In her first book, a food historian with a feature writer’s flair illuminates the culinary history of the now-ubiquitous chicken.
Though the chicken would seem to be a subject that everybody knows about, Rude makes the humble bird’s story fresh and interesting on nearly every page. “Painted in broad strokes,” writes the author in the introduction, “this is a story of agricultural science and human health, of the economics of feeding a nation and the politics that encircle the making and eating of a food. But on a more intimate level, this is really just the story of dinner.” From chicken soup to chicken nuggets and from “chicken” as a synonym for coward to “a chicken in every pot” as a campaign slogan for prosperity, Rude covers chicken from practically every possible angle and perspective, showing how the bird that was once used mainly for its eggs and feathers now outdistances beef and pork (the “Other White Meat”) in American preference and how it has gone from a high-priced extravagance to a mass-produced bargain. Readers will learn about the 1920s “great Chicken Wars” that rivaled bootlegging in their bloodshed, about the “millions of mail-order chicks” delivered by the postal service, and about the development of “chicken eyewear” and even contact lenses to prevent the birds from pecking each other to death. There’s an unsung hero in Robert Baker, the “poultry savant, a chicken Thomas Edison,” whose legacy extends to the Chicken McNuggets boom, and Rude offers an intriguing analysis of the cross-cultural relationship between Colonel Sanders (beloved in China and Japan) and General Tso. There is also a more serious examination of the “deadly risks” in the mass production of chicken, including E. coli and salmonella.
All this from an author who admits, “I am a chicken historian who does not actually like eating chicken,” but who finds the bird as fascinating as she makes it for readers.