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Chickens changed the world

By Staff | Jun 26, 2015

There’s no punchline to the question posed by Andrew Lawler in the title of his new book.

Instead, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” is Lawler’s tribute to the relationship between people and the bird he says has been most crucial to the spread of civilization around the globe.

It’s a book Lawler never meant to write.

A veteran journalist, he was pitching a story to his editor about an archaeological dig on an Arabian beach. Lawler happened to mention that along with Indian trade goods, a chicken bone was uncovered that might have indicated the bird’s arrival in the West. The editor said, “Follow the bird.”

Lawler’s book examines the transformation of the modern-day chicken from its red jungle fowl roots to “the epitome of domesticity.”

Among his chicken nuggets:

  • More than 20 billion chickens live on our planet. Three for every human.
  • Only one country and one continent are fowl-free – Vatican City and Antarctica.
  • Mexicans eat more than 400 eggs per year, almost three times the global average.
  • Raising chickens was the only private enterprise that plantation owners allowed their slaves. As a result, African-Americans laid the foundation for today’s poultry industry.
  • Queen Victoria launched the development of the modern chicken in the 1840s, and women were at the forefront of the chicken business for the subsequent century.

The first U.S. Southern cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife,” included Mary Randolph’s recipe for Southern fried chicken, relying on British and African influences in 1824. However, fried chicken recipes date to ancient Rome, Lawler said.

By the mid-19th century, he said, the American poultry fancy was over the top, with P.T. Barnum organizing the first national poultry show in 1854. Barnum offered $500 in prizes, roughly the equivalent of $13,500 today.

Fancifully named chapters include “Nature’s Mr. Potato Head,” “Thrilla in Manila” and “Sweatergirls of the Barnyard,” as the author traces the chicken’s impact on civilization.

Until Holly Farms introduced packaged chicken pieces in the late 1960s, Lawler said, birds still came into kitchens with head, feet and guts intact. Chicken, he said, “is more likely to refer to meat than an animal.”

He visits a self-described “chicken activist,” who says, “Chickens are doomed. It’s the doom of proliferation, not extinction … There will be crowding and cruelty – it is just built into the situation. And we are ingesting their misery.”

In the same chapter, Lawler visits a producer in North Carolina who “blames not corporate greed, but consumer apathy for the sad state of poultry in the United States.” Ron Joyce says people are willing to pay more for their food in Europe, and as a result, get better- tasting food.

Joyce is quoted as saying the overuse of antibiotics, adding arsenic compounds to feed to improve digestion, soaking slaughtered birds in dirty chlorinated water, then adding chemicals to kill dangerous bacteria are the result of an endless push to lower costs. As are, Joyce says, birds with massive breasts, bred to satisfy consumer demand for white meat, but with legs too weak to support their weight.

Despite naysayers, including the French suppliers who sold him eggs, Joyce’s company is proving consumers will pay more for juicy, tasty, tender chicken – animals that get natural light, more space and longer growing times, Lawler said.

In “The Intuitive Physicist” chapter, Lawler points out that scientists are learning people and chickens share a surprising number of traits. According to the author, chickens are natural-born mathematicians, recognize faces, retain memories and make logical deductions.

“Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization” will give readers insights into the lives and transformation of a mostly overlooked contributor to the world as we know it.

The book was published by Atria Books in December 2014 and is available for $26.

Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of Farm News.

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