Where do chickens come from?

September 26, 1996|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON -- We rarely notice change until well advanced; sometimes we never notice. Take chicken. America eats far more chicken than beef; nothing is cheaper (even the potatoes served with it cost more). At the counter, chicken, ready to go, can be found whole or by specific parts; raw, broiled, barbecued or smoked -- and enormous, thriving fast-food chains are based on chicken.

But well within living memory, until the late 1920s, chicken was the most expensive dish you could order in a restaurant; it cost more than lobster or filet mignon. Well-to-do families ate it only on Sundays or served it to special guests (and when you picked it up at the butcher's, it was ''New York dressed'' -- plucked, but complete with head, feet and innards).

In the 1928 presidential election, the Republican party's promise for national prosperity was ''a chicken in every pot'' (swiped from France's Henri IV, who in 1590 had announced ''I want no peasant in my kingdom so poor he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday'').

In the September American Heritage, John Steele Gordon outlines what happened. Chickens arrived in America early (from first domestication in Southeast Asia, via Persia, Greece, Rome and Europe); by 1609 there were 500 at Jamestown.

Through the late 19th century, better than nine of every 10 American families lived on the land, and they all kept chickens, from a hen or two to flocks of 50. They needed no care; they scratched for themselves and roosted in trees. Women and children gathered eggs daily from favored brooding spots. If a general store was within reach, women might sell the surplus for ''egg-money.''

Most chicks were hatched in the spring and ''spring chicken'' was a delicacy -- but hard to get in metropolitan areas. More males were probably raised for the popular sport of cock-fighting than for the pot, and not until 1873 did the American Poultry Association classify breeds.

Demand for chicken picked up in the late 19th century; the 1880 census counted 102 million; the 1890 count was 258 million. The first incubator came in 1873; by 1892 someone was incubating 400 at a time and shipping day-old chicks, unfed, by railway express. But until the 1920s, raising chickens remained a side-line operation, run by millions of farmers' wives.

The Delmarva farms

The proximity of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington to the rich, flat soil of the Delmarva Peninsula made it a natural for feast-or-famine truck gardening, sensitive to weather and market vagaries. In 1923 a Mrs. Wilmer Steele ordered 500 chicks, and sold the 387 that survived to two pounds for 62 cents a pound, live. In modern terms, that came to about $5 a pound, a handsome profit, and the word spread fast. In 1925, Delaware produced 50,000 chickens, and the next year topped 1 million; by 1934 Delmarva was putting out 7 million broilers a year.

Numbers continued to soar, and production costs per bird fell. Such numbers couldn't be fed by scratching or table scraps; hundreds of feed companies appeared, and the science of chicken nutrition exploded (cod-liver oil and vitamin D were added early). In 1900 it took a chick 16 weeks to reach two pounds (suitable for frying); today it can reach four pounds (suitable for roasting) in seven weeks. In 1930 it took 6 1/2 pounds of feed to produce one pound of broiler meat. By 1940 it was down to 4 pounds, and today 1 3/4 pounds does the trick -- conversion ratio that looks like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Raising chickens outdoors left them vulnerable to weather, predators and disease. The operations moved into huge sheds, with temperature and light controlled. Raised tiers and wire flooring replaced dirt floors and soon solved cleaning problems; eggs funneled out of nests onto tilted conveyor belts. Meat and egg production split; Leghorns for eggs and special new heavy breeds for meat. A century ago, hens laid about 30 eggs a year; today a hen that doesn't produce 250 is cat's meat.

The Great Depression forced millions of small farmers off the land, and a few of the brighter ones saw salvation in eggs. Suddenly there were professional egg farmers, who confined their chickens and refined operations. In 1940 an egg farm with 100,000 birds was big; today, big farms run 10 million birds.

Such an operation nets 6 million eggs a day, and cost-effectiveness counts; a tenth of a cent saved per egg equals $6,000 a day, or about $2 million a year. And there is little waste; ground high-protein feathers go into stock feed, innards and such into pet foods, and even the feet -- a great Oriental delicacy (don't ask) -- are sold for export.

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