A vow for 2011: No cheap chicken

It's not really about price, it's about valuing what we eat. Will you join me?

Topics: Ethics of eating, Food,

A vow for 2011: No cheap chicken

I was watching TV, and suddenly, to the shrieking strings of horror film music, there was thunder, lightning and breasts everywhere. “What’s hiding? What’s lurking?” a sinister voice intoned … “CHEAP CHICKEN!” A man whimpered at his sandwich, suffocating from fear of the voice’s question: “How do you think they make cheap chicken?” And then, as the sun came out and the man found solace in Boar’s Head Brand EverRoast™ chicken breast, I found my New Year’s resolution:

I, too, will eat no more cheap chicken. From now on, it’s only the humanely, sustainably raised stuff for me. Great! Done! Next up … call Mom more often.

But wait. What exactly would it mean to give up cheap chicken? (And sorry, Boar’s Head; I owe my childhood to your ham, but your weird, basketball-sized breasts count as “cheap chicken” in my book too.) It would mean no more McNuggets. Well, fine, they’ve sucked since the ’90s anyway. It would mean no more 49-cents-a-pound thighs from the supermarket, or one-dollar bags of bones for chicken stock. Um, I guess I can still cook with those $20 chickens from the farmer’s market. And it means no more Charles Gabriel. OK, this is going to be a problem.

A year ago today I had the honor of meeting Charles Gabriel, a master fryer of chicken. He’s a legend among New York food dorks, his bird adored the way tweens coo for Justin Beiber’s hair. I met him while he was making banana pudding, and he welcomed me into his Harlem kitchen, a cramped room with so much oil vapor it stung my eyes. He showed me his frying pans, big as sleds — dwarfing his massive hands — and black with the ghosts of chickens past. He showed me how he fries chicken, but more importantly, as we spent the afternoon together, he told me why. He told me about moving up to New York from North Carolina 45 years ago, as a teenager, and how he found work cooking because it was what he could do, what he learned from his family of southern sharecroppers. He told me about how making his momma’s chicken is what he loves best, how it just feels natural to him as he smiled his big smile and slipped pieces 36 and 37 of this batch into his roiling pans.

I thought about the decades Mr. Charles has spent doing this, how much of that eye-stinging oil vapor he keeps in his lungs, how a man can spend an entire lifetime in hard work because it makes him feel at home when he has left his home. I did some math: X pieces of chicken a day, Y days a year, Z years, and I came to realize that he has fried something on the order of 5 million pieces of chicken. And precious few, I would wager, of those chickens were raised in a way sustainable food gurus would be happy about.

So this, then, is my omnivore’s dilemma: Which is more important to me? To stop having my money support chicken that is mass-produced at unbelievable scale, poisoning the earth and water for hundreds of miles, that is treated brutally, that goes through a disassembly line so fast and furious that it injures 1 out of every 3 poorly paid workers who works on it? Or to keep supporting Mr. Charles, to share in his chicken, to know what his work means to him? To have that chance to meet the many Charles Gabriels, the taco truck cooks and the noodle shop owners and all the other working-class cooks whose cuisines I adore and whose stories I want to hear and help tell?

In a way, it would be simpler to do the tougher thing: give up eating chicken (or, really, any other meat) entirely. Or I could make sure that I only buy chicken that is raised well. Both of these are important practices of discipline, and the idea of discipline is straightforward: You set a line, it’s clear, and you work towards not crossing it.

One year I gave up beef, and I was really good about not straying. It was for political reasons — a response to the Bush administration’s policy on mad cow disease, which was, basically, “Mad cow? Never heard of it. Next question.” But in retrospect, it was a silly and self-serving thing to do; it was the laziest kind of boycott. I didn’t miss beef — I simply ate other meat. I didn’t look further to learn more about the beef industry, to talk about it, to find out if there was beef I would be proud to support. I just stopped doing something that was easy to stop doing. And what I learned from that year was … that beef tastes really good once you haven’t had it in a while. This year’s resolution has to mean more than that. 

For starters, for my home, I will only buy chicken that is well raised, so that I will support the people doing that work. I will ask where the chicken came from, I will read up on farming practices. It’s possible that I may have to cross the cheap chicken line at some point for the sake of some personal or cultural connection. But to negotiate the ambiguity judiciously is part of this challenge: How will I figure out which exceptions would be justified, and which would be exploiting a loophole because of a drooling “I want”? (And isn’t “But I want” the phrase that has the power to ruin all good-intentioned resolutions?) 

I’m still working on the answer to that, but I think that nebulousness is actually at the heart of this challenge: to learn to make my eating choices deliberately, consciously. Because what does “cheap” mean but for something to not be valued? Price is supposed to be a reflection of that, not a determination. And what I’m saying is: I want to not ever take my food for granted. I want to earn my food by valuing it.

So why start with chicken? Well, that damned catchy commercial, for one thing. But there is something special about chicken, I think, and in part precisely because it is not a “special” food.

Bird is our default meat, our “safe” meat. Don’t eat pork for religious reasons? Doctor says no beef? No problem, there’s always chicken. Having a salad? For two bucks more you can add a grilled breast. Kids hungry? Just get them some breaded chicken fingers.

It makes sense that chicken is culturally ubiquitous. One of the new hotnesses in bourgeois life is raising chickens in your yard. For some it’s romantic fantasy and for some it’s an authentic connection to tradition, but either way, the point is that chickens, unlike big animals, are efficient — they take up little space and provide food in the form of eggs for months before being turned into soup. That efficiency helps to explain why chicken dishes exist in most every cuisine; people all over the world have always kept chickens.

And yet, my parents grew up with the belief that it was truly a special day when they could eat chicken; in leaner times, the most they would get on their birthdays was an egg to go with their rice. My mother, a vegetarian for 25 years and counting, still looks at us when we’re sitting bellies-full at the table and tells us to make sure we at least finish eating the meat. She carries with her a sense of its importance. And when Charles Gabriel was growing up, that fried chicken he learned to make was for Sundays.

I want to get back to that sense of value, of deliberate appreciation and enjoyment. (And, hopefully, it’s not going to happen from privation.) I’m going to learn about chicken. About how it’s produced, how it’s valued by the people who raise it and by the people who cook and serve it. I’m going to talk and share stories. I’m going to learn how chicken turned from something special to something common to something cheap.

And in doing so, I hope to always know what it means — and what it’s worth — whenever I eat it.

I’ll be sharing what I learn here on Salon. I hope you’ll join me for it, and help me think about these questions. What concerns might you have about the chicken you buy? Do you try to support specific farms or practices? Do you ever face the cheap-chicken quandary when you’re at that great-smelling fried chicken shack? What choices do you make, and why? I’m excited to have this conversation with you, and, I hope, help you find new ways to value your food, too.

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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