk.

Still, I didn’t try cooking kale on my own until I was two years out of college. Those rigid, waxy leaves, that unavoidable greenness, had always seemed too extreme. I’d come a long way from my processed-food-coveting days, but I didn’t think I’d come that far. Armed with a recipe card from the produce aisle and a sense of adventure, I brought what seemed at the time to be an enormous bouquet of frilly greens home and set to work.

The recipe was ridiculously simple: clean the kale, cut away the fibrous stems and tear the leaves into pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan; throw in slivered garlic, then the torn leaves, water from washing still clinging to their corners. Stir to coat and cover.

When I lifted the lid a few minutes later, briny steam warmed my face and I stared in disbelief at how the pot, overflowing to the point of absurdity when I’d covered it, was now less than half full of shimmering, dark green leaves, looking like a pile of beached kelp. I was even less sure now, but I finished the recipe, cooking off any remaining liquid and tossing the steaming leaves with a healthy dousing of sesame oil and a pinch of salt just before scooping a small serving onto my plate.

The flavor was nothing like I expected—green, yes, slightly bitter, perhaps, but also richly sweet and deeply satisfying, cloaked in nutty sesame oil dressing. Much to my surprise, I ate the whole pot.

Kale comes from a world that knew nothing of mac and cheese, natural or otherwise. The people who brought kale in from the wilderness and nurtured it saw (or tasted) its potential as a nutritious food. And, after years of careful selection, Kale became an important source of fresh flavor during a time of year known as the hunger gap—those desperate months when the cellar stores ran low and the weather did not allow much in the garden to grow.

We joke about kale now, its ubiquity and cult-like following. Kale is over, we say, ready for something bolder, less familiar. But in our country, kale filled a different kind of hunger gap, one in which produce came from the freezer or the pantry, where lettuce was crunchy and white and ketchup was considered a vegetable. Heirloom seed-saving, organic farming, seasonal eating—kale was a compelling, if unlikely, ambassador of these movements. Something deep in its cells still charms us into believing our lives will be improved by eating it.

I, too, am always eager for the next thing. I’ve tired of kale salads and chips and am ready for new flavors. Even so, a pile of garlicky sautéed kale still seems to go with almost anything. I never tire of that trick—the one where an impossible mound of tough, bitter leaves melts into complex mouthfuls of yielding, ageless nourishment.