How the Chicken Became Our National Bird

America in the age of broiler business

chicken and egg
Which came first? Both.Aliza Eliazarov

An obscure poultry scientist from Iowa named Howard Pierce did more to change our daily eating habits—for good and ill—than perhaps any single person in human history. Because of Pierce, chicken is now the American meat of choice: Today, we each eat more than 80 pounds of chicken every year. That is four times as much as we did in 1950, when chicken was a distant third behind beef and pork. How that dramatic switch took place is one of the great but largely forgotten origin tales of American cuisine.

You can still find the domesticated chicken’s wild cousin in the foothills of the Himalayas and the forests of Vietnam. Called the red jungle fowl, the bird is a kind of pheasant, a fierce and skittish animal renowned for its beautiful livery of royal blue, deep gold, and fire engine red. ⦿ People across South Asia first bred the red jungle fowl not to lay breakfast eggs or to be slaughtered and cooked, but to fight. Cockfighting most likely began as a religious ritual, and even now, in places like the Indonesian island of Bali, religious festivals can begin with a sacred cockfight or two. Over time, the bird spread through Asia and into Europe, where it was respected throughout the ancient world as an animal that could reveal the future, entertain as a gambling device, and crow us awake from our physical as well as spiritual slumbers (that’s why church steeples are often topped with a rooster weathervane).

Fast-forward a few millennia to the reign of young Queen Victoria. British chickens of her day were scrawny and ornery, so most Brits preferred a plump goose or a fatted turkey for supper. But one day in 1842, a carriage pulled up at Windsor Castle with an unusual gift for the animal-loving monarch. The seven huge, regal, and colorful chickens brought from Southeast Asia by a British naval captain captivated Victoria. She and her husband, Prince Albert, built a grand poultry house and visited it often, marveling at the exotic creatures. They were prized as the ultimate show birds, and some appeared on the castle’s feast table the following Christmas. Word got out that the queen was mad for strange-looking Chinese chickens.

Soon, everyone wanted them. Newspapers reported breathlessly on the spread of “hen fever.” The fad of collecting and breeding these remarkable animals quickly hopped the Atlantic to the United States. A single bird from Shanghai could sell for several thousands of dollars in today’s money. Poultry enthusiasts gathered together to buy and sell or to simply ogle foreign chickens that quickly became status symbols. The consummate showman P. T. Barnum organized the first poultry show in America in 1854 and made a mint.

But the fever for these animals finally broke when soaring trade with China glutted the market. What was exotic became common, and the speculative bubble burst. Investors scrambled to recoup some of their money. The lucky ones discovered that by crossing their exotic Asian varieties with European chickens, the result was a larger and hardier bird that could produce more eggs and meat.

New and improved breeds of chicken burst onto the scene just as factory workers were flocking to the burgeoning industrial cities of Europe and the United States, demanding affordable protein. The poultry business initially focused on producing cheap eggs. Electric lights made it possible for hens to lay through dark winters, and newly developed chemicals could keep those eggs fresh for long periods; no longer were eggs a precious seasonal food.

A national Chicken Booster Day included a New York City banquet and a screening of a new film, Chicken Every Sunday, starring a child actress named Natalie Wood. The real star, of course, was the affordable bird that brought back together a broken family.

In a little town in Delaware, Celia Steele decided to get in on the act. In 1923 she ordered 50 chicks from a hatchery. By mistake, the company mailed her 500. She cooped them up in a backyard shed and fed them grain for a few weeks until there was no more room. Rather than keep them for eggs, she sold them to Jewish markets in New York City, then boldly ordered 1,000 more and repeated the process. The broiler business—chicken raised solely for meat—was born.

But it was global conflict that ultimately transformed chicken into the meat that we take for granted today. During World War II, beef and pork were rationed, with the bulk going to hungry troops abroad. Civilians were forced to subsist on poultry, which in that day was more expensive and required more preparation time than cuts of other meat.

As an Allied victory in Europe and the Pacific neared, the poultry business was in a panic. Once rationing was lifted in the postwar era, chicken producers knew that American consumers would quickly return to their steaks and pork. Enter Howard Pierce, a senior manager at the country’s largest food retailer, A&P.

At a 1945 meeting of poultry executives in Canada, the 62-year-old Pierce listened as the worried businessmen predicted calamity ahead. Then he stood up and proposed a visionary scheme: What the industry and the consumer needed, Pierce explained, was a chicken that could produce a breast that could be cut up like a steak. We take today’s packaged chicken breasts, thighs, and wings for granted. Before the 1950s, however, it took a lot of effort to wrest a meal out of a bird. Pierce understood that if cuts of chicken were as thick as beef—then the most popular American meat—consumers would continue to buy poultry.

With the backing of A&P, the USDA, and all the major poultry organizations, Pierce launched a slick publicity campaign, including a movie narrated by the famous broadcaster Lowell Thomas, explaining the need for modernizing the old barnyard fowl as men in white coats busied themselves in agricultural labs. A national Chicken Booster Day included a New York City banquet and a screening of a new film, Chicken Every Sunday, starring a child actress named Natalie Wood. The real star, of course, was the affordable bird that brought back together a broken family.

The heart of Pierce’s strategy was to engage the American public and chicken breeders in a contest to create what he dubbed “The Chicken of Tomorrow.” It was an ingenious idea that required little funding and benefited from lots of free publicity. The competition to produce Pierce’s hefty new bird, what enthusiastic newspapers styled as the “sweater girls of the barnyard,” took off.

Contestants submitted fertilized eggs that were hatched under the same conditions, fed the same kind and amount of food, and given the same vaccinations. Judges, recruited from industry, academia, and government, scored for the biggest and best birds.

The 20th-century version of hen fever culminated on a sunny June day in 1951 in a packed stadium at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the very place where the Arkansas Razorbacks, also known as the Hogs, play football.

As the crowd cheered and the marching band played, the vice president of the United States, Alben Barkley, handed a check worth $5,000 to a California farmer named Charles Vantress. "The day of the slick-hipped chick is over," crowed the next issue of the Arkansas Agriculturalist.

The Chicken of Tomorrow is a mixed blessing. It has made meat remarkably inexpensive, yet it can be dry and relatively tasteless. That is why we expend so much effort whipping up sauces, applying rubs, and dunking it in marinades. We have forgotten what chicken can taste like.

By crossing California Cornish males with New Hampshire females, Vantress succeeded in producing a bird that closely resembled the wax model of the ideal chicken created by poultry scientists, with its oversize drumsticks and huge breast. “They are so top-heavy that they walk like a fat man trying to kick a field goal in a telephone booth,” wrote one approving reporter who saw the winning birds.

Pierce's big idea was hatched. Americans' appetite for chicken took off. A multibillion-dollar industry was born. Vantress' bird is still the ancestor of almost any chicken you buy in an American supermarket today. A vast broiler business is also developing in Africa and Latin America, and Saudi Arabia's Fakieh Poultry Farms will soon be producing a million broilers a day. Food analysts predict that chicken will emerge within the next decade as the most common meat eaten by humanity.

But the Chicken of Tomorrow is a mixed blessing. It has made meat remarkably inexpensive, yet it can be dry and relatively tasteless. That is why we expend so much effort whipping up sauces, applying rubs, and dunking it in marinades. We have forgotten what chicken can taste like. Order a Bresse chicken in France, one of the few commercial breeds that remain untainted by Vantress genes, and the flavor bears as little resemblance to that of $3.99-per-pound chicken breast as canned liverwurst to foie gras.

And then there’s the impact on the bird itself. Numerous scientific studies demonstrate that the today’s bird usually suffers through a short life in crowded conditions with a variety of potentially painful ailments that are the product of engineering, and that no amount of pasture raising can ameliorate. That heavy breast, for example, can crumple a bird’s naturally slender legs. And to keep the flocks healthy, regular doses of antibiotics and arsenic-laced food were, until recently, the norm.

Meanwhile, thousands of people work for relatively low wages in dark and often dangerous conditions to slaughter and dress our cheap chicken. And, of course, there are the inevitable mountains of manure. The 600 million chickens on the Delmarva Peninsula, where Celia Steele lived, produce more waste in a day than all the humans in Los Angeles, posing a health and environmental hazard.

There is, however, reason to hope that the Chicken of Tomorrow isn't our only future. Some farmers are turning to specialty breeds that put flavor back into birds that are raised in more humane conditions. Ron Joyce of Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for example, brings eggs from France, raises them locally, and sells his more flavorful product around the country.

By the time he died in 1968, Howard Pierce’s dream of transforming the poultry business and the American diet was a reality. There is no doubt that his effort was a technological and scientific success that spawned an entire industry, cut prices, and dramatically altered our day-to-day eating habits. But now the race is on for a different kind of chicken, one that is treated humanely and that also tastes good.

The movement is well under way. Backyard chickens are producing fresh eggs in ever larger numbers across the country, in cities as well as suburbs. And cooks increasingly are turning to birds like those grown by Joyce, as well as local varieties, to fill the taste gap left by the industrial bird. The new Chicken of Tomorrow may need fewer rubs and spices. It may, with any luck, taste more like the chicken of yesterday.

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