Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Heirloom Chickens

An Atlantic writer tastes four nearly extinct chicken breeds:
I took my first bite of a breed called the Ameraucana and tasted it as I'd been taught to sample cheese and wine, breathing the flavors into my mouth, paying attention to what part of my tongue responded. The meat was chewy, its personality direct yet smooth, and there were definite notes of liver and blood. Next was the Barred Plymouth Rock, a black-and-white-striped bird that was tough to chew but had a long-lasting taste with hints of corn and caramel. The Buff Orpington (what a name!) reminded me of buttered popcorn with a hint of grass. I tried the skin. It had the most buttery chicken flavor that has ever crossed my lips. Finally, I understood what people mean when they say "chickeny."

The last bird was the Jersey Giant, a genetic cross between several Asian birds that was created in New Jersey in the 1870s in an attempt to breed a large chicken to compete with the turkey. Not surprisingly, the Jersey Giant tasted like its competition, with a nice bite and a lingering flavor.

All of these birds were unlike any chicken I'd ever eaten. Or seen: the dark meat of each breed was brown like chocolate.

I'm not sure how appealing "notes of liver and blood" sounds, but maybe that's just me. Honestly, I have to admit I'm a bit of a heirloom animal skeptic... I'm just not sure I see how the it can be anything other than a curiosity or a niche market. I know part of the philosophy is that we should be willing to pay a lot more than we currently are for food, but to charitably assume that a chicken that takes "more than twice as long to fatten up" is only going to double the price... is that really workable on a large scale? Though I imagine the overall consumption of heirloom vegetables isn't really all that large either... maybe just raising awareness at the margins is enough to make a significant difference in people's eating habits?

photo by flickr user Gabriel Kamener used under a Creative Commons license