March 12, Nicholas Kristof made a searing well-reasoned attack in the New York Times on an old enemy: the commodification of the meat we can’t stop eating. He begins with Christopher Leonard’s new book, “The Meat Racket,” an expose of the atrocities committed by Tyson Foods. Every week Tyson slaughters 135,000 heads of cattle, 391,000 hogs, and 41,000,000 chickens. Animals all suffering so that we can eat them on the cheap. Let me say that again. 41 million battery chickens live in horrible conditions so that they can be consumed in our homes, in fast-food restaurants, (and in most slow food restaurants), in the work place, in school cafeterias, on airplanes, in hospitals, really anywhere we grab a bite.
We’ve known for too long about the miseries that these chickens endure. Just put into your browser “factory farmed chickens” and wait for the onslaught of images and paragraphs designed with good reason to turn your stomach. Chickens de-beaked and full of antibiotics are crammed into cages so tightly that they are unable to turn around. Chickens are tortured so that consumers can buy them for little or no money. Kristof reminds us that chicken used to be such a luxury that it meant something when Hoover promised his voters that he would put a chicken in every pot. In today’s currency, the 1930 chicken cost $6.48 a pound. The Tyson chicken costs $1.57 a pound. That’s why it’s popular. It’s cheap enough to feed a family that can’t afford to spend more.
If we are able to spend more, we can buy chickens who spend their relatively short lives in relative comfort and dignity. “Misty Knoll” chicken costs $4.99 a pound. Misty Knoll Farms assures me that its delectable chickens are free to roam in “spacious, specially designed chicken houses, with access to abundant feed, water and fresh air.” Every week I buy one whole chicken that costs around $20. Roasted, it feeds four for one sumptuous meal, and can still leave enough meat for sandwiches the next day, and sometimes enough for a salad the following day with grapes and kale, and red pepper. Then I make stock from the carcass and its bones and I use that for soup or risotto. This all takes time for chopping and slicing, but the result is well worth the thirty minutes it take to do this work. Roasting and simmering stock takes another kind of time. All you need to do is turn the chicken in its roasting pan or watch the stock so it doesn’t simmer away. Work you can do with relative ease while you’re doing something else–overseeing a child’s homework, paying bills, or if you’re lucky– reading, writing, or even talking to a friend The work honors the chicken, getting every piece of goodness out of its sacrifice.
I am not entirely easy about eating animals. I knew a few chickens very well when I lived for a time on a farm in the Pocono’s. I write about these chickens, particularly Henrietta the Rhode Island Red, and the magnificent Brahmin’s, Alexander and Cleopatra, in my memoir, THE ANIMALS. What surprised me most about these amazing creatures was the sense of humor that the hens exhibited when they played together.
The hens tended to gang up on the rooster, a magnificent creature who seldom displayed much intelligence. He seemed too beautiful to do much more than swagger. Whenever he tried to mate with the hens, they only laughed at him, bouncing him off their backs with all the flair of dancers doing the rhumba. As if they were all in a cartoon.
Henrietta ruled the farmyard. She liked to fly up into the pigsty to visit Wilbur the boar, and Sissy and Jessie, the sows. Sometimes she stood on their broad backs, making conversation, her clucking, them grunting. And she spent hours talking to the mallard ducks.
When you know animals like Henrietta, it’s almost impossible to eat a chicken without knowing its history. Was its beak torn off, was it filled with antibiotics? Was it ever free enough to tell a joke to a fellow chicken?
One way to solve animal guilt is to become a vegetarian or vegan. Sometimes I try doing that, but I always seem to end up going back to chicken and fish, and once in a blue moon I find myself sucking on the bone of an enormous porterhouse steak. But even when I do eat animals, I only consume creatures certified to be raised or caught ethically. When I go out to a restaurant, I don’t eat meat or fish unless it comes with guarantees about its provenance. Farmed fish only tells one more version of the same horror story. Once I sat on a pier in Scotland waiting for a ferry and watched salmon leaping fruitlessly for forty-five minutes trying to jump out of their circular prison. They kept banging into each other over and over again in their desperate and futile attempts to escape. Put me right off farmed salmon.