My partner and I are both omnivores. It’s what works best for our health and, quite honestly, we both like meat, seafood, eggs and dairy quite a bit. But we’re also aware of the environmental impact of meat, ranging from commercial slaughterhouses and their manure lagoons, to the fossil fuels and water in agriculture in general, and the vast amount of habitat lost to wildlife so cattle have places to graze. So we’ve been trying to reduce our meat intake some, and buying more free range meat (of the sort that I know grew up outside, not in a barn), plus we use the Seafood Watch app religiously when shopping for fish and such.
One of our recent purchases was a whole free-range chicken from the local farmer’s market. Now, the heritage breed roasting chickens there are a lot more expensive than at the store–what would cost about $5 at a standard chain grocery store here in Portland was priced at $20, though I’ve toured the place they’re raised and it’s worth it, since they are raised in outdoor pens on the grass. Being on a budget and wanting to buy a few other things, I ended up buying a little stew chicken instead, about half the size of your average roasting hen, possibly an old laying hen. Still, it was good meat, and so I took it home, popped it in a roasting pan with some seasonings, and it cooked up just fine. Of course, it had less meat, but there were enough leftovers on the carcass that the next night I made a good soup, too.I never see chickens this small at the regular supermarkets, though I remember seeing them twenty-five years ago when I was a child. Occasionally I’ll see them at a Mexican or Chinese market, but never at Fred Meyer or Safeway or WinCo. I imagine it’s because a lot of people who shop there don’t often make their own soups from scratch, what with all the pre-packaged options available, so there’s not so much demand for soup chickens. And continuing from my discussion about scavengers vs. hunters last week, culturally there’s also a tendency among many (though certainly not all) Americans, particularly middle class and up, to demonstrate that they can have the best food, not just the scrawny little leftover chickens. We’ve gone from the Depression-era “a chicken in every pot” as a standard of success, to today’s consumerist “bigger, meatier, sooner, cheaper”.
Funnily enough, chickens weren’t always seen as the commonplace cheap meat they are today. 100 years ago, due to limitations in farming practices, year-round production of chickens for food wasn’t really possible, and so chicken was more a special occasion meat. It wasn’t until industry changes were put into place, like utilizing Vitamin D to increase egg-laying and streamlining the connections between hatcheries, farms and meat processors, that year-round production of meat chickens was possible. And this ready availability made the chicken more of a common commodity than a luxury.
Which means that we demanded the best of the chickens that were available. No longer did we have to settle for whatever was available, big or small or missing a leg or not enough white meat. Now if one store didn’t carry plump roasters, we could go to the next that did, and that demand edged out the demand for smaller soup chickens, especially as cooking from scratch diminished in necessity. Hell, these days you can even go to most chain grocery stores in the U.S. and buy a pre-roasted chicken in a bag, ready to take home and eat, no cooking necessary. And that chicken is almost always one killed in the flush of its youth at six or seven weeks, carefully bred for a maximum of flesh and sometimes so heavy it couldn’t even walk properly.
What happened to all those smaller chickens? Some may have ended up in processed food products for people, while others may have been reduced to pet food, fertilizer and the like. Out of sight, out of mind–why even consider things that are thought to be second-rate? And yet, just as our meat comes to us bled out, eviscerated, scrubbed clean and wrapped in plastic and styrofoam to hide its origins as the remains of living beings, so the small, the old, the imperfect are all tucked away behind the scenes, not to reappear until drastically remade into forms considered acceptable to our aesthetics.And that ties into the tendency–if you’re well-off enough–to only value what’s best and turn your nose up at anything else. Granted, lots of animals will do the same, but only when food is very plentiful, and there’s always another animal around to take up the leftovers. Trouble is, in order to get the best chickens to meet the demand for “only the best”, we have to raise more birds overall and discard some in the process, and we can’t really afford to be as picky as we are about the matter. We use a tremendous amount of resources in factory farming in particular, and we’ve already caused immense environmental damage because of it through habitat loss, pollution and more.
Imagine if every American household that bought a chicken got twice as many meals out of it by making soup with the bones. That could cut consumer-direct demand for meat chickens pretty significantly, plus help people save on their grocery bills. Sure, there would still be demand for chickens from other industries like pre-packaged foods and pet food and the like, but it’s a start. And if people made use of every bit of the chicken, feeding the last tiny scraps of meat to pets as a treat, and turning the bones into fertilizer for the garden, we could even cut down on that demand, too.
But it takes a shift in mindset, away from the consumer throw-away culture where the animal is only a commodity, and toward a culture where every resource is used and appreciated, not just for its value to us, but because in order for us to have it, another being had to give it up. That goes for the bones of chickens, and deer habitat turned to wheat fields, alike. This is not to feel guilty for the sheer act of existing, but simply to be more appreciative of and careful with what we do have.
And we need to be okay with not only having “the best”, but making use of everything available to us, whether our favorite or not. The little chickens are just as useful as the big ones, and they carry some good lessons, too. After all, there’s no shame in having a little more cooking experience and learning how best to use a carcass for soup and other leftovers. And while even my favorite free-range farm removes the giblets, feet and other “icky” parts of the hens before packaging them to sell, it’s worth it to also know how to use a truly whole chicken, end to end.
So I’m going to keep buying the little chickens, and the whole fish that need cleaning, and the carrots that still have their tops, and the other things not so convenient or perfectly presented, and make the most of them that I can. I’m going to learn how to do more with the resources I have, and share with others what I find. I don’t deserve “only the best”. I am fortunate enough to have access to a wide variety of healthy food, easily and affordably, and I’m going to do my best to appreciate that.