This book will make you respect the humble chicken

Now just seen as a cheap source of protein, the chicken is given the reverence it deserves in Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? - a fascinating history of a bird that has been crucial to civilisation.

by Rose Prince
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2015

The answer to the question that is the title of Andrew Lawler's book is given early. On page four to be exact. 'The chicken crossed the world because we took it with us, a journey that began thousands of years ago in Southeast Asia and required human help every step of the way.'

But don't stop reading there. Lawler's meticulously researched exploration reveals our relationship with the bird the human race enslaved; from the days when we revered the chicken as a sacred symbol of light, truth and resurrection to the now, where chickens have become invisible, hidden behind the fences that guard the factory farms they inhabit.

Cheap protein. In today's terms, that is all most chickens are worth. We took a bird from the jungle, domesticated it, valued and honoured it for centuries, then downgraded it to form the guts of nuggets.

The chicken's progress, whichever way you see it, is a story of success, however. More than 20 billion chickens live on our planet, three for every human, even if it does mean they eek out a short and frenetic life in a broiler house. Yet one wishes it did not have to be that way, because there is much more to chicken than its breasts, as it were.

When I read that the chicken was worshipped for its medicinal properties, I ho-hummed. Wasn't every animal and plant a dubious therapy for everything from warts to impotence? Well, no. In the chicken's case the science is sound. Chicken meat contains the amino acid cysteine, which is related to the active ingredient contained in a drug used to treat bronchial infections. So your mother was right to bring you chicken soup when you had the flu. Research also bears out the claim that cock combs contain properties that ease arthritis. Lawler reveals that Pfizer breeds White Leghorns with enormous combs to harvest the substance, hyaluronan, which it uses in its drug therapies; pharma the farmer, as it were.

As for its place in the economy, the numbers are astonishing and not only connected to selling meat; you will be gruesomely gripped by the chapter on cockfighting 'Thrilla in Manila', in which the gaming chicken becomes the roulette table at which fortunes are made - and lost.

I witnessed a cockfight in Madagascar. It was not to my taste in the least but I do recall the strutting, aggressive, long-legged bird with fire in its eyes. This prizefighter would be similar to the Red Junglefowl, ancestor of the millions that now reside, downtrodden in giant sheds, the belligerence bred out of them so they may cohabit without damaging one another.

The chicken may inadvertently wreak its revenge. Medical authorities now warn in apocalyptic terms that the use of antibiotics in poultry production creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause disease in humans via the food chain. So unless new antibiotics are developed, we could be dropping off our own perches in our millions.

If you love roast chicken do read this well-written book, simply as a way to get to know this vastly important animal. It won't put you off eating it but when you do, I bet you will do so with respect.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? by Andrew Lawler is published by Duckworth at £16.99

Rose Prince is a food writer. Her books include The New English Kitchen, Kitchenella and The Pocket Bakery. Follow her on Twitter: @Rose_Prince

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