A cultural history of the chicken

Millions of fowl are being slaughtered in Asia as the avian flu epidemic spreads. In the West, poultry is plucked off the supermarket shelves. But does the familiar bird deserve to be Public Enemy No 1? Matthew Sweet explores its distinguished social, artistic and culinary life

Thursday 29 January 2004 01:00

Before the dawn of the McNugget, the chicken was customarily purchased whole and carved up on the kitchen table. Now 90 per cent of the chicken consumed in America is eaten in a deconstructed form.

Seven thousand years ago, humanity invited a jungle fowl named the Malaysian russet-coloured megapode into its back yard. As the years passed, agricultural technologies shaped the bird into the planet's most efficient meat-producing machine and a symbol of mass consumer culture. This week, the Royal Thai Army abandoned its traditional pursuits of beating up asylum-seekers and taking pot shots over the Burmese border, and declared war on hens. So now may be a good time to renegotiate our relationship with the chicken ­ before it takes revenge on us for seven millennia of jiggering with its genes, using it as an exemplum of stupidity, and stuffing its behind with sage and onion.

Chickens And Spirituality

The symbolic and folkloric life of the chicken is much more varied and vivid than the one pursued in real life by the average bird ­ not difficult, when most spend their entire existences crammed into dark rooms with 2,000 of their closest relatives, waiting for their legs to snap under the weight of their artificially enhanced breasts. The chicken's role in spirituality has mainly consisted of getting its throat cut by everyone from Haitian juju men to Roman emperors to suburban couples with a thing about all-over body-shaving and Dennis Wheatley. Even the touchy-feely comforts of the Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help books, and the genteel Sunday lunch voodoo of wishbone-pulling, require or imply some form of avian sacrifice.

Occasionally, however, the chicken has enjoyed a more fulfilling role in religious ritual. Men, the moon-god of the Phrygians, widely worshipped in Asia Minor in the first century, never went anywhere without a hen and a pine cone. However, the Los Angeles Chicken Boy ­ a 22ft-high fibreglass statue of a rooster-headed boy clutching a take-away bucket ­ is not an idol of religious devotion, but the mascot of a now-defunct downtown drumstick-trough.

Celebrity Fowl Part One

There's no chickeny equivalent of Greyfriars Bobby or Black Bess. No cockerel ever dragged its master from a burning hayrick, or risked its life to deliver a message behind enemy lines. History's chickens of distinction have, to a bird, been victims of circumstance. A Rhode Island Red named Violet, for instance, made a fleeting appearance in the headlines in 2000, when her mysterious death disturbed the tranquillity of the Essex village of Finchingfield. Her life was insured for £1m, but the firm refused to cough up the cash unless her bereaved owners could prove that she had been a) despatched by the parish councillors who were alleged to have objected to her presence on the village green, or b) assassinated by aliens.

Similarly, Mike, a Wyandotte rooster commemorated by an annual festival in the town of Fruita, Colorado, owes his fame to a farmyard accident in 1945, when a gingham-clad lickspittle named Lloyd Olsen failed to execute him for the pot. Although Olsen's axe-blade decapitated Mike, most of the creature's brain stem survived intact. The bird declined to expire, and continued to scratch and strut and make unsuccessful attempts to peck the ground with its absent beak. For 18 months, Olsen toured Mike around the Colorado carnival circuit, prolonging the creature's peculiar afterlife by using a pipette to drop liquid nutrients down its open oesophagus.

Celebrity Fowl Part Two

The fate of Lily, the tick-tack-toe chicken of Chinatown, was more dignified, but it's hard to believe that her four decades of service in a Manhattan amusement arcade were all chalked up by the same animal. Lily was a back-room gambler who never lost a game: the clucking equivalent of Paul Newman in The Sting. Al Pacino gave her a name-check in The Devil's Advocate. Activists muttered their suspicions that her behaviour was produced by the covert administration of electric shocks. Until her liberation by an animal-rights campaigner in 1998, she occupied a peculiar contraption in a rank of video games and pinball tables at 8 Mott Street. Punters would drop half-a-dollar in the slot, and Lily would make a move by pecking at a symbol on a noughts-and-crosses grid inside her cage. The player would respond by punching a button on a similar grid on the other side of the coop.

Today, her old roosting-place is occupied by an animatronic cousin that dispenses plastic novelties in egg-shaped containers. If you ask nicely, however, the manager of the establishment will show you a set of framed photographs depicting Lily in genteel retirement, gambolling in the snow on a farm somewhere in Massachusetts.

Depressingly, Ralph R Miller, the editor of the journal Animal Learning and Behaviour, has exposed Lily's act as a fraud. Peering inside the cage, he noted that the symbol hit by her beak did not always correspond with the symbol that lit up on the indicator board. Lily's peck at any square, it seems, activated a computer that played the game on her behalf. "I don't doubt that chickens can be taught to play tick-tack-toe successfully," he reported, "but some people find it easier to program a computer than to actually train the chicken."

Chicken Studies

"Now if there's one thing I like talking about, it's my chicken," announced Colonel Sanders, the twinkly-eyed, white-suited Grim Reaper of the bird world, in a recent television ad for KFC. "I am a chicken champion, a poultry professor, the world's greatest chicken expert..." If he wasn't just a cartoon character based on a dead meat-magnate, he might have been invited to a recent conference at Yale University entitled The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural and Industrial History from the Middle Ages to McNuggets, at which delegates enjoyed chicken-related films, poetry readings and academics' papers entitled "The Chicken and Globalisation", "Learning from Chickens", "Chickens as Social Mediators and Currency in Borneo".

Chicken Jokes

Although the word "chicken" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "cicen", it was only when the Romans invaded Britain AD43 that the possibility was generated of a bunch of gags about their road-crossing activities (although 1,961 years later, nobody has come up with an amusing punchline). The first notable chicken joke is a smutty 15th-century verse encomium to an unusual bird: "I Have a Gentil Cock," boasts the speaker, "croweth me day/ he doth me risen early/ my matins for to say."

This fertile furrow of humour is ploughed to this day, viz the cartoon above, which should be accompanied by the caption, "Well I suppose that settles the issue." Charlie Chaplin transformed into a chicken in The Gold Rush (1925), a fact logged in Jon Stephen Fink and Mieke van der Linden's indispensable handbook, Cluck: The True Story of Chickens in the Cinema (1981); the chicken-in-a-basket entertainer Norman Collier pulled his jacket over his elbows and strutted around the Blankety Blank studio; Richard Briers pulled a revolver on a hen in The Good Life; a gaggle of Spitting Image puppets propelled "The Chicken Song" to the top of the charts in May 1986.

All these, at least, were meant to be funny. We can be less sure about the edition of Poultry News that offered its readers a centrefold of an oven-ready bird dragged up as Marilyn Monroe in the air-vent scene from The Seven Year Itch ­ and it has yet to be established whether the owners of Chicken Cottage, the UK-wide chain of halal fast-food joints, are familiar with gay slang.

The Deep-Fried Rat

Anxieties about what might really lie beneath the crust of the Chicken McNugget have sent all kinds of seductive but groundless rumours crackling around the world. The untrue story about the old couple who found a battered rat at the bottom of their KFC bucket was first recorded in 1976, but the volume of this body of myth has increased substantially with the growth of the internet. There's the tall tale of the woman who ordered a Chicken McSandwich without mayonnaise, and wasn't overly disturbed when she bit into the thing and felt some warm unguent spilling over her tongue. Next day, of course, she was hospitalised and stomach-pumped, having ingested a pus-filled cyst that somehow survived processing to be smothered in golden batter.

The most virulent rumour was propagated in an e-mail that blossomed all over the web in 2000, claiming to explain why Colonel Sanders' outfit had decided to contract its name to the acronym KFC. Contrary to these reports, the Colonel had not developed a new kind of nerveless, featherless organic mutant so removed from the species Gallus gallus that it could no longer be classified as chicken. It might be easy to imagine this elegant southern gentleman twirling his cane as he surveys ranks of pale, twitching, sightless things packed into battery cages, but at the time of going to press, the animals that end up inside his crispy coating are still capable of clucking on their way to slaughter.

Two other horror stories fall into a different category: the one about the customer who said she had discovered a battered chicken head in her box of McDonald's chicken wings, and the one about the Baltimore pastor who claimed to have found a batter-dipped mouse in his chicken nuggets, are substantial enough to have inspired a pair of lawsuits.

The Literary Chicken

The chicken's perceived lack of individuality has disinclined authors to make them the principal players in their narratives ­ unless they're hysterical slackbeaks like Chicken Licken, who mistook the fall of an acorn for the biggest kind of extinction event. Chaunticleer in Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale is the nearest the canon can offer to a heroic chicken. He might be a vainglorious fop, but he's the only rooster in the history of literature with a predilection for quoting St Kenelm ­ even if his Latin is not quite as hot as he believes it to be.

Thereafter, the species has been forced into marginal roles. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Nathaniel Hawthorne gave Hepzibah Pyncheon a hen whose appearance embodies the oddities of her family. ("And the chicken itself," Hawthorne writes, "was the symbol of the life of the old house.") Hardy awarded some Wessex chickens the responsibility of pushing on the plot of Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891): Tess's troubles begin when she's summoned to tend the occupants of Alec D'Urberville's hen-coop. The doomed nature of her marriage to Angel Clare is signalled by a cock-crow just after the ceremony.

PG Wodehouse made Love Among the Chickens (1906) the only romantic comedy set on a poultry farm; Raffaella Barker's Hens Dancing (2001) was marred by the notable absence of the creatures; Seamus Heaney's poem "Bye, Child" reflected upon the miserable life of Kevin Halfpenny, a boy confined by his mother from birth in a henhouse at the end of the garden. (The nuns who took him in reported that he "perched on his cot and cawed like a hen.")

The McNugget

Before the dawn of the McNugget, the chicken was customarily purchased whole and carved up on the kitchen table. Now 90 per cent of the chicken consumed in America is eaten in a deconstructed form.

The McNugget once derived its flavour from added beef extract, but the McDonald's Corporation insists that all traces of cow have been exorcised. A McNugget now consists of a pale nodule of stuff formed from gobs of reconstituted chicken meat, glued together with various stabilisers and flavoured with salt, sodium phosphates, chicken-broth powder and lecithin.

Around this core lies a batter carapace constructed from enriched bleached wheat flour, yellow corn flour, modified corn starch, salt, water, baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminium phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate, spices, wheat starch, dried whey and corn starch. A squirt of citric acid acts as a preservative and a dash of dimethylpolysiloxane as an anti-foaming agent. (Though when was the last time you saw chicken foaming?) The whole bundle is then deep-fried in a cocktail of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. No wonder the Fast Food Rockers were so enthused. "I think of you and lick my lips," they sang. "You've got the taste I can't resist."

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