Food Culture TM_FC_CHCKN_FI_001

I rush home from work, change into my gym clothes, and scurry four blocks to my friend’s house. It’s a nice five pound one, she says. From Maryland. They didn’t have any from Lancaster this time. We wash and dry the chicken, slice lemons and peel garlic for the cavity. We work our fingers underneath the skin and slide sundried tomatoes and rosemary over the white breast meat. We work quickly, making jokes about chicken parts; we’ve done this often.

By the time I get back from the gym, the roasted chicken is golden brown all over. Crisp, salty skin pulls away from meat so tender that it falls off the bone. Maryland raised this broiler well.

We pull the wings and legs for our supper and divide the rest, picking the bones clean. The meat will be shredded into soups, salads, rice, or couscous through the rest of the week. The refuse—bones, gristle, and innards—will freeze until we have a chance to boil them with clean carrot peels, the coarser layers of onions, and stems from parsley and thyme. Her boyfriend calls it garbage soup but it yields such a savory broth that we don’t dare add vinegar or salt.The first time we decided to roast a chicken together, we went to the butcher with a list of questions. At first the man behind the counter made fun (Where did the chicken come from? An egg.), but he did have answers: where was it raised? what did it eat? how did it live? What we really want to know, I joked, is Was it happy?

Note: This was years before the Portlandia sketch along the same lines.

But the truth is that for several years now, more and more information about the meat and poultry industries have trickled into mainstream conversation. We can’t un-see images of hormone injections, excrement, stacks and stacks of cages. We can agree that corporate farming is cruel, not to mention gross. But then, how and what are we to eat?  How do we know what food is okay to eat?

What constitutes ethical eating is a hotly contested issue, and I have no intention of promoting any particular dietary exclusion, or even defending my own chicken-picking as morally unblemished choice. If anything, my philosophy of eating is that it is not possible to be a perfect consumer in the foodscape that we are still getting to know; corporate meat and poultry farming is far from the only problematic food industry.

Any politically conscious eater must choose a meal amid competing concerns: the fuel it takes to produce and transport the food; which workers were exploited to provide it; whether the processed or genetically modified parts of it are nutritionally suspect; how the unprocessed, natural parts of it were raised or grown. It’s a lot for a single consumer to bear in mind, even setting aside cascades of food misinformation. But while no one can eat with perfect moral sanctity or even undisputed scientific superiority, anyone can eat thoughtfully. To simply ask why you eat what you eat can be empowering, rather than overwhelming. I like to know that I have choices, and that I exercise them for reasons even if those are not shared by everyone at the table.

My neighbor and I roast these local (or at least regional) chickens because they are delicious and cost-effective, but the chicken roast also satisfies some of the questions that thoughtful eating raises for me. For one: What am I eating? Processed and industrialized food can mystify what should be simple categories of animal, vegetable, and mineral. Even unadulterated cuts of meat, when presented in shrink wrap from cold shelves in a grocery store, make it very easy to forget that we’re buying flesh from animals, our domestic dependents. Meat is far less abstract when you’re rinsing the rib-domed cavity of a capon and plucking stray quills out of its tail end.

Other questions—where did this food come from? How was it raised?—emerge from a complex intersection of concerns about economics, quality, and—yes—ethics. I was only half-joking when I wondered whether the fryers had been happy. I would rather not financially support a business that is cruel to chickens. There, of course, is the rub. Up until this point, most of my thoughtful eating questions could be applied to vegetables as well as animals. I do want to know that potatoes were grown in the best possible conditions for potatoes and that they didn’t burn more than their weight in fuel to arrive in my kitchen. But no one is worried about whether it is cruel to harvest them.

In order to thoughtfully eat meat, I have to ask myself whether I think it is morally permissible to raise and kill animals for food, and to answer yes.

Two friends have chickens in their backyard, as do their neighbors. They live just outside of Philadelphia on a quiet street with no fences, so they have the requisite yardage for chickens to peck and roam during the day. At night, the chickens are locked up in snug coops, safe from the nocturnal predators. The hens enjoy bananas and apples as an occasional snack. The friends enjoy their hens’ eggs. Once, they brought a thick creamy drink—coquito—to a party. The coquito, which primarily consists of rum and coconut milk, was thickened with eggs and had a buttery yellow hue from the healthy yolks of well-cared-for chickens.

Would you ever eat your chickens? I asked them once. You bet, they said. They are probably delicious.

Once while I was visiting, darkness fell before they put the chickens away for the night. We walked over to the neighbor’s yard to retrieve an errant hen, and I carried her home, holding her under my arm like a football. Her neck feathers were as soft as a cat’s fur. She clucked sleepily as we walked.

Would I eat her? Probably. To an inexperienced city-dwelling cook, it does seem a little rude to eat a beast I once held in my arms. On the other hand, there are few chickens in the world whose care and relative contentment I can so confidently affirm.

The need for an ethical judgment on this particular chicken is not likely to arise. But if it did? Then I would like to say that I did not choose carelessly.

Collage photos from Southern Foodways Alliance via Flickr (Creative Commons), SMcGarnagie via Flickr(Creative Commons), Steven L. Johnson via Flickr(Creative Commons), and Mazaletel via Flickr (Creative Commons). Monsanto image via Modern Mechanix.

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