Let’s Talk Poultry.

I love fowl.  Poultry is honestly one of the most useful, multipurpose meats in the American kitchen… with beef and pork, you need certain cuts for certain applications, but with poultry, there’s no limit to what you can do with the whole bird.

One of the worst things to happen to American cooking in the modern day is the boneless, skinless chicken breast.  The bones were removed for convenience, and the skin was removed in response to the low-fat diet craze of the 1980s and 1990s, when we were convinced that saturated fat caused heart disease and that eating fat made you fat.  Although science is now in the process of correcting these dietary errors, the breasts have remained skinless.  They now appear in huge bags of flash-frozen meat pucks that you keep in the freezer and use one or two at a time.  The assumption is either that bones add nothing to the flavor of the cooked meat (utterly untrue) or that Americans don’t care about the quality of their food as much as they care about convenience (regrettable at least somewhat true.)  These pieces of meat almost always cook up dry and tough, and contain even less flavor than the whole modern American chicken, if such a thing is possible.  Even as a person who prefers white meat over dark, I would rather have chicken thighs than boneless, skinless breasts any day, and I absolutely will not grill a chicken breast without its bones and skin.

Most American chickens have been raised in huge sheds, never let outside, and have been fed the same thing for their entire lives.  Now, some people think that this is cruel, and I number among them.  But even with the issue of animal cruelty set aside, it makes your chicken less tasty.  The flavor in the meat is to some extent a result of the variety of foods that the animal has consumed.  Chickens, believe it or not, are omnivores.  They will eat just about anything that they can fit down their gullet, up to and including frogs and even mice.  They also eat grass, weeds, flowers, seeds, nuts, bugs, roots, worms, fruits… when I kept chickens, I had a hard time finding things they wouldn’t eat.  This is what has made them so useful to modern homesteading… they’re essentially living composters that also provide eggs.  If you eat a chicken that’s actually raised on grass, with plenty of greens and bugs to eat, you will absolutely taste the difference… factory chickens pale in comparison.  If you take a look at my post about killing and butchering my sweet, handsome rooster, you can see that the picture of the leg quarter shows meat unlike any chicken you can buy in a grocery store… as a note most free-range chickens available from local farms will not display this coloration as the chickens are slaughtered before full maturity, at eight weeks or younger.  However, the pheasant I roasted on Sunday showed that same dark purple meat under the skin on the leg quarter, and it’s the same coloration you will see in any mature wild fowl.

Turkeys are essentially wild fowl… the original wild turkeys lived all over North America, but they were first domesticated in Mexico by mesoamerican natives, who used both the meat and the feathers.  Prior to the introduction of the turkey to europe, the more common roast fowl was chicken or goose, and even after turkeys came back from the new world, they were usually a luxury item.  Any of the heritage breed turkeys are different color types of the wild turkey.   Even the broad-breasted white and broad-breasted bronze turkeys popular in commercial production are not so far removed from their wild cousins, though they’ve been bred for such large breasts that they are no longer able to breed naturally… the toms will crush the hens in the mounting process.  Indeed, the holiday turkey is the closest many Americans ever get to eating wild fowl.

(The above paragraph is not intended to indicate that heritage breed turkeys and commercial breed turkeys are equivalent; the commercial breeds are bred to mature much faster, which makes them more commercially viable.  The heritage breeds have smaller breasts and mature more slowly, which makes their meat more flavorful.  Contrary to popular belief, commercial breeds can walk, and can be raised on grass without breaking their own legs, and for those who think that a heritage turkey is too tough or gamey, getting a commercial turkey raised on grass is probably the best compromise.)

“Gamey” is a word people use (usually negatively) when confronted with meat that actually tastes like something.  The flavor and texture of the meat is influenced by diet and by the use of the muscle… animals that are permitted to partake of a naturally varied diet and that are allowed to use their muscles by walking or flying around taste different than factory farmed animals, who are not able to move naturally or eat what they would normally eat.  This goes for all of our farmed animals… chickens, turkeys, lambs, cows, and even pigs.  Veal, slaughtered prior to or just after weaning, is pale, tender and delicately flavored due to the fact that its diet has consisted only of milk and due to the fact that its muscles are not developed.  When people first taste pastured chicken or turkey, or any of a number of game birds, they often complain about the meat being chewy and gamey.

I contend that the meat is neither chewy nor tough when cooked right; I believe that factory raised poultry is simply mushy.  I find the bite inherent in poultry that was actually permitted to walk or fly is pleasant, just as I prefer my vegetables to be cooked crisp-tender, rather than limp in the old-fashioned french style.  As much as I love chicken, my favorite poultry tends to be wilder sorts… duck (though I hesitate to compare duck to the rest of poultry), turkey, and pheasant are delicious because of their game flavor.  The young broiler chickens we eat lack that character, but I do think that they make up for that in terms of their versatility.

I haven’t gotten to specifics here, and the fact of the matter is that doing so will take up several blog entries… types of birds, good accompaniments, different cooking methods, etcetera.  What I’ve provided here is simply a very general overview of poultry as a food item, heavily laced with my own extremely valid opinions.  I hope that it may influence your willingness to try different kinds of poultry in the future, and perhaps to abandon the frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are such a disappointing influence on American food.

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