It wasn’t getting a freshly plucked rooster for my birthday that made it so memorable. It was the realization of what a real chicken tasted like.
It was early spring. Michael had just driven down from the Finger Lakes to the city. Hopping out of his prematurely aged Hyundai, he walked toward me with a lopsided grin and a clear plastic bag. "Happy 40th," he said thrusting a naked bird forward in the chilly night air. I took the bag and inspected the tight, vibrant flesh in the streetlight, noticing a few pin feathers attached to the lower leg, revealing this was home-grown fowl.
"I have a recipe from Julia," Mike said, pulling out a folded sheet of paper his neighbor across the swamp had given him. The handwritten note, labeled "Coq au Vin," called for two bottles of wine and four hours roasting time.
"I’ve never cooked a bird that long or with that much wine," I said skeptically.
"The breed is a standard Cornish Cross, which is 99 percent of the chicken that’s raised. But this rooster lived outdoors for nine months, so the meat is more flavorful and muscular than a chicken that spent its short life crammed in a cage," Mike explained. "It needs a lot of wine and time to make the meat tender."
The next day, after a night of warm company and greasy good Chinese food, I assembled the ingredients - rooster, wine, onion, carrots, celery, herbs, olives. After cutting up the bird, I heaved my ginormous cast-iron skillet on the stove and gently browned the thick-skinned legs and breasts in a little vegetable oil. This technique drew out fat, while developing deep, rich flavors. The prep time was quick, a little chopping, and the cooking required little effort, other than my presence to check its progress. After sticking the skillet into a hot oven with the veggies and wine, I retired to the living room. The apartment filled with chicken and wine aromas.
I pulled it out after two hours, but the meat was still tough. "Wow," I said. "I guess Julia was right." Back in the oven it went. But after another hour, the bouquet and my hunger proved too much. I pulled it out. The sauce was velvety and plum-colored. The meat was delicious, but needed more time. No matter. I tore into a leg. It was the best-tasting poultry I ever had, better than organic poussin (young chickens) raised in Quebec and sold in New York gourmet stores.
When trying to describe the flavor of chicken, it’s hard to avoid being self-referential - tastes meaty or chicken - sounding like a chemistry professor discussing flavor precursors like ribose-5-phosphate, Maillard reaction and volatile carbonyl compounds, or taking literary flight, "eating the chicken was like sitting on a verdant hillside, exploring a sweeping valley of flavors."
But there’s another way to describe it. That outdoor-living, pasture-strutting rooster didn’t taste bland or mushy or dull or chemically. In Pandora’s Lunchbox, author Melanie Warner talks to a food scientist who suggested a taste test. Take three chickens: a factory-farmed inmate, a mass-produced organic chicken and a true pastured chicken, like my rooster.
"The cheap chicken," Warner writes, "will have minimal flavor, thanks to its short life span, lack of sunlight and a monotonous diet of corn and soy. The organic chicken "will have a few ‘roast notes and fatty notes.’" The pastured chicken is a "happy chicken" that "spent its life outside, running around and eating an evolutionary diet of grass, seeds, bugs, and worms." Eating one is hitting the culinary jackpot as it will have a "deep, succulent nutty taste" that’s "incomparable" to the other chickens.
The chicken Mike gifted to me had that well-rounded symphony of flavors. He was a big guy, but he quickly disappeared into my belly. By the end of the week, all that remained were scraps and a puddle of sauce, the stuff you throw away. But I greedily savored every morsel.
This summer, Mike raised a flock of Dark Cornish, a heritage breed, on his homestead that also hosts a permaculture institute called Cayuta Sun. "The birds are natural foragers," he said. "When I would open up the coop, a lot of them went straight past the feeder for the brush to eat insects, sprouting grasses, seeds. They’ll even eat small animals. Chickens are carnivorous, and unlike the Cornish Cross, these are smart enough to catch a frog or mouse."
They are also prone to going feral. Just like their wild ancestors roosted in Southeast Asian jungles millennia ago, a dozen of Mike’s birds flew the coop and nested in pine and elm trees at night, safe from hungry raccoons, weasels, foxes and hawks. One rooster even made a jailbreak and is still hanging out in the treetops, but the rest of the flock was slaughtered a few weeks ago.
Mike says the leg meat "is remarkably like a turkey, while being tender." Because Dark Cornish are meat chickens, "they also have big white-meat breasts, so you get the best of both types, and the flavor is incredibly rich." The experience of eating pastured chickens, eggs and pig has taught me we don’t know what we’ve lost as a result of our instant-gratification culture. For the first 40 years of my life, I didn’t know how delicious a real chicken could be. I just knew I was fed up with flavorless birds raised in destructive, cruel factories.
That’s not to suggest we should go back to the days when chicken dinner meant chasing a hen around the yard, whacking, disemboweling and plucking it before cooking. Plus, the birds were often scrawny and the meat stringy. The challenge is to take the best attribute of each system, such as using farm subsidies and modern science to support farmers rearing 1,000 or 2,000 birds naturally in open pastures, while eliminating the practices that result in poisoned rivers, broken-down workers and a warming climate.
The biggest hurdle to this is price. Mike sells his chickens for about $6 a pound and is struggling to break even. Concentrating 30,000 birds in a shed, where they go from chick to broiler in six weeks, can lower the retail cost down to $1 a pound. For the 100 million Americans in or on the cusp of poverty, that makes a huge difference.
But the two actually go hand in hand: low wages require cheap food. Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says that we don’t pay for the "real cost" of food. Americans have the cheapest food in the world, when measured by percent of household budget. Holt-Giménez says if we are to pay the real cost of food, "We need a social wage. We need a living wage. We can’t be paying so much for education. We can’t be paying so much for health care."
I think it’s possible that we can transition to a society where we all ate farm-fresh food regularly. It would be a radically different world, but a far more equitable and delicious one than we have now.