Buy a Whole Chicken and Then Put On a Cape, Superhero
In the 1970's and 1980's, eighty percent of poultry in the United States was purchased unprocessed, meaning still in its natural state with bones and skin. The majority of American households were preparing whole chickens in their kitchens, roasting the birds in their ovens and celebrating their efforts in their dining rooms. It was a full experience for the senses, complete with intention and dedication. Less than 40 years later, this statistic has drastically changed and the majority of the poultry purchased by American consumers is processed into a product that can be heated up and thrown on a plate. I know some may argue that this is a result of modern science and we should be proud of the advancements we have made when it comes to processed foods. I hear the argument but it just doesn't seem right. It feels cheap and dirty... industrial, words I do not want to describe my food.
Industrial agriculture has provided American consumers the luxury of picking and choosing what they want to eat. When it comes to poultry, we no longer have to purchase the whole bird and can select packaged and processed forms of the cuts we want. The lesser cuts, such as the gizzard or the heart, have proven less desirable to consumers because they take a certain level of understanding to prepare and require more cooking. Most chefs, however, will argue that these nonprimal cuts are also the most savory. In his book the Third Plate, Dan Barber offers a footnote describing a conversation he had with culinary historian Betty Fussell. According to her research, Fussell found that Americans have a preference for "blandness." She also discovered evidence that we have been so removed from the natural state of our food that being reminded of it can be associated with disgust. It is though we are removing the essence of our food so we can disconnect from our food. So if we are only eating select parts of the chicken, my next question is what is happening to the other parts?
Since 1970, the poultry industry has tripled in production. According to the National Chicken Council, 53 billion pounds of poultry were produced in the U.S in 2015. However, the vast majority of Americans do not eat every part of the chicken. The undesirable chicken parts are being dumped into a number of surprising places. Research has shown that these excess poultry products can be found in dog food, cattle feed, and even fish food. What this describes is a freakish food system out of control. Federal subsidies persuade farmers to over-produce grain, which we feed chickens. A simple solution found to remedy this issue is to produce more chickens. The rise in chicken production results in a lower price for chicken and means even more chicken is going to be produced to make up for the difference. More chicken production means more excess unwanted chicken parts. I think we can all agree that something has gone wrong when we are feeding chicken to fish.
Probably the most devastating find for me is that the poultry excess is also being dumped into other countries. The large poultry producers in the U.S. export unwanted chicken products into Russia, China and Mexico monopolizing the market with low prices and destroying any opportunity for the local poultry producers in those areas. In an effort to compete, these countries are forced to adopt a similar model of industrial farming. It was an uncomfortable realization for me to discover that the decisions we are making as American consumers has a global impact, one that feels cheap, dirty... industrial.
So what is the solution? Buy a whole chicken and then put on a cape because you just helped save the world. Processed foods are not sustainable and feed off of a broken food system. As consumers, we have the ability to choose something different. There is integrity in preparing a whole chicken and a humble brag for those that develop the craft. If you want to be my personal hero, you could go a step further and purchase a whole chicken from a local producer within your community. This helps support an alternative food economy and helps build a sustainable food system for your region. Purchasing a local whole chicken can be described with words I am much more comfortable using to describe my food, words like sustainable, intentional and valuable.