Going whole bird

Chicken is by the far the preferred meat of American consumers.  The average American eats over 80 pounds of it a year, versus just 50 pounds of beef, and 45 or so pounds of pork.  But if you’ve been reading the news, it hasn’t been a really great week to be an American chicken consumer. Washington Post ran an article about the hulk-like increase in broiler chicken sizes, and Nicholas Kristof came out with a pretty damning op-ed for the New York Times about inhumane chicken slaughter practices.  At the heart of the matter is America’s obsession with chicken breast meat.

The average American chicken consumer is a lot like me as a teenager; they’re obsessed with breasts, and they’ll do anything to get their hands on them.  Years of poultry industry marketing have positioned white meat as the “healthy alternative” to beef and pork.  The dark meat from the legs and thighs of the chicken itself has been shunned.  Chickens are fed hormones and growth promoting high-intensity feed in the hopes of maximizing the breast meat. The “healthier” label is almost entirely BS, by the way, in terms of calories and saturated fat, dark and white meat are almost identical, and the dark meat has more vitamins and iron (the iron coming along with the increased amount of myoglobin, a protein that provides energy to heavily worked muscles, and also lends dark meat it’s dark color).  And yet, almost five billion tons (that’s billion with a “b”) of dark meat gets exported each year, as there is almost no market for anything other than completely lean white breast meat.

You know where all that dark meat goes?  Well among other export markets, almost a billion pounds of it is going to Russia: 


That’s right, this guy is eating the best parts of all your chicken.
All of this skyrocketing chicken consumption has lead to increasingly intensive practices in poultry production.  You don’t have to be a bleeding heart PETA member to look at the way chickens are “farmed” in the conventional system and realize that it sucks. It sucks for the chickens first and foremost – they spend the vast majority of their short lives in cramped houses with thousands of other birds.  A 10-15% die-off rate isn’t unheard of, and the ones that do make it to slaughter have ammonia burns and broken bones due to the fact that their unnaturally giant breasts cause them to fall over and wallow in the filth of the chicken house.  This system also sucks for the consumer.  Factory “farming” has certainly driven down prices on America’s beloved white meat, but at the end of the day if you think that $0.80/lb chicken is anything other than complete shit, you’re kidding yourself.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  Just take a trip to your farmer’s market or local butcher who specializes in better quality meat.  Look for a chicken raised on pasture, not just cage-free.  The farmer or butcher should be able to tell you everything you need to know about breed, living conditions, and feed.  If they can’t, keep walking.  The trick to cooking a well-raised bird is to season it as little as possible.  I like mine with plenty of salt and pepper on the outside, and half an onion in the cavity – that’s it.  Truss it tightly and start it off in a hot oven for a good sear.  Turn the heat down and cook for about 20 minutes a pound.

Or, you could always shove a can of Sixpoint up it’s backside and glaze it with mustard.
If that chicken, a chicken raised on pasture and not pumped full of poor quality feed or antibiotics, isn’t the best chicken you’ve ever eaten, I’ll personally refund you your money.*  The reasons for this are twofold.  First of all, chickens raised on pasture are going to be slower growing breeds, as the giant bulky birds from conventional indoor operations wouldn’t last very long outside.  These breeds are generally better tasting because there is a more equal distribution of myoglobin, and the nutrients that come along with it.  Second, chickens raised on pasture can scratch and root up bugs, worms, and grubs – high protein snacks that chickens go absolutely nuts for and end up adding greatly to the flavor of the finished product.

More to the point – or actually this is the point – Americans would do well to start purchasing the whole chicken whenever possible.  A whole chicken is always going to be cheaper per pound than pieces, especially boneless skinless breast.  For the price of a couple pounds of boneless breast you can usually pick up an entire bird.  A quick trip to youtube would get you quartering the chicken in no time, or you could roast it whole and use the meat for a ton of different dishes.  Either way, a whole chicken yields a carcass which can be made into delicious chicken stock – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Yeah, these are turkeys. But look how happy they are out on grass.
* Just send a self addressed envelope to: 121 ImNotActuallyGivingYouAnyMoney Lane, Anytown USA.

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