Sunday, April 02, 2006

Chicken in a Basket

For Christmas Jeff made what he has since realised was one of his greatest gift-giving mistakes, ever. No, no, not the usual gift faux pas: of the cheap, itchy lingerie or nastly perfume sort. He knows way, way better. In fact, I loved my Christmas gift. But the mistake was that now he has to live with the consequences of having gifted me with The Meat Book, by the brilliantly double-barrelled Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame. Jeff thought it might mean more meat, as after he gave me a French cookbook for my birthday we dined frequently on treats inspired by the south of France. What it meant was a crusade.

The Meat Book, like the rest of the River Cottage series, centres on the topic of responsible eating and cookery-- in respecting your ingredients and your eaters by knowing the provenance and abilities of your food-stuffs, as well as knowing how to properly chop and sautee them. As I usually do when I get a new cookbook, I immediately sat down and read it cover to cover. It took a few days, as it is something approaching 600 pages (some of it probably more detailed than I need, as I do not have the space nor the tools to order and butcher an entire cow, though I theoretically now know how), but by the time I was done I was very well convinced. Since then our meat consumption has actually gone down, though I hold to the fact that we are benefitting immensely from the QUALITY, if not the quantity, of the new meat, all of which is carefully sourced from the local butchers and the Farmers' Market by your's truly (more on the joy of the Farmers' Market later, when I am on less of a quest). And the thing that I have been most sucessful about so far in this animal lover's crusade of mine is more or less keeping it to myself. No one likes to sit down at dinner at someone's house to realise they were only invited to see if they could be converted to something.

But today I was in the meat aisle of Tesco. Now, I must admit that even being as high and mighty as I am, from time to time I will buy meat from supermarkets, as long as it is from the organic section and marked with the Soil Association logo, which guarantees medium-high welfare standards for the animals involved. But (disturbingly enough) the poor, spooky battery chickens are right next to the organic meat, and as I picked up a packet of chicken thighs my glance fell onto a whole chicken. Now, they looked kind of gross and flaccid, yes, but, truthfully-- most chickens look kind of gross until you smother them with butter and roast them (mmm). The fucked up thing is that while Tesco claims to be all happy-go-lucky with their chickens (they all have a little label with a kindly looking farmer from 'rural Fife' on it and a wee blurb on how his family has raised chickens for generations on their family farm and how they comply with Tesco's welfare standards), these chickens had pretty obvious hock burns on their little naked knees. I won't go into serious detail, because I am not a total zealot, and I also think of the people who might read this as my friends, and if I gross you out too much you won't stay that way, but basically a hock burn is what happens when too many chickens don't have enough space, and they are therefore obliged to spend most of their lives squatting on a barn floor that is covered in chicken droppings, which are high in amnonia, and therefore burn through their skin. Hock marks are the calling card of battery hens: basically, the kinds of chickens who never see the outdoors, who are crushed into a giant barn so tightly that they barely ever move, and who are bred to be mutantly large-breasted (oh, the patriarchal, sexist world!!) so that shoppers can feed more people for less chicken, some times to the point that the chickens can't even stand for being so top-heavy. (Again, insert Pam Anderson/Jordan joke here).

So, today I am writing a letter to Tesco about how evil they are to mislead the buyer in this way. For you guys I am just spreading the word. I am not your mother, nor your God (though if you are interested in joining a cult where I am, please send donations in pounds Sterling), and I am not going to tell you what meat is right or wrong for you. Everyone's priorities are different. But I do think people should know that those damn touchy-feeling 'I am farmer who loves my chickens' labels are desperately misleading, and that they imply neither higher quality nor better welfare.

End of rant. Sorry to proselytise. Dev loves you, and she loves the chickens.


Blogger TooBlue said...

Jesus tap-dancing Christ, DehDeh, I MUST have that book! While I must admit to only buying nice happy meat sometimes (dude, SO expensive) and finding Alice Waters quite iritating in her zealousness, I support your raging against the machine that is Tesco's. Henceforth I too will closely examine my Safeway El-Cheapo Productions chicken for hock burns and carry on considerably to all and sundry should I find them. Furthermore, I will totally be there to catch the offal when we butcher our first cow in the name of Julia Child, mother of us all.

Luv n' boudin, baby!

5:16 AM  
Blogger dev said...

The Meat Book is excellent, and can be found on Amazon for $33, which is quite good, considering how the exchange rate is running at the moment. It is worth the buy, as it is a fail-safe guide for prepartion of really ANY sort of meat (especially excellent on roasts, with brill jazzy recommendations if you are a Gravy Queen like myself), but before reading it I recommend that you are pretty certain that you want to make a change, because it is quite convincing. Or at least it was for me, but the truth is that I wanted to be convinced-- the ability and knowledge to eat and cook responsibly gives me justification for not going over to the dark side of vegetarianism, which has called to me all my life.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Podchef said...

I can only hope The Meat book touches more people in the States. It is something that should be mandatory reading for culinary students. I knew the schpiel long before I read it but it still caused me a shift in consciousness.

I've blogged and podcast about the experience but here's a digest version. I am currently raising chickens for meat to sell. I have raised them many times before. We usually have laying hens as well. This was the first time I bought both cornish cross meat birds and laying hen chicks at the same time.

Within 4 weeks the Cornish Cross were 4x the size and having troubles. I realized that through breeding they have been bred to be greedy pigs. Then I lost a few mysteriously. I believe by heart attack.

At 43 days old (The industry standard) I took one that was healthy enough but just never got up. It dressed out at 3.5 pounds. A good size. I dry plucked it and treated it with respect. It was delicious and so unlike a battery chicken.

Now at almost twice that age the remaining 23 chickens can barely walk. They are so big they shuffle about and collapse, exhausted. I've seen too many humans which do the same. These cornish cross have plenty of access to fresh grass and the outdoors. I change the litter in the house regularly. The layers all seem to thrive, and almost all flock out of the house every day. Only about 8 of the meat birds have ventured outside and one day when I forced them all out the didn't stay more than a second.

My eyes have been opened. The standard meat chicken is a gross, genetic mutant. I will never raise them again. Mine don't quite have hock burn, but they are missing most of their under-feathers. From now on I will only raise true cornish birds perhaps crossed with dorkings or orpingtons and let them live 6 months instead of 3. Net result--a better tasting bird, although smaller.

2:12 PM  
Blogger dev said...

Hey, PodChef-- thanks for commenting. Your experiences with the Industry Mutants sound enlightening, if a little disturbing. I think its great that you are raising your own, and that you are veering away from the freakishly meat-heavy birds-- there are a lot of wonderful chickens out there that aren't getting a good chance to be eaten! Plus, old chickens? Make the best stew.
How did you find us? (I have decided that you are not an acquaintance who has been secretly raising chickens in an Edinburgh flat-- do correct me if I am wrong)

4:14 PM  
Blogger Lucky Duck said...

Chicken in a basket? I had that once in Denny's when I was about 10 and it's one of the main reasons why my parents and I are now divorced.

Your post did induce some guilt because while I'm not big on the whole chicken consumption thing (that's right I'm a white person),if I do buy it I always go for a couple of big juicy looking breasts.I promise I will buy smaller ones from now on.

I've never noticed hock burns on a chicken before but will keep my good eye peeled for them in future. Generally, I try my best not to look at the whole chickens in supermarkets because they look too much like ... well... dead chickens, not to mention a bit like the freshly shaved leg of a fat peely-wally Scottish person.

I'll stick to the beef thanks; it helps fuel my mad behaviour.

4:59 PM  

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