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Chickens rule — Everywhere — Everyday — Every way

René Magritte, Prince Charming, 1948 (via Wikiart).

When, exactly, did the chicken move out of our backyards and into our front rooms, taking over our kitchens and imaginations? When did it stop being a bird peasants kept to serve up the occasional egg, and the daily morning crow, and become meat for daily gobbling?

With little notice and less fanfare, the chicken has become our food of choice. It has moved residence from the farmyard to the centrepiece on food tables of every culture and of the affluent, the upwardly (and downwardly) mobile, the middle classes, those with disposable income and the urban poor.

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Rotating images: Marc Chagall, The Rooster, 1929; Marc Chagall, A Rooster, 1947; David Burliuk, Woman with a Chicken; David Burliuk, Russian Peasant, 1928 (via Wikiart).

The chicken has recently been the focus of an article in Aeon by journalist Andrew Lawler (see the ILRI Clippings blog: How a ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ breeding contest turned America’s backyard birds into a giant global industry, 22 Mar 2015) and book by Lawler (Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, Dec 2014), as well as a colourful New Scientist spread last month (Clucking hell: The nightmare world without chickens, 19 Mar 2015) and new funding for chicken research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and partners.

The Gates-funded African Chicken Genetics Gains project contributes to ILRI’s global livestock genetics program, LiveGene. The chicken project will improve chicken genetics and the delivery of adapted chickens to help reduce poverty, increase productivity, increase household consumption of animal protein, and empower women farmers. The project is focusing on three target countries, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania, but the germplasm, data and knowledge generated by the project will also benefit millions of poor households in other African countries where backyard chicken production is commonplace.

ILRI’s partners in the new Gates-funded African Chicken Genetic Gains project include the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR); the Federal University of Agriculture, in Abeokuta, Nigeria (FUNAAB); PICO Eastern Africa; the Tanzania Livestock Research Institute (TLRI); and Wageningen University Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre, in the Netherlands.

Images left to right: Pablo Picasso, The Rooster; Joan Miro, The Cock; Celestino Piatti, ad for Zurich printers specializing in color posters; Bill Traylor, untitled (via Wikiart).

To answer our question above, journalist Lawler argues that it was the First World War that ‘pushed the chicken from the backyards of US farms to the forefront of the war effort’.

Until the early 1950s, most US flocks contained no more than 200 chickens, about the size advocated by ancient Roman agricultural writers 2,000 years earlier. — Andrew Lawler

Three years ago, in Jun 2012, Lawler and co-writer Jerry Adler published a long article in the Smithsonian Magazine, How the chicken conquered the world, with more fascinating bits of the somewhat unnatural history of the domestication, and world domination, of the chicken. The whole article is well worth a read. (ILRI geneticist Han Jianlin, based at the Joint Laboratory on Livestock and Forage Genetic Resources run by ILRI and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, in Beijing, and former ILRI scientist Olivier Hanotte, now professor of genetics at the University of Nottingham, where he directs the Frozen Ark Consortium, have both been consulted by Lawler in his journalistic investigations.)

‘An epic that began 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle ends today in kitchens all over the world’, they begin.

The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.”

‘The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think — if they were capable of such profound thought — that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.

‘Chicken is the ubiquitous food of our era, crossing multiple cultural boundaries with ease. With its mild taste and uniform texture, chicken presents an intriguingly blank canvas for the flavor palette of almost any cuisine. A generation of Britons is coming of age in the belief that chicken tikka masala is the national dish, and the same thing is happening in China with Kentucky Fried Chicken. . . .

‘How did the chicken achieve such cultural and culinary dominance? It is all the more surprising in light of the belief by many archaeologists that chickens were first domesticated not for eating but for cockfighting. Until the advent of large-scale industrial production in the 20th century, the economic and nutritional contribution of chickens was modest. . . .

For the Romans, the chicken’s killer app was fortunetelling, especially during wartime. Chickens accompanied Roman armies, and their behavior was carefully observed before battle; a good appetite meant victory was likely. According to the writings of Cicero, when one contingent of birds refused to eat before a sea battle in 249 B.C., an angry consul threw them overboard. History records that he was defeated.

‘. . . The domesticated chicken has a genealogy as complicated as the Tudors, stretching back 7,000 to 10,000 years and involving, according to recent research, at least two wild progenitors and possibly more than one event of initial domestication. . . .

The chicken’s real star turn came in 2004, when an international team of geneticists produced a complete map of the chicken genome. The chicken was the first domesticated animal, the first bird — and consequently, the first descendant of the dinosaurs — thus honored.

‘. . . Once chickens were domesticated, cultural contacts, trade, migration and territorial conquest resulted in their introduction, and reintroduction, to different regions around the world over several thousand years. . . .

‘Around the Mediterranean, archaeological digs have uncovered chicken bones from about 800 B.C.. Chickens were a delicacy among the Romans, whose culinary innovations included the omelet and the practice of stuffing birds for cooking, although their recipes tended more toward mashed chicken brains than bread crumbs. Farmers began developing methods to fatten the birds—some used wheat bread soaked in wine, while others swore by a mixture of cumin seeds, barley and lizard fat. At one point, the authorities outlawed these practices.

Out of concern about moral decay and the pursuit of excessive luxury in the Roman Republic, a law in 161 B.C. limited chicken consumption to one per meal — presumably for the whole table, not per individual — and only if the bird had not been overfed. The practical Roman cooks soon discovered that castrating roosters caused them to fatten on their own, and thus was born the creature we know as the capon.

‘But the chicken’s status in Europe appears to have diminished with the collapse of Rome. . . . As the centuries went by, hardier fowls such as geese and partridge began to adorn medieval tables.

‘Europeans arriving in North America found a continent teeming with native turkeys and ducks for the plucking and eating. . . . Well into the 20th century, chickens, although valued, particularly as a source of eggs, played a relatively minor role in the American diet and economy. . . .

‘Factory farms turning out increasing amounts of chicken have called forth an increasing demand. By the early 1990s, chicken had surpassed beef as Americans’ most popular meat . . . .

‘It is hard to remember that these teeming, clucking, metabolizing and defecating hordes awaiting their turn in the fryer are the same animals worshiped in many parts of the ancient world for their fighting prowess and believed by the Romans to be in direct communication with Fate. A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. . . .’

Read the whole fascinating article by Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler in Smithsonian Magazine: How the chicken conquered the world, Jun 2012.

More information
African Chicken Genetic Gains blog: Providing well-adapted chickens for African smallholders, 6 Nov 2014
ILRI Clippings blog: Uganda chicken project inspires bigger plan to improve Africa’s chicken breeds, 13 Feb 2015

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