How the chicken crossed the globe (Poultry Diagnostics)
(Editor’s note: Daniel Bautista is the director of Lasher Laboratory at the University of Delaware.)
Chicken is the ubiquitous food of our era, crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease. With its mild taste and uniform texture, chicken presents an intriguingly blank canvas for the flavor palette of almost any cuisine.
Long after the time when most families had a few hens running around the yard that could be grabbed and turned into dinner, chicken remains a nostalgic, evocative dish for most Americans. When author Jack Canfield was looking for a metaphor for psychological comfort, he didn’t call it “Clam Chowder for the Soul.” How did the chicken achieve such cultural and culinary dominance? It is surprising that chickens were first domesticated not for eating but for cockfighting. Artistic depictions of rooster combatants are scattered throughout the ancient world, such as a mosaic adorning a house in Pompeii. The ancient Greek city of Pergamum established a cockfighting amphitheater to teach valor to future generations of soldiers. Cockfighting is illegal in the United States — Louisiana was the last state to ban it, in 2008 — and generally viewed by Americans as inhumane. But in the parts of the world where it is still practiced, legally or illegally, it has claims to being the world’s oldest continual sport. The chicken has inspired contributions to culture, art, cuisine, science and religion over the millennia. Chickens were, and still are, a sacred animal in some cultures. The prodigious and ever-watchful hen was a worldwide symbol of nurturance and fertility. Eggs hung in Egyptian temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. The lusty rooster was a universal signifier of virility — but also, in the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism. For the Romans, the chicken was used for fortunetelling, especially during wartime. Chickens accompanied Roman armies, and their behavior was carefully observed before battle; a good appetite meant victory was likely. According to the writings of Cicero, when one contingent of birds refused to eat before a sea battle in 249 B.C., an angry consul threw them overboard. History records that he was defeated.
Chickens were mentioned in the Bible and made their mark in the English lingo. Matthew 23:37 contains a passage in which Jesus likens his care for the people of Jerusalem to a hen caring for her brood. This image, had it caught on, could have completely changed the course of Christian iconography, which has been dominated instead by depictions of the Good Shepherd. The rooster plays a small but crucial role in the Gospels in helping to fulfill the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus “before the cock crows.” (In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I decreed that a figure of a rooster should be placed atop every church as a reminder of the incident — which is why many churches still have cockerel-shaped weather vanes.) There is no implication that the rooster did anything but mark the passage of the hours, but even this secondhand association with betrayal probably didn’t advance the cause of the chicken in Western culture. In contemporary American usage, the associations of “chicken” are with cowardice, neurotic anxiety (“The sky is falling!”) and ineffectual panic (“running around like a chicken without a head”).
The chicken became a star in 2004, when an international team of geneticists produced a complete map of the chicken genome. The chicken genome work suggested that the chicken was the first domesticated animal, the first bird — and consequently, the first descendant of the dinosaurs. Sweden’s Uppsala University researchers have been researching the differences between the red junglefowl and its barnyard descendants, including “layers” (breeds raised to produce prodigious amounts of eggs) and “broilers” (breeds that are plump and meaty). The researchers found that chickens carried important mutations in a gene designated TBC1D1, which have been associated with human obesity, but it’s a positive trait in a creature destined for the dinner table. Another mutation that resulted from selective breeding is in the TSHR (thyroid-stimulating hormone receptor) gene. In wild animals this gene coordinates reproduction with day length, confining breeding to specific seasons. The mutation disabling this gene enables chickens to breed and lay eggs all year long.
The domesticated chicken has a genealogy stretching back 7,000 to 10,000 years. The chicken’s wild ancestor is the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, according to a theory advanced by Charles Darwin and recently confirmed by DNA analysis. In its habitat, which stretches from northeastern India to the Philippines, G. gallus browses on the forest floor for insects, seeds and fruit, and flies up to nest in the trees at night. Scientists have identified three closely related species that might have bred with the red junglefowl. It is suggested that a domesticated breed of G. gallus spread initially from Southeast Asia, traveling either north to China or southwest to India. But since wild and domesticated chicken DNA mixed so much over time, it is difficult to pinpoint. Once chickens were domesticated, cultural contacts, trade, migration and territorial conquest resulted in their introduction, and reintroduction, to different regions around the world over several thousand years. The bird’s westward spread may have started in the Indus Valley, where the city-states there carried on a lively trade with the Middle East more than 4,000 years ago, and that the birds could have been carried across to the Arabian Peninsula as cargo or provisions. Chickens arrived in Egypt as fighting birds and additions to exotic menageries. Yet it would be another 1,000 years before the bird became a popular commodity among ordinary Egyptians. It was in that era that Egyptians mastered the technique of artificial incubation, which freed hens to put their time to better use by laying more eggs. 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. The egg attendants kept their methods a secret from outsiders for centuries. Chickens were a delicacy among the Romans. Farmers began developing methods to fatten the birds — some used wheat bread soaked in wine, while others swore by a mixture of cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat. The practical Roman cooks soon discovered that castrating roosters caused them to fatten on their own, and thus was born the creature we know as the capon. But the chicken’s status in Europe appears to have diminished with the collapse of Rome. In the post-Roman period, the size of chickens returned to what it was during the Iron Age, more than 1,000 years earlier. There is speculation that the big, organized farms of Roman times — which were well-suited to feeding numerous chickens and protecting them from predators — largely vanished. Some archaeologists believe that chickens were first introduced to the New World by Polynesians who reached the Pacific coast of South America a century or so before the voyages of Columbus. Europeans arriving in North America found a continent teeming with native turkeys and ducks for the plucking and eating.
The modern meat-type chicken traces its development to the Chicken of Tomorrow contest, organized by the USDA, with the backing of major retailers and the support of every major poultry and egg organization in the country, all aimed at breeding a better chicken. What they aimed to achieve was droolingly described in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947, after the contest was two-thirds through: “one bird chunky enough for the whole family — a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.” It began with state contests in 1946, progressed to regional judging in 1947, and ended with a national competition, held at the University of Delaware’s Agricultural Experiment Station, in 1948. The winners of the Chicken of Tomorrow contests did more than create new birds; when they transformed chickens, they recreated the chicken industry too. The Chicken of Tomorrow would be the dominant meat on farms and in markets, cheaper than beef, more docile than hogs, desired on its own behalf and not as a cast-off carcass after egg laying.
General Tso’s chicken, which the New York Times has described as “the most famous Hunanese dish in the world,” did not originated in Hunan, China. The man generally credited with the idea of putting deep-fried chicken pieces in a hot chili sauce was the Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei, who fled to Taiwan after the Communist revolution in 1949. He named the dish for a 19th-century military commander of a largely forgotten conflict that claimed upwards of 20 million lives. Peng moved to New York in 1973 to open a restaurant that became a favorite of diplomats and began cooking his signature dish. Over the years it has evolved in response to American tastes to become sweeter, and in a kind of reverse cultural migration has now been adopted as a “traditional” dish by chefs and food writers in Hunan. But increasingly, as foreign observers have noticed, “chicken” to the Chinese, at least those who live in the cities, means what’s served at KFC. Since the first drumstick was dipped into a fryer in Beijing in 1987, the chain has opened more than 3,000 branches in China and is now more profitable there than in the United States. The globe-spanning chicken is an epic story of evolutionary, agricultural and culinary success, outnumbering human beings on the planet by nearly three to one. Yes, we get to eat them, but we also feed them. And they provide — along with omelets, casseroles and McNuggets, an answer to the question that every 6-year-old boy, visiting a natural history museum for the first time, has asked his parents: “What did a dinosaur taste like?”
It tasted like chicken.
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