The chicken in the popular imagination

Chickens at Green Vietnam

I was perplexed by a friend’s seemingly irrational hatred of chickens.  His explanation weaved itself through an afternoon of conversation.

Over coffee and hash browns (with nary a chicken in sight), the conversation turned to writing.  I’m going to write a post about chickens, I said.  He laughed and said something about absurd blog topics, which sounded distinctly like a challenge.  So, chicken thoughts.

It’s not such a strange topic if you think about it.  The chicken figures prominently in the popular imagination.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Chickens coming home to roost.  Like a headless chicken.  Henny Penny.  Bird flu (the sky is falling!).  KFC.  Urban chickens.  Animal Farm.  Battery cages and factory farms.

Is the chicken’s prominence – its cultural relevance – simply the product of its sheer ubiquity? At roughly 24 billion, it’s apparently the most numerous bird on the planet.  24 billion chickens!  How this number was possibly determined, I can’t begin to imagine, but Matt, if you do plan on wiping out the global chicken population, you have your work cut out.

Urban chicken keeping has become the new foodie trend in North America, and in Toronto, there’s been a push to reverse a 1982 bylaw that banned the keeping of urban livestock, particularly in Kensington Market.  (My good friend Simon Wallace has written a fine little article about this here.)  People have still been keeping chickens since – discreetly and probably with bribes to neighbours in the form of eggs – but now it’s become a prominent issue again.  Simon’s point, that the bylaw passed in the first place because of issues of respectability (read: class), is important.  The push for reversing the bylaw is, similarly, an issue of respectability.  In short: the middle and upper classes have decided chickens are cool.

I grapple with this issue continually since I want chickens, but I’m also fed up with self-congratulatory classist food movements.  Organics, local farmer’s markets, urban chickens, and so on: they’re phenomena enjoyed by those with the means to do so.  Clean, healthy, local food is so far out of reach of the working class it’s deplorable.  For example, keeping chickens is contingent on access to land, as are all agricultural pursuits.  The home-owning middle classes are the ones fighting for the right to keep chickens, while the poor will continue to eat packaged meat products pumped with preservatives and antibiotics.  It’s not that fresh, local, organic food isn’t a worthy ideal.  But treating it as a privilege (or a matter of personal choice) as opposed to a (oft-denied) right ignores the structural inequalities that make it a privilege in practice.  This rant doesn’t apply to everyone involved in these movements, of course.  I’m just…frustrated.

I’m worried that my fanciful notions of keeping chickens (even cooperatively-owned, on squatted land) are more bougie than I care to admit.  It’s like a chicken breast devoid of blood or skin or bone and wrapped in cellophane, a pre-packaged assemblage of romantic notions developed at arm’s length from chickens themselves.  That’s right: I’ve never actually worked with chickens.  To his credit, my chicken-hating friend has.

I’m reminded that the term ‘pecking order’ comes from chickens.  They can be ruthless in maintaining a rigid hierarchy.  If you’re the chicken on the bottom rung, well, you have a tough life ahead, but if you’re number one you run the show.  I observed this at Green Vietnam.  I was sitting quietly, watching the hens peck away when, in a flurry of activity, one hen flapped her wings and began marching (as best a hen can) to a far corner.  The others lost no time at all in pursuit, clucking in approval.  It made me think of Animal Farm, which I reread last night.  For the most part the hens are dutiful labourers for Napolean the pig.  So was the thwarted hens rebellion just an odd instance of chicken insubordination?  Are there rebellious chickens in real life?  Does anyone dare cross the head hen?

Chicken-hater also harbours a mild disdain for sheep and cows, which got me thinking about domestication.  Why do we equate domesticity with passivity and lack of independence (like sheep)?  We could have a field day with the gender connotations of this whole debacle.  Am I reading too much into this?

Permit me one final thought: is it always us doing the domesticating?  Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth, sees it in slightly different terms.  She echoes the arguments made by Michael Pollan and others. While humans have massive changes on the land through agriculture, we were also domesticated (by grains) in the shift from hunting to more nomadic agricultural societies:

Of 422,000 plant species, only a tiny percentage are domesticates.  But some of those have literally taken over the globe.  Plants produce millions of chemicals to attract, repel, immobilize, or kill animals….Just because they can’t locomote doesn’t mean they’re passive.  And every so often in the evolutionary crapshoot, one of them throws the gene dice and beats the house, producing a perfect match with the pleasure centers in the human brain.  Annual grasses hit pay dirt with their opiods.  We ate them and couldn’t stop.

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Filed under Food and Cooking, History, Life in Vietnam, On Agriculture & the Environment, On Human Connections, Politicking

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