Food April 2006

Spring Chickens

Heirloom poultry is poised to become “the other red meat”—if fears about avian flu don’t keep people away

For years, I’ve avoided chicken like the plague. Alarming articles about food safety and inhumane raising practices (some in this magazine) put me off, and so did the plain fact that chicken had lost its flavor. The grainy and muscular yet succulent meat of my childhood had turned to wet cardboard. The specter of a real plague striking chickens in this country—the H5N1 form of avian influenza, which in the past two years has led to the death or slaughter of 140 million birds in Asia—made me look recently into heirloom breeds of chicken and their chances of survival if (or when, some say) avian flu is carried into North America.

Sidebars:

Five Recipes for Roast Chicken (April 2006)
Selected by Corby Kummer.

Grignolino (April 2006)
Italy's Beaujolais is as rare as good chicken. By Corby Kummer

Good-tasting, carefully raised chickens have been nearly impossible to find unless you live near a farmer who subscribes to the pasturing methods long advocated by Joel Salatin, the chicken guru, or near a hobbyist who can bear to part with a beautiful bird like one of the Araucanas popularized by Martha Stewart (who even got a line of paints out of her flock’s eggs). But now, dedicated and small-scale farmers are raising strong and healthy chickens for meat, and it is just becoming available to chefs and home cooks hungry for chicken that tastes like chicken.

Pasture-raised chickens eat grass and peck for bugs rather than standing in miserably cramped pens; they spend the daylight hours outdoors. Their meat tastes so good it’s hard to believe you’re eating chicken and not some special game bird. The dark meat is much darker, because the birds have actually exercised; all of the meat has sinew and taste. The fat is a deep gold rather than an anemic yellow. Real chicken could practically be called “the other red meat.”

Farmers have spent years puzzling out for themselves the right breeds and how to raise them. But at the very moment that their work is promising to pay off, they face a choice: whether they will confine their nature-loving birds for the duration of a flu scare—or watch the results of their generally money-losing labor destroyed.

The heirloom-breed movement, which revived pork after decades of desiccation-by-design to turn it into the “other white meat,” has come late to the original white meat. The first, and for a long time pretty much the only, poultry success story was turkey. Slow Food USA, the group dedicated to helping farmers produce artisan foods, made a national impact by helping sell heirloom-breed turkeys at Thanksgiving, beginning several years ago. As the project was getting under way, I attended a tasting of various breeds. The small-scale farmers there told colorful stories of chasing turkeys and pulling them back into fenced fields, or coaxing them down from roofs where they were trying to roost—stories of the independent and often ornery personalities of birds they’d always assumed had none.

The arrival of pasture-raised turkey at the teaching kitchens of the French Culinary Institute, in New York City, where the tasting was held, brought the dean of culinary studies, the chef Alain Sailhac, nearly to tears. At last, he told the group that night, he had recaptured a flavor he’d thought was lost forever: the turkey of his childhood, half a century ago, on a farm in southern France. At the main course, I was reminded of the capon of my own childhood, in a small Connecticut town with numerous poultry farms—a fine-grained, moist, wonderfully flavored meat I hadn’t expected to find again, and certainly not in a turkey.

Heirloom turkeys were expensive (a twelve-pound bird could come to more than $100 including shipping), but the demand was strong enough to encourage Patrick Martins, the first director of Slow Food USA, and Todd Wickstrom, a former managing partner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, in Ann Arbor, to start a mail-order business specializing in rare-breed meats with real flavor: Heritage Foods USA (www.heritagefoodsusa.com). In the year since the company began, though, poultry has seldom been on its list. The progress in commercially viable rare-breed meats has been mostly in pork and beef; people are willing to pay extra for them, and the animals can be the main component of a farm rather than the adjunct that chickens usually are. Big birds like Thanksgiving turkeys are a once-a-year splurge. Chicken should be everyday. The challenges of scale, of choosing the right breeds, and of finding humane slaughterhouses within a convenient distance—not to mention the ubiquity and extremely low price of factory-raised chicken—have impeded businesses like Heritage Foods from filling the kind of niche that Niman Ranch filled with pork.

It has long been an open secret that “free-range chicken” is open to interpretation. The “range” is often indoors and on concrete, even if birds have access to the outdoors (as the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires for the use of the term). Frank Reese, a Kansas farmer of fifty-seven who says he has raised poultry for fifty years, says that the definition of “humane methods” should include the breed itself. “You can take a [familiar supermarket] turkey and call it ‘free-range organic,’” he says. “But because man has genetically altered it, that turkey doesn’t know what to do if it goes outside. It can’t even walk. That’s not humane.”

Presented by

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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