Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Have you ever heard that question, "which came first? The chicken or the egg?" The answer is the egg. It’s not some grand question, it’s just something you tease kids with. “But where did the egg come from?” you might ask. It came from a wild bird called the Red Jungle Fowl. The wild ancestor of the domesticated chicken, native to South East Asia. The real question isn’t what came first. The real question is how did the chicken spread across the entire world? Why is it, that just about any country you land in, will have a place that sells fried chicken? Why is it that we describe every meat that isn’t beef, pork, or fish, as “tastes like chicken”? Chicken is so ubiquitous that no matter the language barrier, I would bet that flapping your arms and saying “bok bok” will probably get your message across. Here’s what you need to know.
Chicken came from South East Asia. It’s a domesticated descendent of a wild jungle bird that still exists widely today. The attraction of domesticated chicken didn’t originate with the intention of eating them. The most popular use of these birds was actually cock-fighting, a blood sport that consisted of forcing male chickens to fight each other. An unfortunate part of history is the commonality of violence. Chicken spread widely across Asia and then into Europe and began to gain more relevance as an easy source of protein. Chicken has meat, feathers, and produces eggs. All of these are desirable products that can be easily sourced from chickens as opposed to chasing down wild birds that have an unfortunate habit of flying away from danger. As a farm animal it carries its own weight fairly well since mother hens will tend to their own chicks and nesting. As chicken spread, so did the notoriety. Chicken is widely used as a symbol, the hen for nurturing and motherhood and the rooster is often used as a sign of virility. You can insert your own penis joke here. Chicken is often see today as a default meat, nothing special. I would disagree, and so would the Roman Empire. Ancient Rome had a law regarding chicken. It was seen as so decadent and delicious, that it was against the law to eat more than one in a meal. They found it so good that it was immoral and gluttonous. I’m inclined to agree, but that doesn’t stop me from going solo on a whole rotisserie chicken. Some cultures believed used chickens as methods of fortunetelling. Roman armies believed that chickens could tell them if they would win or lose a battle. Ironic, considering the current cultural standard of equating chickens to cowards and anxiety. The phrase “stick your neck out”, comes from butchering chicken, along with “the sky is falling” which refers to roosters crowing at sunrise and sunset. Villages in Mali used the death of a chicken to ask questions of the future and the direction the dead chicken fell indicated a response.
The ease of raising and caring for chickens as opposed to other animals certainly aided in spreading them across the world. Some of the first animals brought by Europeans to America were chickens. Of course First nation tribes already had poultry in the form of turkey. Turkey meat and eggs and feathers were common. What really separates chicken is the changes domestication brought to it. One of the most useful things our current chickens can do is lay eggs all year round. Domesticated chickens don’t really have much of a mating season, to suit the demand of the market, they lay eggs nearly their whole lives. Second is their growth. Chickens grow fast, it takes maybe weeks to grow chickens to size deemed sellable. Much of that may come from fortified feed and hormone manipulation, but even free range, non GMO chicken grows faster than wild counterparts. Before industrialized animal husbandry, chicken was considered rather a special occasion meal. With the mass commodification of the food industry, chicken has become a go to for picky eaters.
Most if not all chain restaurants serve chicken, and it is the most popularly eaten protein in America, even passing beef. The uniformity and mild flavor of dry over cooked chicken has over taken American appetites. Chicken exists in every cuisine and if it doesn’t, people will add it in anyway. It’s so common that people will walk into a seafood restaurant and expect them to serve chicken. The vast history of chicken as a luxury and roosters as fighting animals has ended and the most recognizable form of chicken now, is the Nugget. The chicken nugget is a new thing in history. It was invented at Cornell University by Robert Baker in the 1950’s. Of course we can’t leave out the most popular place to find nuggets, McDonald’s. The chicken Mcnugget only hit the fast-food market in 1980. If you didn’t know, chicken nuggets are ground up poultry left overs, mostly fat, bone, and skeletal muscle. The poultry pieces are made into a meat paste that is pressed into shapes, battered and fried.
I don’t mean to bash the chicken nugget, I’ve eaten more than my share in life and I will likely continue to do so. But, I don’t want to settle anymore for a boring chicken. I want the chicken that made Romans fear their own gluttony. I want a chicken so good it makes me question my own morality. I want the chicken that created superstition and told the future. I want that luxury, and somehow I don’t think I’ll find it in a chicken nugget. Chicken is a luxury that we made into something boring. A deliciously underrated animal that deserves a better pedestal than we give it now.