Chickens, eggs, and the changing American diet

In getting ready for our next American History After Hours event, we've been looking at the history behind America's love of chicken—how birds have been raised, sold, and prepared, and what clues we can find about the changing American diet just from the chickens and eggs we eat. We asked some little egg and big chicken questions, and here's what we've uncovered…

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"
Early colonists brought egg-laying chickens with them from Europe, and in the mid-1800s chickens began to be bred specifically for their eggs, with almost no thought of eating the meat. Almost every American enjoyed eggs on their own or baked into breads and cake, and each region developed their own signature egg dishes. During the Great Migration (1916-1970), African Americans traveling northward would often bring along a shoebox of beloved Southern dishes, which often included a deviled egg or two. Eggs were both a home cook's staple and a fine chef’s foundation. Julia Child focused an entire chapter of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on eggs, and more than one episode of The French Chef to egg dishes.

Later concerns over cholesterol and heart disease led to a drop in consumption, down to 23 eggs per person per year in 1993. Yet as more Americans have turned vegetarian, protein-rich eggs have come back into vogue, with 258 eggs per person per year in 2014, almost back to 1960s levels.

When did chicken become an affordable weeknight meal?

Painted sign above a white fence advertising a chicken house

In the early 1900s, a young broiler chicken was considered a great delicacy, and typically cost 50 cents a pound (about $22 today.) But with industrialized farming and transportation, chicken became widely available in a few short decades—it was cheap, healthy, and quick-cooking, making it ideal for weekday meals. By 2012, chicken had outpaced beef as the most-consumed meat in the country; according to the USDA, our chicken consumption rate has quadrupled since the early broiler days—we now eat more than 80 pounds, or about 9 chickens, per person per year.

Why were Americans promised "a chicken in every pot"?

Text based advertisement for Herbert Hoover

In 1929, members of Republican Business Men, Inc. released an advertisement on behalf of presidential candidate Herbert Hoover, claiming that Hoover would "put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." At this time, a chicken dinner was such a rare treat that the few chickens raised for meat were sold directly to high-end restaurants, first-class dining cars, and luxury caterers. Ironically, Hoover had promoted food conservation during his earlier time as head of the U.S. Food Administration, developing a "Meatless Mondays" program during World War I. By World War II, the USDA launched a "Grow More Poultry" program, so homefront Americans would buy chicken while beef and pork could be sent overseas to feed the troops.

How do you cook an older, tougher bird if you really want "spring chicken"?

Illustrated advertisement featuring large uncooked chicken

If you were lucky enough to get your hands on a chicken dinner in early 20th-century America, you'd probably be eating an older, tougher bird. Chickens were kept until they stopped producing eggs, then usually enjoyed as a long-cooked, tenderized-by-heat stew or casserole. (Typical preparations included a French coq au vin, or a hearty Southern stew of chicken and dumplings). The idea of that "spring chicken" dinner comes from when chickens might initially hatch and, if eaten at a few weeks old, be enjoyed as a tender delicacy at the farmstead table. The young, affordable roaster chicken wasn't easily found until the 1950s, when you could guarantee that the chicken your butcher was selling was clean and well-refrigerated from farm to market. But the 1950s home cook was interested in faster-cooking cuts, and so gamier dark meat best for braising took a back seat to the quicker-cooking white meat…

Which part of the bird was considered best—white meat or dark meat?

Napkin, silverware, and plate with only bones left on it

Today's Americans overwhelmingly demand white meat, and poultry farmers actually export excess dark meat to other countries. In 2009, Russia alone spent $800 million for 1.6 billion pounds of U.S. chicken legs. America's love of white meat began in the 1960s, when poultry farms first started undergoing federal inspection. To limit waste, producers discarded substandard meat and would then sell the remainder as individual cuts. Once customers could choose specific pieces, they rejected chicken legs and thighs because, as chickens roamed about the farm, the regular exercise made the leg meat more muscular, which then required more cooking time. With factory farming, a chicken's legs are less strained, and thus as tender as breast meat; yet the bias against dark meat lingers on. Consumers also believed that white meat carries fewer calories and less saturated fat, when in fact, skinless white meat and dark meat are almost identical calorically. Dark meat is also richer with nutrients, carrying more iron, zinc, riboflavin, and vitamins B6 and B12.

Fried chicken has become one of the most iconic American foods served up today. But how did it get that way?

Seven tubs of fried chicken, each corresponding with a day of the week

The popularity of fried chicken, especially in the South, is owed almost entirely to the population of enslaved Africans. The enslaved were often given chickens to keep once they were done laying eggs, and then added their own spices and techniques for frying, sometimes perfecting the dish in their masters' kitchens. Some even began selling the birds themselves at market, the sole livestock they were permitted to sell for their personal income.

Today, each version of fried chicken carries its own storied traditions, proving that there's no wrong way to serve up chicken in America. Our relationship with chickens and eggs has changed tremendously over the last century, and as our event on Wednesday evening shows, there are still many more questions to ask and answer when it comes to America’s favorite bird.

Jessica Carbone is a project associate in the Division of Work and Industry, Food History Project. You can get tickets for our "What the Cluck?" After Hours to learn more on Wednesday, April 8, 2015.