Heirloom Poultry, the Un-Perdue


Photo by sammydavisdog/FlickrCC

As far as I recall, chicken has always tasted like chicken. I don't remember a time when it was more flavorful than bland, more "chickeny," as I've heard older people describe how poultry tasted once upon a time. I am child of the 1970s, those halcyon days before childhood obesity rates soared, when Michelle Obama didn't care if you fed your kids processed foods. So I was reared on lunches of Zoodles—remember pasta in a can?—as well as baked beans and my six-year-old self's favorite, Chef Boyardee meatballs.

For dinner, however, there was chicken. Baked thighs in a teriyaki sauce (my mom had lived in Japan and the recipe was on regular rotation), drumsticks rolled in Corn Flakes, or the whole bird, roasted with finely diced carrots and celery. But no matter how my mom prepared it, chicken was chicken. At base, it all tasted the same.

The Buff Orpington (what a name!) reminded me of buttered popcorn with a hint of grass.

It wasn't until recently that I tasted chicken for what it truly is: a delicate meat that has a sense of terroir, not unlike wine or olives or chocolate. The meat on your plate reflects the bird's life—its breed, what it was fed, how it lived, even the way it was loved (or not) by the farmer. Raising a good chicken, I've learned, is an art.

My chicken education took place recently thanks to Slow Food Toronto, which had organized a heritage chicken tasting at Victor Restaurant and Bar to compare four breeds that are now almost extinct, each prepared four different ways: roasted, pan-seared, braised, and as a broth. By sampling these rare birds, we were making a statement against industrial food—and eating to preserve the diversity of our food system.

Our guide for the afternoon was Carrie Oliver of the Artisan Poultry Institute, a small, California-based organization that aims to transform our understanding of meat by educating the public about its tastes and terroir. As the first plates of roasted chicken were served, she urged us to record our impressions. Was the texture tough, or merely chewy? Did it have a good bite, or was it mealy? What was the personality of the chicken? Reserved? Straightforward, or adventurous? Then there were the flavor notes, which were so diverse it was hard to believe a chicken could have these characteristics: citrus, baked clams, mushrooms, blood, barnyard, pheasant, liver, umami, caramel, corn, and many more.

I took my first bite of a breed called the Ameraucana and tasted it as I'd been taught to sample cheese and wine, breathing the flavors into my mouth, paying attention to what part of my tongue responded. The meat was chewy, its personality direct yet smooth, and there were definite notes of liver and blood. Next was the Barred Plymouth Rock, a black-and-white-striped bird that was tough to chew but had a long-lasting taste with hints of corn and caramel. The Buff Orpington (what a name!) reminded me of buttered popcorn with a hint of grass. I tried the skin. It had the most buttery chicken flavor that has ever crossed my lips. Finally, I understood what people mean when they say "chickeny."

The last bird was the Jersey Giant, a genetic cross between several Asian birds that was created in New Jersey in the 1870s in an attempt to breed a large chicken to compete with the turkey. Not surprisingly, the Jersey Giant tasted like its competition, with a nice bite and a lingering flavor.

All of these birds were unlike any chicken I'd ever eaten. Or seen: the dark meat of each breed was brown like chocolate.

While these tastes were novel to me, my grandmother would have likely grown up eating something similar. Up until around the 1950s, farmers raised a variety of chicken breeds—mostly "dual-purpose birds" that produced both meat and eggs. Then breeders created an über-meat chicken called the White Rock that could reach a market weight of four and a half pounds in only eight weeks, the source of those giant breasts you now find in the meat cooler. It no longer made sense to raise the old varieties that took more than twice as long to fatten up and never grew as big. And so these older breeds faded away.

But what we gained in size and speed, we lost in flavor. The chefs who prepared the chickens for the tasting said that the firm muscle tone, the bumpy skin, even the bones and the joints that were hard to pull apart, did not resemble a normal chicken. And I could taste almost-forgotten flavors in each preparation, whether the meat was roasted, braised, or seared.

Then came the broth: four shot glasses of chicken soup on a plate. Each was a different shade of gold. As I sipped and savored, I knew I was tasting the past. But I also hoped I was tasting the future.