When Chicken Isn’t Chicken- A Carnivore’s Case For Activism
‘All that glitters is not gold’- Shakespeare
Walking into an American supermarket 18 years ago when I first came to live in New York, I was surprised not only by the huge variety of foods that I had never seen before- but also how different all the foods were. Fruit and vegetables in the produce sections were perfectly shaped. Without scars, blemishes and looked as if they had been recently plucked from an impressionist painting! It was nothing like the produce that I had seen growing up in Trinidad, which are all misshapen and deformed in comparison-but they did taste really good! I remember as well noticing that there was something missing. Something that I could not quite put my finger on standing in the middle of all those fruits and vegetables and I didn’t figure it out until sometime later. There was no trace of the familiar scents of fruits and vegetables that I had been accustomed to in the open air markets back home- just the cold air-conditioned metallic smell and there was no way that I could tell you that I was in the produce section if I had my eyes closed. As strange as it seemed in the produce section, the meat department was similarly puzzling to my non-native eyes. All the chickens in the poultry section were enormous! Far bigger than any chickens that I had ever seen back home and they all had a strangely yellowish tint. I knew all to well what it was like to harvest and prepare a chicken from scratch if it was one thing that I knew for sure, it was that chicken skin was white, not a yellowish cast and that they were nowhere near as big as these monsters before me.
In spite of the differences I admit that I found myself bewitched by it all. As someone who grew up not being able to afford to eat as much protein as I would have liked, the size of the birds and the relatively low cost made me think that I had died and gone to heaven. As an up and coming natural bodybuilder, animal protein was a staple, but the high cost of food back home often made it difficult to get the amount of protein I thought I needed, but here in the United States I suddenly had the ability to eat just like the guys in the magazines did! While the chicken breasts I was accustomed eating fit perfectly inside the palm of my hand, these chicken breasts were bigger than the size of my hand- and relatively inexpensive! I remember being almost ecstatic at the checkout counter- my cart overflowing with chicken breasts, perfectly formed fruits and vegetables and thinking to myself how lucky I was to be in a place where the food was so much better than what we had back in the islands.
The Perfect Chicken Isn’t So Perfect Anymore
About two or three months later, something changed- or more accurately, something was wrong. I had gained at least 10 lbs or so with the extra animal protein and the increase in calories- but I didn’t feel too good. I couldn’t identify what it was exactly, but my appetite seemed to be getting less and less and I felt as though eating was becoming a bit of a task. I knew that the stress of relocation may have had something to do with it, but I had never had a problem eating in the past no matter how stressed out I was. I was always ravenous but something had changed and I couldn’t discern what it was. Two months later I began to panic a bit. Chicken had been my dietary staple for years, and I almost could not get enough of it; eating a whole chicken in a single sitting and still having room for more. Eating chicken was one of the things that I enjoyed most about being a bodybuilder, while of late the very thought of those perfect, over-sized chicken breasts made my stomach clench.
I think I did panic somewhat. I thought that I had fundamentally changed that somehow I was on a path towards a more vegetarian lifestyle? What else could possibly explain the revulsion I felt from eating chicken and the dread that now hung over my regular meals? I didn’t want to be vegetarian- as a card carrying carnivore, hunter and strong advocate for the inclusion of animal protein as a healthy food source- it didn’t hold much appeal for me. Not that there is anything wrong with a more vegan approach, but I knew that it would make the achievement of my bodybuilding aspirations far several orders harder and strangely enough, I had no problem eating other meats or fish. It was only chicken that seemed to be an issue. I reflected for a while on what I was eating. The chicken that I was eating not only didn’t look like what I was familiar with, but didn’t taste the same either.
For starters, the texture was different. These chickens were unbelievable juicy and tender, not at all like the tough meat that I spent years gnawing through. But as tender as it was, it still just didn’t seem to taste as good. Here in the US, no one ate chicken bones and the mere mention of it would make most Americans look at you as if you had grown an extra head- and good reason. The chicken bones here were completely inedible. Brittle, tasteless and bland- nothing like the ones I remembered enjoying over the years back in the islands. I didn’t think much of it, just another adjustment to live as the Romans do when in Rome and so I discarded what I thought was a West Indian habit and soldiered on. At times sick to my stomach, but determined to meet my protein requirements nevertheless!
Chicken Isn’t The Problem- The Way They Process Chicken Is The Problem
Fate intervened in the form of a chance encounter with an old friend who I knew from back home while I was at my wit’s end with my eating crisis. I ran into him in my neighborhood and we started talking. It’s always a huge coincidence to meet someone you grew up with several thousand miles a way from home and so we struck up a conversation. Somewhere along the line I brought up my problem with being able to eat chicken and my fears that I might be developing some form of food intolerance and he asked me if I ate the chicken from the stores- since he declared that he would never touch it even if it was offered to him for free. He told me that the problem wasn’t me- but that what I was eating wasn’t the chicken I was used to and with that he directed me to a local supermarket that carried what they referred to as ‘fowl’. Fowl is essentially naturally raised chicken, the type we in the West Indies grew seeing everywhere roaming free in backyards and farms across the country. There was a large Caribbean population where I lived and so the supermarkets decided demand was high enough to start selling it. I bought some not thinking much of it only because (at the time) it was much cheaper than the American brands but my first meal was a complete re-awakening! Not as big or as tender as its counterparts, fowl was almost a different animal- and you had to know just how to cook it! It was not yellow, and it tasted like what I fondly remembered chicken was supposed to taste like.
I started making this my only source of chicken, (keep in mind that this was long before organic and free range chicken became popular enough to appear on regular supermarket shelves) and I no longer felt bouts of nausea when thinking about an upcoming chicken meal. I even found myself eating bones again, as these bones were hard and tough, but so filled with so much flavor that it seemed a crime not to eat them. I realized that I had made a huge mistake in assuming that the chicken in the supermarkets were better than what I had been grown up with and it was this very realization that started my quest to understand the American food industry and what made me the writer that I am today.
I learned that the visually appealing chickens spent short brutal lives in cramped boxes. Frail creatures that were often unable to weak to stand – (thus the brittle and unpalatable bones). I learned of the dark, windowless environments in which they were raised. The questionable feeds they were fed and the drugs they were injected with to enhance growth and prevent disease as thousands of chickens meant for human consumption lived neck to neck and surrounded by squalor. While I could respect the ethical or religious decision to be vegetarian, I didn’t understand why so many people here would say they found the taste of chicken to be repulsive. However, faced with these almost artificial life forms as a food source, I could clearly see their point.
As a hunter and conservationist, I feel a strong sense of gratitude for every animal that makes the ultimate sacrifice to sustain me. Thomas Merton once said that to be grateful is to love and that there is no middle ground between gratitude and ingratitude. Indifference is thus a socially coded way of culturing apathy and hate and it is this very indifference- driven by the desire for cheap and convenient food sources that has fostered a disconnect between the consumer and the animals they eat. Most are aware of the atrocities committed in the name of putting food on the table at competitive market values- but most are also able to put such thoughts aside as it is in many ways inconvenient and requires change on their part.
The Case For Either Not Eating It- Or Spending More On Free Range Chicken
Putting aside the idea that we are responsible for our planet and the animals that populate it and thinking only on a purely selfish plain- eating animals that are subject to such cruelties can only have a negative impact on your health. An industry that cares little about sentient beings it slaughters in cruel and inhumane ways will be far less inclined to consider the welfare of the human consumer at the other end. It is hard to spend the extra money on chicken that had the benefit of a real life, or that was harvested in a humane and respectful way, but if you are serious about your health, it the only choice you really have if you choose to eat chicken or any other form of meat that is raised in a commercial environment. Any extra money spent is worth it, not only from an ethical perspective, but also in terms of your overall health. You don’t need antibiotics or hormones in your food, nor should you eat animals that eat feeds inherently foreign to their natural diets. We know all too well, the negative consequences that come when humans eat processed foods that are not part of our evolutionary heritage, so why should it be a good idea for our food sources? The money you spend is the ballot you cast to vote for the world that you would like to live in and by buying only organic and truly free range chicken, what you spend goes a long way to support the people who care about respectful farming and not those who care only about turning a profit. Activism isn’t always about marching in the streets and occupying, but the everyday choices you make with your money.
That being said, finding truly free range chicken in a market where the term ‘free range’ can be legally attached to the label of a chicken that never saw the sunlight- but had an opening that it could have used to go outside if it magically chose to do so when all its food was indoors and it was corralled to stay inside at all times. Sadly the demand for ‘organic’ and free range chicken has created a miasma of purposefully misleading labels such as ‘natural’ and ‘vegetarian fed’ which are for all intents and purposes, meaningless- but prompt the idea in the minds of the consumer that they are making an ethically superior choice. As long as companies can charge 20% or more for the same product by sticking a more appealing organically oriented label- they will continue to do so- and it is up to us the consumers to educate ourselves on how to avoid falling for the traps. That means doing work, looking only for brands with the green USDA Certified Organic sticker which in most cases will mean paying even more for your food.
Many ask how can you eat healthy and ethically when almost all the animal protein sources on the market seem to be mass produced by big corporations in ways harmful to both the animal, to us and to the environment, especially when the good choices cost so much more. Ethically, it is an empty question. To quote Robert Fritz, “If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is compromise.” Don’t compromise.
If you enjoyed this article here are some others that you may find useful:
Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion, the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™ and one of the most sought after personal trainers in Manhattan. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.