Gallus gallus, the undomesticated ancestor of modern chickens
Chickens, the surviving descendants of once-mighty therapod dinosaurs, have come to dominate American dinner tables, where its meat is consumed at a rate of 80 pounds per person per year. How the wild grub-eating Gallus Gallus was tamed and commodified into frozen breaded cutlets is actually quite an epic story, one that involves (possibly) saving Greek civilization from Persians, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and continues today with KFC’s remarkable invasion of China.
Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler have written a cover story for Smithsonian magazine on the taming of the chicken that delivers these tidbits and gives plenty more food for thought. It was the Egyptians, for example, who first figured out how to artificially incubate eggs, so they could be hatched without the presence of hens—a method so important that their methods were kept secret for centuries:
This was no easy matter. Most chicken eggs will hatch in three weeks, but only if the temperature is kept constant at around 99 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity stays close to 55 percent, increasing in the last few days of incubation. The eggs must also be turned three to five times a day, lest physical deformities result. The Egyptians constructed vast incubation complexes made up of hundreds of “ovens.” Each oven was a large chamber, which was connected to a series of corridors and vents that allowed attendants to regulate the heat from fires fueled by straw and camel dung.
Still, the “factory farming” of 4000 years ago is no match for today’s productivity. These days, the two write, selective breeding has created large, meaty chickens “so docile that even if chickens are given access to outdoor space—a marketing device that qualifies the resulting meat to be sold as ‘free-range’—they prefer hanging out at the mechanized trough, awaiting the next delivery of feed.” Adler and Lawler also delve into the culture of hobbyist chicken farmers, whose chickens, prized for beautiful eggs and feathers, go for $399 a chick. Frozen chicken at the supermarket might be just $3.99 /lb. But read the Smithsonian feature, and you won’t think of it as average dinner fare anymore.
Image via Wikimedia Commons / Lip Kee Yap