World War Chicken

When I was growing up, chicken was not an everyday meal.  Chickens were kept as layers, for their eggs.  The young roosters would become fried chicken, which was often on the table for Sunday dinner (our midday after-church meal).  The old hens were called “stew hens” and became chicken and dumplings.  There were no “broilers,” and we would have regarded today’s jumbo skinless breasts as bizarre and unlikely to have come from a chicken.

I’ve written before about the meteoric rise in chicken consumption over the past few decades–a phenomenon that I have assumed was caused in large part by the invention of the “chicken nugget.”

The story actually began earlier. I recently read an article recently by Allan Nation, in which he discusses Andrew Lawler’s book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?  The origin of industrial chicken is a fascinating story.

Today there are an estimated 20 billion chickens in the world–more than three chickens for every human.  In fact, there are more chickens on the planet than there are cats, dogs, pigs and cows combined.

But prior to WWII there weren’t many chickens being eaten.  Southerners and African-Americans (most of whom were Southerners) consumed almost all the chicken meat eaten in the U.S.  Not many birds were being raised exclusively for meat, most of which were being raised on the Delmarva Peninsula and shipped to New York City.  Interestingly, 80% of the chicken sold in New York City in the years before the war, were sold to Jewish consumers. Southerners and African-Americans outside the south were evidently eating primarily fried chicken and stew hens culled from layer flocks, as I did growing up.  Nation writes, “Outside of the South and New York City the production and the eating of chickens were both considered low class activities.”

It was World War II which changed that.

When the war began, the federal government, fearful of food shortages, seized all the chicken facilities on the Delmarva Peninsula and hired black Southern cooks to introduce soldiers to fried chicken.  Meanwhile, beef and pork were rationed during the war but poultry was not, and the government encouraged backyard chickens for meat production.  One government poster read urging citizens to keep chickens read, “In time of peace a profitable recreation, in time of war a patriotic duty.”

To facilitate the discharge of this “patriotic duty,” the government required the Postal Service to allow chicks to be shipped through the mail, a practice that continues to this day.

By the time the war ended Americans were eating three times more chicken than they were eating before the war.

And thus the table was set for the introduction of wide-scale industrial chicken production.  Because the chicken producers worried that consumers would return to beef and pork once rationing ended, they worked to develop larger meatier hybrids.  It was also during this post-war scramble for market share that a poultry truck driver named John Tyson earned a few hundred billion dollars by creating the vertically integrated model of industrial production still in use today.

Our culture’s increased appetite for chicken then became the launching pad for the skyrocketing consumption we see today. In 1980 McDonald’s began selling “chicken nuggets,” manufactured by Tyson Corporation. Today restaurants account for over 40% of the chicken sold in the U.S., and 60% of that is sold by fast food restaurants.

chicken consumption

But now I know that while chicken nuggets and KFC are certainly responsible for driving the demand for cheap chicken higher, the seeds of industrial chicken were actually sown much earlier.