Gilding the Chicken

by Sarah West

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.

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