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

The breeds of chicken used by industry—mostly a cross between Plymouth Rock and White Cornish, descendants of birds bred for big and muscular breasts to make them good cockfighters—have been selected to be docile and timid, and to reach slaughter weight as fast as possible. Reese jealously protects his long-perfected Barred Plymouth Rock breeding stock, which he supplies to four farms that raise chickens for him. (You can order whole birds through Heritage Foods; Reese sells chicken breasts and pieces at www.reeseturkeys.com.)

Birds that exercise have a firmer texture and take extra time to cook, but the payoff for patience is high. Reese told me about a customer who telephoned in tears of happiness because for the forty-five years of her marriage, her husband had said she couldn’t make chicken and dumplings; she had assumed that the problem was her hand with the dumplings. After she cooked one of Reese’s birds, her husband said she had finally made chicken and dumplings. (For recipes built around real chicken, including chicken with dumplings, try The Taste of Country Cooking, by the late Edna Lewis—one of the great cookbooks of the past fifty years.)

Farmers who raise chickens for Reese must adhere to guidelines of the Animal Welfare Institute: access to the outdoors and to clean water at all times; no antibiotics or animal by-products in feed; no clipping of wings, beaks, or toenails; and of course no abuse. (Steve Striffler, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas who worked at a poultry-processing plant, gives a powerful and disturbing report of modern industrial practices in Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food.) Reese additionally mandates access to trees or brush or other outdoor sources of shade, and proper roosts so that no birds sleep on the ground. The four chicken farmers he works with “tore their cages down,” he told me. “They say it’s amazing how much they’re enjoying the chickens. They never enjoyed them before.”

Reese’s years of breeding, and of finding like-minded farmers, could come to an abrupt end if H5N1 is discovered on any of the farms raising chickens for him—or maybe anywhere else in Kansas, depending on the policies state and federal officials adopt. He is proud of the hardiness of his birds: “It’s like comparing the immune system of an athlete to someone who’s obese and has diabetes,” he says. But in an outbreak anywhere near him, his chickens would probably not be exempted from slaughter. As he and his fellow small-scale farmers know, no matter how robust a chicken, exposure to a new and highly pathogenic virus like H5N1 will be as calamitous to their flocks as it would be to weak, stressed, drugged-up, locked-up factory birds. Reese hopes that his distance from the biggest chicken-producing places in the country—including Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and the Delmarva Peninsula, which incorporates parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—will serve as protection. Unlike large-scale producers, Reese keeps no reserve of breeding stock in a high-security location in another state. He can’t afford to. He still works full-time as a nurse anesthetist to support his farming. A mandatory slaughter order would wipe out decades of effort.

Frank and Laura Kay Jones have the air of crusading hippies—and why not? They are putting their life savings into raising and selling Barred Plymouth Rock chickens (the kind Reese favors) at Earth Shine Farm, in Durand, Michigan, near Flint and Lansing. (The farm’s name comes from a 1969 book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh about the first moon-orbiting flight.) Frank, who worked for decades at General Motors as a union representative for the United Auto Workers, wanted to make the couple’s twelve acres pay—preferably with more of the same chickens they had long been raising. Laura Kay took a hard-line organic and animal-rights stand. Using as a starting point Joel Salatin’s rousing lectures and his book Pastured Poultry Profits, the Joneses experimented with breeds, different movable coops for the birds to sleep in, schedules of pasture rotation, configurations of buildings, and equipment for slaughtering and quick chilling. They consulted (and tussled) with local and state inspectors.

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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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