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

Last year, after seven years of “hard knocks,” and at a make-or-break point shortly after Frank retired, “we were ready to stop,” Laura Kay told me when Todd Wickstrom brought me to visit their farm recently. Then the couple met Wickstrom. He was excited about the national possibilities for a local product, and he helped them decide to expand their own production. The new partners plan to build a slaughtering facility that employs air-chilling, a method popular in France that results in purer, more concentrated flavor because it avoids the standard icy water bath. The hope is that Earth Shine will become as well known nationally for chicken as Niman Ranch is for pork.

In midwinter, few chickens were left on the farm; Wickstrom had recently persuaded the Joneses to send most of their young chickens to be served as poussins at a Bay Area dinner for the director George Lucas, knowing that Alice Waters and other cooks would taste them. Indeed, the response was the by-now-standard happy shock of chicken recognition. This spring, the Joneses will greatly increase their stocks. They told me that “spring chicken” has real meaning on their farm, where chickens ravenously consume fresh grass as soon as it comes up, and take a full twelve weeks to reach slaughter weight; factory-raised chickens are killed after six weeks. Earth Shine will also provide meat to Brian Polcyn, the chef at the nearby Five Lakes Grill and a co-author of the recent Charcuterie, for a line of pâtés and sausages made with, for instance, pistachios and Michigan dark cherries.

The chickens remaining were certainly the most placid and self-sufficient I’ve ever seen. When the Joneses opened the flaps of a tented hoop house (the kind usually used as a greenhouse), a few dozen handsome black-and-white birds strolled out and set to pecking on the grass. They had none of the frantic, easily spooked nature I remember from other chicken houses. I felt I was eavesdropping on a calm and contented klatch. As the birds clucked around us, Laura Kay, cradling one she especially liked the looks of, said, “This is the way it should be.”

Her bravado was notable. “Our birds are healthy,” she said. “For seven years, we’ve raised birds on pasture and never had a disease go through here.” The problem, of course, will be infection elsewhere that provokes widespread destruction orders. Well-cooked poultry cannot transmit flu virus, and farmers in this country seldom come into anything like the unsanitary contact during slaughter and processing that has caused bird-to-person transmission in Asia and eastern Europe. The awful possibility exists that a strain of H5N1 will evolve for person-to- person transmission and arrive here by jet, reducing decisions about poultry to secondary importance.

But the likelihood of panic and mandatory mass slaughter is real, and as of February, federal and state policies were still under discussion. “Farmers are concerned that if someone down the road is identified as having avian influenza, their [own] flocks will be summarily destroyed,” Marjorie Bender, the research and technical program manager at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a touchstone organization for rare-breed farmers around the country, told me. “I’d like to see monitoring” within the area of infection. “But we don’t know whether [the order] will be to monitor or to destroy.”

Chickens have survived health scares and mass slaughters in the recent past. With luck, they will survive new ones. In the meantime, pasture-raised birds finally offer a way to taste the flavor that has been available only to the farming few. Order some, and you might even be able to make chicken and dumplings.

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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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