Chicken is such a mainstay of the contemporary American dinner table that it seems hard to imagine that, just a century ago, it was rare and expensive. But over the course of the 20th century, both chickens and the chicken industry exploded in size. Much of that growth can be attributed to the miraculous properties of antibiotics, which were developed to fight human diseases but quickly began to be fed to farm animals in vast quantities. Journalist and author Maryn McKenna weaves these two intertwined tales together in her new book, Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats. In this episode of Gastropod, she describes the consequences of decades spent feeding chicken antibiotics, in terms of chicken flavor, poultry well-being, and, most significantly, human health.
In the 1920s, chickens were not only pricey, they were also only seasonally available and not necessarily very tasty, either. Bred almost exclusively for their eggs, chickens were usually slaughtered in the fall when their egg-laying career was over. An extra zero mistakenly added to a hatchling chicken order placed by farmer Cecile Steele of Ocean View, Delaware, in 1923, followed by a nationwide contest to breed “The Chicken of Tomorrow” in 1948, changed all that. The deal was sealed with the introduction of the McNugget in 1980, and, today, Americans eat more than four times as much chicken as we did at the start of the 20th century.