Thanks to NPR’s food blog, The Salt, I came across Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler’s cover story from the June issue of Smithsonian, titled “How the Chicken Conquered the World.” It’s a history that stretches back millenia, from Egyptians who mastered the art of incubating eggs, to Romans who invented the omelet.
But the chicken’s status in Europe appears to have diminished with the collapse of Rome. “It all goes downhill,” says Kevin MacDonald, a professor of archaeology at University College in London. “In the post-Roman period, the size of chickens returned to what it was during the Iron Age,” more than 1,000 years earlier. He speculates that the big, organized farms of Roman times—which were well suited to feeding numerous chickens and protecting them from predators—largely vanished. As the centuries went by, hardier fowls such as geese and partridge began to adorn medieval tables.
Eventually, though, factory farming brought the chicken to the center of the American diet, with annual consumption in the billions of birds. The article touches on everything from Santería to KFC’s success in modern China, so if you’re looking for a whirlwind tour of the chicken’s long history, look no further.
Also, if you’re the sort who likes to see your food wearing costumes, a companion piece has Timothy Archibald’s photos of whole butchered chickens dressed as historical figures. It’s one of those goofy things we’ve seen before, but don’t let me dissuade you from seeing a gold spray-painted chicken as King Tut!