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.

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35 comments on “World War Chicken

  1. Very interesting, thank you for sharing that info. I will admit to be craving chicken, and do plan to raise some nice meat crosses this year

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    • Bill says:

      We always end up with a few extra roosters every year (I haven’t figured out how to teach the hens to hatch only pullets) and they provide all the chicken I want or need. Most of our chickens are dual purpose breeds, so they’re good as layers or for meat.

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  2. Jeff says:

    That’s an interesting chart – if I read it right, per capita meat consumption of Americans is 200 pounds per year – that’s .55 pounds per day. If I eat .5 pounds per week, I’d be surprised. No wonder Americans are so unhealthy.

    You are correct about the origins of industrial chicken being much earlier – the industrial model of production is the result of capitalism, which turns everything into a commodity to be sold for profit.

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    • Bill says:

      We do eat way too much meat these days, but it has been tapering off a bit over the past couple of years as people are beginning to be more conscious of eating healthier.

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  3. Sue says:

    Good timing–we’re having chicken for lunch!—and no, nut mcnuggets (blech!)

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  4. BeeHappee says:

    Very interesting, thank you for the info!

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  5. smfarm says:

    Interesting read. The history of agriculture fascinates me. WW II was a turning point in American agriculture in many ways, beginning the decline of agricultural dominance and the move toward industrial dominance, along with a decline in the diversity of farms and the next generation leaving the farm.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right! For example, the dominance and wide scale use of nitrate fertilizers came when they converted the factories that had been built to produce bombs, into industrial scale production of fertilizer. They needed to find a use for all that nitrogen. WW II really was an agricultural turning point toward chemical-based industrial scale food production.

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  6. shoreacres says:

    Well, I guess my family and our friends all were low class. Fried chicken on the Sunday table was part of the ritual, and had been from my parents’ childhoods. In fact, one of the very few photos I have of my mother as a child is of her and her sister feeding chickens at their grandparents’.

    If I could fry chicken like Grandma, I’d be a happy woman. Dad always said the reason Mom never grumped about going to his folks’ house each Sunday is that she knew he wanted fried chicken, and knew she couldn’t fry it up to his liking.

    And chicken fried chicken-livers with mashed potatoes and gravy on a week night? Oh, yum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      When I was growing up we sometimes ate squirrel. So I doubt I can fairly judge what would be considered low class eating.

      But the author’s claim is that prior to WWII eating chicken (from the context he must have meant fried chicken) was considered “low class” and that afterwards it wasn’t. So your memories would have been of the time after fried chicken entered the mainstream American diet.

      It would be interesting if your Iowa family was eating fried chicken earlier than that. Fried chicken is supposed to have been invented by slaves (interesting Wiki HERE). If your family was eating it earlier, I wonder if the recipe and taste for it might have been brought back to Iowa from Mississippi by your soldier ancestor? That would make an interesting story.

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  7. Bill, wars always change the culture of nations. Not just because of the soldiers that have died which the saddest part of wars but because of the way those back home have to survive without the work force that’s off to war. The Rosie poster encouraged women to work in the factories which changed the work force forever and victory gardens produced a sizable portion of the vegetables for family consumption which slowly disintegrated in what we have today. World War II changed many other things in this country as well.

    In my home the main meal for Sunday after church during my childhood was always a pot roast with carrots and onions cooked with it. Mashed potatoes and gravy with usually corn either off the cob in the Winter or on the cob when in season. The Sunday fried chicken came later when I was in high school and Mom raised fryers. Chickens were easy and fast to grow from fluffy chicks to fryer size chickens in just a few weeks. Today, I do indeed eat way more chicken than beef or pork. Meat consumption in general for me is way down from my early years of life. When I do eat meat, it many times is mixed in with a casserole or noodle dish. It’s almost becomes a seasoning instead of a main dish.

    Have a great chicken raising day.

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    • Bill says:

      Something interesting I realized when looking up the Wiki on fried chicken–it is a seasonal dish. Because it’s made from young roosters, and because on a farm they’re hatched in late spring/early summer, fried chicken would be something you only had in the summertime. I’d never thought about that before, but it’s true. Of course nowadays we have grocery stores to provide whatever we want whenever we want it, as well as freezers and indoor chicken production using artificially inseminated and incubated eggs. But on a traditional farm, fried chicken was a summertime meal.

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  8. bobraxton says:

    rural route #1, Graham, NC, our first “broiler” (factory raising) house / barn we built around 1955 or so – capacity 3,000 at a time – fed 24 / 7 for about nine weeks. Poultry price changed daily. About 1957 we built the second (40′ x 80′) with capacity – 5,000 at a time. We “never” had both houses going exactly at the same nine weeks duration, although there may have been some overlap. The manure we spread on our own small “farm-et” land – which made weeds grow a lot better on the “buck tallow” (top soil was scraped off at the time highway 87 was constructed to connect to Fort Bragg in the last 1930’s. Of course, chicken “farming” at this (tiny) scale today would be considered “chicken feed” ( or chicken sh*t ) size. The first barn was bulldozed decades ago to make more room (for triple-wide) for eight child (daughter) of my parents. I believe the second, larger, one still stands – storing my father’s wood – oak from tearing down barns / buildings, “cedar” (Virginia juniper) for making chests to store sweaters and blankets. My father died 1988 July. He was about two years older then as compared to my age now. Next year he would turn 100, so this year soon he would have been age 99.

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    • Bill says:

      Things have certainly changed. Broiler houses these days hold 20-30,000 birds at a time. In the 1920s there were 50,000 chickens being raised on the Delmarva peninsula (and that was the epicenter of large scale production). Now that would be less than a small two-house operation.

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  9. avwalters says:

    Though the expression goes back to the 17th Century, it was most popularized in an ad for Hoover, on October 30, 1928, exalting the gains of the roaring twenties, that the Hoover administration had delivered “a chicken in every pot. And a car in every garage, to boot!”

    At that time, I guess they were addressing the stewing chicken, “in every pot.” It was an interesting claim to make at that particular time, standing as they were, on the threshold between wild and credit borne excess and the Great Depression. Stewing chicken is an old fashioned meal–one that makes hearty that which is otherwise spent. Fried chicken, roasted chicken, and certainly “boneless chicken” meals, require the evolution of an entirely different kind of chicken production and ethos.

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    • Bill says:

      Interesting observation. I wonder why Hoover would use that slogan if, as the author claims, chicken was considered undesirable compared to beef and pork?

      You piqued my curiosity. Digging around the interwebs I found that when King Henry said it he was referring to peasant food–“I wish that there would not be a peasant so poor in all my realm who would not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.”

      The Hoover flyer was alluding to that statement and seemed to be making the claim that the dream had been realized.

      Interestingly, Hoover himself evidently never said anything about a “chicken in every pot.” The 1928 campaign flyer was titled “A Chicken for Every Pot,” and includes the statement “Republican prosperity has reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial ‘chicken in every pot.’ And a car in every backyard to boot.” His opponent Al Smith used the flyer to mock and ridicule the claim and it has passed into history that Hoover promised a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.

      But if there had been chickens in every pot in those days, they would have been old “stew hens,” who had already given the family years of eggs. I like the way you put it, “an old fashioned meal–one that makes hearty that which is otherwise spent.”

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      • avwalters says:

        Industrialization of farming was not merely the outcome of a mechanized WW2. Concerned with the potential for returning soldiers making wage demands (given some of the post WW1 issues,) our government intentionally provided programs to mechanize farming–to decrease the numbers of agricultural jobs and to send those ‘liberated’ from the drudgery of the field to the cities–specifically so their increased numbers would depress wage demands and minimize unionization.

        The rise in the tractor and the loss of the mule reverberated across the country.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wish I knew where to find a stewing chicken that tasted like something–the boneless skinless tasteless chicken breast is all the stores seem to sell.

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      • Bill says:

        Try localharvest.org. You can enter your zipcode and get a list of local farms offering chicken. I’ll bet you can find delicious natural stewing chickens that way. 🙂

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  10. That is fascinating – thanks for sharing. WW II was a turning point for agriculture – too bad it pointed in the wrong direction…

    Although I [mostly] grew up in California and Nevada, my father grew up on a farm in Alabama and my step-father was from the hills of Kentucky (Polly Holler) – while my mother was California born with her parents being from Missouri. As a result we had fried chicken and pot roast on alternate Sundays, with a whole lot of hamburger based dishes during the week. Chicken and Dumplings was also a regular menu item – along with tacos and enchiladas of course! Meat of some sort was always the main attraction with something fried – usually potatoes – and a mushy, overcooked can of peas, corn or spinach. and don’t forget the gravy! My mother was not a fan of vegetables at all and my step-father thought they needed to be cooked and salted to death before they were edible.
    M and I eat exactly opposite of that – thank goodness!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      My wife grew up in California, but her mother was from Alabama and her father was from South Carolina. So she ate Southern food at home, including fried chicken. She also had enchiladas and the like. I, on the other hand, was an adult living away from home before I ever laid eyes on (much less tasted) an enchilada or taco. That kind of food just wasn’t part of our food culture, although nowadays we have lots of Mexican restaurants here (thanks to a large Mexican-American community that has arrived over the past 20 years or so) and those kinds of foods aren’t exotic any more.

      When I was growing up we had meat with all our meals, but it was most often pork or beef, and usually some kind of potatoes and gravy too. And homemade biscuits or cornbread at every meal. Just typing this is making me hungry!

      We ate a lot of vegetables, but they were always cooked with “fat meat.” It’s good that we led active lives in those days to burn off all those calories. 🙂

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  11. Joanna says:

    We watched the War time farm last year. It is a British serial and gave some fascinating insights into the changes that went on in farming at the time. I never realised how much the Brits had lost in terms of growing veg even back then in home plots. Neither had I realised how much regulation came in then and stayed after the war. I highly recommend the series, as it’s out on DVD

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I read once that here in the States once the war was over people didn’t want to have to grow backyard gardens and keep chickens anymore. They were excited to enter the “atomic age” of TV dinners, canned food, etc.

      I see signs of improvement, but if we suddenly found ourselves in a situation demanding that we take charge of growing and producing our own food, many if not most of us would be helpless.

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    • Joanna, that entire series is on YouTube and I also watched it a couple years ago. Talk about government regulation. The land owners were told what to grow and where to grow it. If the land didn’t produce what the government thought it should, land management was taken away from the owner and given to others that were meeting government production standards. It was a tough time for the Brits that normal import a large percentage of their food. They had to not only produce all of their own food but feed the boys that were off to war.

      It was indeed an interesting series that really opened up my eyes about what they had to endure during World War II.

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      • Joanna says:

        Indeed it was tough, but more so in continental Europe. I would love to see the documentaries on that aspect. It must have been truly dreadful

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      • Bill says:

        We visited a Museum of the French Resistance once and there was an exhibit showing what a typical French family had to eat for a week during that time. Very little. We have a friend from Holland who lived through the war years there and she is now very active in food relief causes because of her family’s experience with near-starvation.

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  12. EllaDee says:

    Really interesting. Keeping domestic chickens for food made sense, the industrializing of it not, other than in terms of corporate profit.
    I think Australia is not so wedded to fried chicken although it’s certainly available. But chicken is certainly a popular meat, owing much to it being advocated as a healthy alternative to red meat.
    Personally, it’s rare I cook anything than a whole roasted chicken. We actually had this conversation on the weekend when I experimented with a less than successful Indian Butter Chicken made with organic chicken thighs… I’ll stick to making my Nanna’s roast -organic free range- chicken, leftovers for sandwiches & salad and the carcass for stock.

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    • Bill says:

      I had to travel to Langkawi Island once for a case I was working on. It’s in a somewhat remote part of Malaysia and you have to take a ferry to reach it. When I got off the ferry, I looked up and there staring down on me and a crowd of hijab-wearing Malay Muslim women, was the smiling face of Colonel Saunders. KFC has carried Southern fried chicken across the globe. I’ll bet you have it in Australia too.

      As much as I dislike industrial chicken production, there are some advantages to the chicken boom. It is generally more healthy and less environmentally damaging than beef, for example. One of the reasons for the boom is that chicken can be produced and sold cheaply and there are no religious or cultural prohibitions against eating it. In some parts of the world where people have been historically unable to afford much meat in their diet, they’re now enjoying chicken.

      I’m convinced that the costs outweigh the benefits, but that there are benefits seems undeniable (particularly if you exclude any consideration of the welfare of the birds themselves).

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  13. Farmgirl says:

    That is really interesting. I had no idea! It scares me that society is so easily swayed by headlines, advertisements, and habits. A lot changed after World War two in pharmaceuticals, food production, and buying habits. It is interesting to follow the path back to how it started. Thanks for your research and for sharing.

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    • Bill says:

      Food history can be fascinating. I had no idea that something like the ability to have chicks delivered through the mail began as a wartime measure. When we were cleaning out the old farmhouse here I found some unused WWII ration stamps. Things like that must have caused people to think a lot more carefully about food. I read recently that these days we throw away 50% of the food produced in this country.

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  14. Or you might travel further back to 1928 and Herbert Hoovers promise of “a chicken in every pot.” –Curt

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  15. Bill says:

    AV reminded me of that too. I was curious and did a little research on it. Check out my reply to her above.

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