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What Makes a Better Chicken

By Ben Hewitt, "A Better Chicken," March/April 2010

One writer makes a case for abandoning mass-produced packaged poultry.

“In 2001, we had 50 grass-based farms [for various animals] registered in our food directory,” says Jo Robinson of eatwild.com, a website that promotes grass-fed farming. “Now, there are 1,700, and we’re adding a new farm about every other day.”

Some of this demand may be attributed to health concerns; a 2008 study in Poultry Science showed that raising birds on ­pasture creates a significant increase in omega-3 fatty acids. (Pastured birds typically also aren’t fed additives common to confinement animal feeding operations—see opposite.) Some of it is likely due to a creeping awareness that raising chickens in confinement diminishes the quality of the birds’ lives.

Of course, there’s another reason to pay the pastured-chicken premium ($3 to $7 per pound versus less than $1 per pound for a typical bird): taste. Because despite the ancillary ­benefits (those cute chicks, the fertility they bestow upon our fields), the real reason we spend each summer hauling feed and pulling chicken huts around our farm can only be fully understood when Sunday dinner—say, Baked Chicken with Onions & Leeks—emerges from the oven. It is hard to describe the taste of pastured poultry to someone who hasn’t tried it. ­Perhaps it is best to simply say this: there are the rare foods that have the power to redefine themselves in one bite, to make you feel you are suddenly privy to a secret that eludes most others: like a ripe tomato straight off the vine. Like pastured chicken.

These fine and worthy reasons certainly play a role in our decision to raise our own birds. But for us there’s another that prevails above all else: we have, as a family, chosen to eat meat. We want our boys to appreciate the responsibilities of this choice. And the chickens, which arrive huddled in a box and then spend 10 weeks living the best life we know how to give them, are an ideal lesson in raising animals for consumption. The boys pet them, feed them, water them and then, when the time comes, they assist with the slaughter.

Our investment in these birds—financial, physical and emotional—is all the incentive we need to utilize every morsel. We include the livers and hearts in stuffing and pâtés and we make rich broths from the feet, necks and carcasses.

Only time will tell if treating our birds with such care will imbue the kids with gratitude for the chicken on their plates or a predilection for vegetarianism. Either way, it will surely imbue them with the knowledge they need to make the decision that’s best for them.

Ben Hewitt is the author of The Town That Food Saved (Rodale Books, March 2010).



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