From Egg to Roaster - the Making of the Modern Meat Chicken
"Tastes just like chicken!" This phrase has been an ongoing joke in the American public for years but in this one sentence we reveal a piece of heritage we've almost lost - that chicken in and of itself is not all the same. In fact of all the meat animals chickens may possess the most variety in flavor, texture, appearance, and historical and religious significance. Chicken is our most popularly eaten meat in America and most Americans seem to believe this is the way it has always been but in actuality chicken was not popular until World War II when industrialized chickens became so cheap to raise and process that their meat became very affordable. Before this rabbit was actually our most popular meat animal and families generally raised and slaughtered them themselves on the farm. This is just the beginning of the story of the meat chicken...
In the beginning...
Chickens first were domesticated probably around 10,000 years ago. It was so long ago we don't have great records which is why this is more or less a guess. Suffice to say they were one of the first domesticated animals to come into our little human world. It's not likely however that they were meat animals, or even used for eggs. Instead these brightly colored wild jungle fowl would have probably been kept for the sake of entertainment, being specially bred first and foremost to go to battle in cockfighting rings. This bloody history can be seen vividly as we look at some of the most primitive breeds hailing from various parts of Asia - They're generally enormous colorful birds who are pretty poor egg layers but who produce fiercesome roosters. Despite being very tall (with the Malays standing the tallest at 3 feet in height) they produce very poor meat. This is because for one, they don't have much meat on them. They're lean and mean consisted of mostly of very chewy and gamey muscle meat, and very little of anything else.
It's unclear when we started breeding them specifically for better meat qualities but history seems to suggest it was a great many generations after their initial introduction into our communities. By the time the Ancient Egyptians came to power the chickens had migrated with nomads, merchants, and travelers, and were still being used primarily for fighting. In fact it may have been the Romans who first started eating chicken regularly. At the time these fighting lines didn't lay nearly as many eggs a the modern chicken. It was because of this that eating eggs and chicken meat was considered only the finest source of mealtime decadence. Indeed only the super wealthy and those working for the super wealthy could afford raising these birds. This is the first time we have historical records detailing how birds were being purposely fed rich food in order to fatten them up for slaughter. Some considered this a sign of moral decay and in 161 BC a new law was put forth by Rome that limited the consumption of chicken to one bird per meal, presumably also per household, but only if the bird hadn't been "overfed" on a heady mix of cumin seeds, lizard fat, and other scraps. These birds were usually not big enough to feed entire families and households so something needed to be done to improve them.
Large farms sprung up which catered to only chickens. Protected from predators, given daily meals, and purposely bred for size these chickens started to grow in size. And then at some point, and I honestly can't even fathom how, someone discovered that castrating male chicks allowed for roosters to grow very large, develop hen-like breasts, and have a much more succulent and tender meat. So was born the Capon.
Before Capons hens were largely favored for meat purposes. If a hen was slaughtered before she started laying eggs she would provide a carcass that had larger amounts of tender white meat than any rooster would have. Older hens who had seen their egg laying days come and go were also common targets as there was no point of wasting food on them anymore but their carcasses were often very chewy. Since chicks hatch at about a 50% hen to rooster ratio there was also extra roosters hanging around. If not used for fighting these roosters could have been eaten but they shared the same issues as the old hens - by the time they got big enough to eat they were all muscles and made for a very chewy and gamy dining experience.
Capons were a way to make the roosters useful again. When the chicks were 3-6 weeks of age someone would come by castrate them which would reduce the male hormones to almost nil causing the bird to grow the physical features of a hen on the much larger body of a rooster. This would result in a bird who grew fast, produced a lot of white meat in their hen-like breasts, were far more tender in texture, and who behaved a bit odd. Sometimes spare Capons would be spared slaughter because they proved to be great at taking care of chicks, even better than the hens. Some would even incubate eggs!
When Rome fell Capons more or less went the way of the dinosaur. The knowledge to create them may have lingered but it wasn't largely practiced anymore until we came out of the dark ages again. At that point we wandered away from the geese and other fowl that we were favoring and chickens once again became part of many small farms. At the time Capons would have been valuable but also a commodity, the training necessary to castrate a chick would have been a rare thing to come by. Still Capons have remained popular to foodies and gourmet chicken enthusiasts. It's something that is still practiced today, be it in very small numbers.
I am about to write about how Caponization works and how it's done. The process hasn't changed since the time of the Romans and It's a bit gut churning for some so if you'd rather skip this paragraph and continue reading about less horrendous topics I wouldn't blame you. Anyway, here we go! Capons are created when male chicks reach anywhere between 3-6 weeks. Someone with the skill will take the cockerel and start by strapping it down to a table, usually with the help of weights. Here it's head, wings, and feet will be held down making movement pretty impossible. From here the bottom two ribs will be located, and without anesthesia or antibiotics or any of the wonders of modern medical science, an incision will be made between the last two ribs on each side. From there the testes will be located, and can be as small as a grain of rice, and then will be ripped out with fingers or the use of a spoon or horsehair tool. All this should be done as promptly as possible to avoid prolonging pain but should not be done carelessly unless you are not bothered by hitting a nearby artery or accidentally lopping out the pancreas (both common forms of botched deaths.) From here the bird will be taken out of restraints and allowed to return to the field with no stitches necessary. The skin should seal itself and the Capon will wonder off to heal. There's a lot of controversy surrounding Capons because of this brutal form of home surgery, and the amount of premature deaths it causes which can be very high. Perhaps this is why market-ready Capons are normally hard to come by.
Breeds are Created just for their Meat...
At some point people started creating whole breeds that were solely used for meat purposes. By the middle ages chickens started to separate by breed. Some were still being used for fighting, others were being used just for their prolific eggs, some were even just "ornamental" and kept for their beauty, while still others were cultivating breeds that tasted particularly delicious. SOme countries showed far more interest in this than others, some continue to have interest, and some really define how different we are as a culture.
For instance in Asia black meat was considered the most tasty. Several Asian breeds such as the Silkie and Ayam Cerami displayed not just black feathers but black skin, black bones, and black meat that looked as if it'd been dyed with ink. Silkies are very small compared to Western meat breeds but they became a delicacy. They're still used in Chinese medicine and for general meat purposes although most Westerners cringe at the idea of eating black meat. We have Silkies here the States, a lot actually, but more often than not they are kept as ornamental birds or broodies (that is a hen that will hatch her own or another hen's chicks.) Ayam Cerami are so rare in the US that if you're lucky enough to find one expect to pay $1,000 or more for a single adult. That's a little pricey for eating. I suspect when their novelty runs out and they become more common their price tag will plunge and people will lose interest. After all there's just not much of a market for black meat here and that's really what they're traditionally used for. You might be surprised to learn that black meat is actually lower in fat and contains twice the amount of a beneficial anti-oxidant known as carnosine than non-black breeds.
In Europe most of the meat breeds developed white or yellow skin and more attention was given to creating a bird with more white meat rather than dark. Birds were raised to be bigger by the generation and many breeds displayed very unison colors with white feathers being favored because they were easier to miss than if a few black pin feathers remained in the carcass. It tied in with our ideas of hygiene at the time.
England stepped up with a breed known as the Dorking that they claim are the direct descendants of chickens brought from Romans when they conquered the area in 43AD. These unusually short birds had ample white meat and were also terrific layers, which is probably what they were valued for until their meat became in vogue. They're said to be the most tender of the English breeds. Buff Orpingtons also hail from England. They also make great dual purpose birds, both laying a lot of eggs and growing to a very fair size. They're still common in England and the United states, especially on hobby farms, due to the fact they often lay in winter. Having raised Orpingtons myself I can personally attest, with great prejudiced, they also may be one of the world's dumbest birds, with an IQ so lacking it was startling on a daily basis. I formally apologize for offending any of their large fan base in saying so. That being said some people find eating dumb animals is a little less morally apprehensable than eating one that knows it's dinner. Food for thought.
Not surprisingly France still prides itself on a variety of meat breeds, all which they claim are the Rolls Royce of chicken meat. Not only do they fawn over the breeds they also raise their birds in luxury, claiming only birds allowed to grow at a normal natural rate and fed off of wild pastures could produce mat as fine as theirs. Most notably they have the White and Black Bresse, said to be the most flavorful and tender of all white meat producers, and the La Fleche who is also noted for the fact they appear to have devil horns and shun humans in a way that makes some of us wonder if they're up to something. Both these breeds are foragers and are never kept in confinement.
America really didn't have much interest in producing meat breeds. We were exceptionally proud to produce some of the most prolific egg layers the world has ever seen but as I stated before chicken meat wasn't that common on our dinner tables until after we industrialized the chicken raising process. The only heritage American chicken breed I can think of that was used as meat would be the dual purpose Buckeye, also the only American breed created by a woman. It has yellow skin and can grow in excess of nine pounds. It was a breed well suited for small farms but today is fairly rare. And of course America was the country that came up with "Cornish Game Crosses," which are not a technical breed but rather a hybrid that is the main producer of chicken meat in our grocers today. We'll talk more about them in a bit.
The Industrialization of Chickens
America picked up where Ancient Rome left off only around World War II. At the time there was a great need for cheaper meat than beef or pork and although rabbits were being raised en masse some believed there was still room for an even cheaper option.
First we tried bringing them off the farms and into large buildings where we could keep thousands at once. At first this didn't work. Birds who didn't have access to sunlight died. Eventually it was discovered a lack of vitamin D was causing this so we created a cheap pelleted food with Vitamin D, calcium, protein, and all the thins we believed they had on the farm. The chickens lived. From there we learned how to keep them in massive flocks, often 20,000-30,000 per building. We avoided disease by automatically putting antibiotics in their food as a preventative. We also learned antibiotics for some reason spurned more growth so it was a double win for industrialized chicken farmers. Finally we tampered with the breeds until someone realized that by crossing a White Plymouth Rock with a white Cornish we could get chickens that had an alarming growth rate. Instead of waiting 4-6 months for birds to mature to slaughtering weight these crosses were ready at 8-12 weeks!
Cornish corsses are ideal for industrial farming but aren't popular in backyard farms. There's several reasos for this: for one they must be obtained from large hatcheries because the eaxct ratio of Cornish to Rock is a strictly held secret, it's not a first generation cross. The second reason is that if they're not slaughtered they usually don't survive much longer, having grown so fast and so fat, their hearts often can't handle the strain and stop working. This means that it;s near impossible to breed them naturally in a farm setting.
Beyond this chicks need to be fed on a routine with excess food being taken away from them after a few minutes. They grow so intensely fast that their one all consuming need as a living animal is to eat, eat, eat, and they will eat to the point their gullets explode if you let them. This is also one reason they are not good free ranging. People who try raising them either love the amount of meat the efficiently produce or say they'd never raise them again, usually inciting that they acted lethargic in the absence of food and required too much attention to feed several times a day. Finally many foodies argue that quantity does not always mean quality and say these quick super market-ready birds lack definition of flavor. One thing is for sure though, with a growth rate that fast they sure aren't chewy!