How the Chicken Conquered the World

The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world

Chicken reigns in the 21st century. (Tim O’Brien)
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And, for some chickens, the day comes when they are no longer wanted. That’s when the man of the house marches into the yard, puts the bird in the back seat and drives to Whitacre’s farm, leaving the chicken with her, whimpering that he just can’t bring himself to do what has to be done.

As he walks away, Whitacre sometimes says to herself, “I’m going to process eight birds today, mister. What’s wrong with you?”

Let us now praise chicken in all its extra-crispy glory! Chicken, the mascot of globalization, the universal symbol of middlebrow culinary aspiration! Chicken that has infiltrated the Caesar salad and made inroads on turkey in the club sandwich, that lurks under a blanket of pesto alongside a tangle of spaghetti and glistens with teriyaki sauce. Chicken that—marinated in yogurt and spices, grilled on a skewer and then set afloat in a mild, curry-flavored gravy—has become “a true British national dish,” on no less authority than former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. In a 2001 address that has gone down in history as “the chicken tikka masala speech,” he chose that cuisine to symbolize his nation’s commitment to multiculturalism. The most frequently served dish in British restaurants, Cook said, was “a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.” The great event took place in the early 1970s in an Indian restaurant in Glasgow, according to a Scottish MP who urged the European Union to grant the dish a “protected designation of origin.” This did not sit well with chefs in New Delhi, one of whom described chicken tikka masala as “an authentic Mughlai recipe prepared by our forefathers who were royal chefs in the Mughal period,” which covered roughly the 16th through 18th centuries.

If there’s an American counterpart to the tikka masala story, it might be General Tso’s chicken, which the New York Times has described as “the most famous Hunanese dish in the world.” That might come as news to chefs in Hunan, who apparently had never heard of it until the opening of China to the West in recent decades. The man generally credited with the idea of putting deep-fried chicken pieces in a hot chili sauce was the Hunan-born chef Peng Chang-kuei, who fled to Taiwan after the Communist revolution in 1949. He named the dish for a 19th-century military commander who led the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, a largely forgotten conflict that claimed upwards of 20 million lives. Peng moved to New York in 1973 to open a restaurant that became a favorite of diplomats and began cooking his signature dish. Over the years it has evolved in response to American tastes to become sweeter, and in a kind of reverse cultural migration has now been adopted as a “traditional” dish by chefs and food writers in Hunan.

But increasingly, as foreign observers have noticed, “chicken” to the Chinese, at least those who live in the cities, means what’s served at KFC. Since the first drumstick was dipped into a fryer in Beijing in 1987, the chain has opened more than 3,000 branches around the country, and is now more profitable in China than in the United States. Numerous reasons have been advanced for this success, from the cleanliness of the restrooms to the alleged resemblance of Colonel Sanders to Confucius, but it apparently does not reflect a newfound Chinese appetite for the cuisine of the American mid-South. “You can find bone-in fried chicken there,” notes Mary Shelman, a Kentucky native and the head of the agribusiness program at Harvard Business School. “But it’s always dark meat, which the Chinese prefer, and it’s one menu item out of around 30, and it’s not the most popular.” The chain has thrived by offering the Chinese customers food they were already familiar with, including (depending on the region) noodles, rice and dumplings, along with chicken wraps, chicken patties and chicken wings, which are so popular, Shelman says, that the company periodically has to deny rumors it has a farm somewhere that raises six-winged chickens.

If it did, you could be sure, chicken hobbyists would be clamoring to buy them for their flocks, fancy restaurants would add them to their menus and food bloggers would be debating whether the first, second or third pair made the best Buffalo wings. The globe-spanning chicken is an epic story of evolutionary, agricultural and culinary success, outnumbering human beings on the planet by nearly three to one. Yes, we get to eat them, but we also feed them. And they provide—along with omelets, casseroles, fricassees, McNuggets and chicken-liver pâté—an answer to the question that every 6-year-old boy, visiting a natural history museum for the first time, has asked his parents: “What did a dinosaur taste like?”

It tasted like chicken.

Jerry Adler wrote about heirloom wheat farming in the December 2011 issue. Freelance writer Andrew Lawler is an occasional contributor to Smithsonian. Photographer Timothy Archibald is based in Northern California.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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About Jerry Adler

Jerry Adler is a former Newsweek editor.

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