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.


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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.”

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.

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.