Confessions from a chicken convert.
It's a shame, but some chicken doesn't taste like good chicken can
It's too bad, but some chicken doesn't taste like good chicken can
There was a time when I was really hard on chicken. Actually, I'll just come out and say it: I was hard on people who loved chicken. I thought it was for people who had no idea what they wanted. No idea who they were. Or people who were simply too chicken to order anything else.
If I could have exercised my will during that time, I would have made skinless, boneless chicken breast an international offence. If I could have had a superpower, it would have been to replace all the chicken on menus with tofu, the only common protein I knew of that could compare in terms of its potential for blandness, but so much more benevolent because it spares the necks of chickens.
I would have liked to impose a ban on the warmed-over line, "tastes like chicken". And after a cinnamon roll and a salmon bake in the town of Chicken, Alaska, the only thing I genuinely didn't love about the place was its name.
How could one person be so jaded about chicken? People kill more than 40 billion chickens annually for their consumption. It's certainly popular enough. But generally perceived as one of the most innocuous and easily digested foods out there, chicken had long struck me as a sort of miscellaneous fallback protein, prepared thoughtlessly and shoe-horned on to restaurant menus as an afterthought to placate the picky eaters.
When I realised the arrogance and idiocy of my ways, it wasn't because of a chicken that had lived a happy life roaming free and getting fat on good, organic mineral-rich grains and seeds and vegetation - though such chickens make glorious roasting birds indeed.
It was a bite of transcendental fried chicken at the Loveless Café in Nashville, Tennessee, that made me want to climb on to the roof and burn off the calories, singing the praises of my no-longer-maligned lunch meat.
A few weeks later, my first taste of potatoes - fried in schmaltz-rendered chicken fat used in Ashkenazi, German and Ukrainian cooking - sealed the deal, and nearly an artery or two, in a lifelong embrace.
An obvious alternative to more expensive forms of protein, chicken provides a more healthful option. Sadly, chicken dishes run a higher risk of being complete snores - and not just because of the amount of sleep-inducing tryptophan contained in chicken meat, which comes very close to that of the known soporific: turkey.
Musakhan, the Palestinian dish of tender chicken, tart sumac and melting, caramelised onion, is a dish I'd gladly represent in a fight for the title of world's greatest chicken dish. My sole contingency: dark meat only, please.
In fact, "thigh" is always the answer when I'm given the choice, but there are other parts of the bird that should not be overlooked, starting with the prized "oyster". A dark, plump little morsel with a distinct flavour and texture, the oyster is tucked away in a crevice where the cook has to look for it. Easy to miss - and tragically, easy to miss out on - the French name for it means "the fool leaves it there".
There's the juicy, unctuous tail, full of fat and flavour, and of course, the skin. Fried chicken skin - as a garnish for soup, in tacos, or on its own, sprinkled with salt, is one of the greatest and most easily acquired treats around.
I've visited a lot of chicken coops, and though I'm not religious about researching where my chicken comes from, how it was raised, or what its name was, I'm very cautious about how much of it I eat. It's not the urban legends about female hirsutism attributed to the consumption of factory-farmed chickens that instilled this caution in me; it was visiting the factories themselves.
Though pork has long been held as the dirty, tainted meat, I've seen - and smelled - some chicken coops that left me traumatised. We had raised chickens when I was growing up, and raising chickens in the city is a popular endeavour these days for those with the space, time and inspiration to do it, but the fate of the overwhelming majority of animals raised for slaughter is a completely different story, and one that I think should be considered by everyone who eats meat.