The American History of Chickens for Food
75 years or so ago, before the industrialization and mass production of our food supply, chicken meat came from the largely unwanted male offspring of laying hens. These unwanted roosters when young weighed just a pound and a half but were so tender they could be cooked under a “broiler” and not become too tough. Meat chickens continue to be referred to as “broilers”. Next came the “fryers”, a little bit bigger and less tender but still small. After fryers came the larger “roasters” which were older “spent hens” from laying eggs which were so tough they were only used for soup stock, broths and stews. However these old “stewing hens” back then really packed a flavor punch and were highly prized!
Chickens originally were only given supplemental high calorie ground corn as feed. They had to get their protein, vitamins and minerals from the clover and green plants in the pasture with whatever bugs, larvae, worms, rodents, snakes and frogs they ate while foraging. Green forage was necessary throughout the year for healthy, productive chickens. In winter these pre-industrial era chickens received leguminous dried hay just like the farm’s ruminant livestock. Chicken as meat was largely a byproduct of egg production and was done on what we would now consider to be “small scale”. One hundred egg laying hens was considered to be a “large operation” with chicken meat a “luxury” food product. Beef consistently “ruled the roost” before the Second World War as it was far cheaper than chicken. Chicken was largely consumed in the Southern states where pastures stayed mostly “green” during winter months. During this time period a three pound chicken cost around $30 in today’s dollars and was consumed in the North by more “well to do” families in major cities such as New York. During the “War”, beef was tightly rationed but chicken was not. Consumption of chicken during this time soared as chicken meat moved north of the Ohio River. The war years were a time of great profits for poultry producers but the fear was that American consumers would abandon chicken when beef became available again after the war. Producing a bigger chicken was seen by chicken marketers as a way of maintaining wartime level poultry consumption. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (aka the well known “A&P”) national grocery store chain began to sponsor “Chicken of Tomorrow” contests to encourage an increase in the size and muscling of broiler chickens. In March of 1948, a California hatchery chasing this prize developed a chicken that not only was a pound heavier but actively gained that extra weight on less feed.
This “more meat for less feed” phenomenon and the post war advent of chemically derived artificial vitamins essentially ended “pastured poultry” farming. Why let these chickens “waste energy” foraging? The management goal was to keep their heads in the feed trough in a controlled indoor factory type environment. Just feed the chickens artificial vitamins, minerals and protein and keep them inside year round. What this was doing to the nutrient values and quality of chicken was not measured at that time. Today’s “broilers” grow twice as fast as those in 1948 and get to “harvest weight” on a third less feed. The only problem is that eating today’s mass produced factory based chickens has been described as similar to eating the stuffing in a Teddy Bear. Interestingly, the one flavor the chemical scientists haven’t been able to create is the one that tastes like our highly prized, pre-industrial era, naturally raised chicken!
The only place where this most natural, original flavor and quality of chicken can be found is on precious, small family owned “pastured poultry” farms scattered across the nation. The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association maintains a directory, promotes pastured poultry, educates the public and keeps our rich history of more naturally raised pasture based chicken alive today!