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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 12:01 am

Chicken, local

PHOTO BY BRANT SANDERLIN/TNS

 

“Hi, Mom! Hey, how much do chicken wings cost at the store? Some guys are coming over tonight to play cards, and I want to make hot wings. I’m going to have to get them at the grocery store, ’cause the farmers market isn’t until Saturday.” It was my son, Robb, calling from Vermont.

I never gave much thought to the kind of interaction I’d have with my children once they were grown and on their own. Perhaps I should have expected that many of our conversations would center on food and cooking, but I was too busy wading through all that adolescent angst to look into the future, so the frequent cooking discussions have come as a bit of a surprise – especially those with Robb.

All three kids know their way around a kitchen, but Robb was the family’s junk-food junkie. In high school and college, his cooking was pretty much limited to making white sauce (milk thickened with a mixture of flour and butter), with which he could prepare two of his favorites: biscuits and gravy and cream-sauced pasta. Anyone unfortunate enough to ride in his car’s passenger seat had to rest their feet on a wasteland of fast-food cups, sacks and wrappers. The only vegetables he liked were corn and green beans with lots of bacon. He scoffed at “that whole organic thing.”

What a difference being on his own has made! Since leaving Illinois, Robb has lived in north suburban New York (address: Sleepy Hollow), Boston (actually Cambridge) and for the last two years in Vermont, which he loves and where he almost certainly will stay.

Soon after Robb moved east he discovered the joy of shopping at the farmers market near his apartment. “In a weird way, it’s a connection to home,” he said. He enthused about the quiches he bought there, and the changing variety of sausages available at “the chicken lady’s” stand. Robb even started growing tomatoes and herbs on his minuscule balcony in Sleepy Hollow. As I write this, he’s moving into an old farmhouse in Vermont’s Green Mountains (No cell phone reception), that is miles from where he works. One of the farmhouse’s chief attractions to him is that next year he’ll be able to plant a garden.

The second summer he lived in Sleepy Hollow he took the big plunge and joined a Community Supported Agriculture group. CSAs have sprung up all around the country. They allow consumers to share the risks and rewards that farmers experience. A prepaid fee covers the entire season. The farmers benefit from the predictable income, and members receive a box of produce – their portion of what the farm has to offer each week. Some CSAs have other options as well. Robb also gets milk (“absolutely the best milk you’ve ever tasted, Mom!”), eggs and butter from his CSA.

During Robb’s CSA years in New York, our phone calls had a similar pattern. In the spring and early summer it was all about greens: “Hi! OK, I’ve got a ton of stuff here. Do you have a recipe that uses kale? And there’s this Asian green – I forget what it’s called. The leaves are kind of pointy – do you know what it is?” Or “If I eat huge salads the rest of the week, I’ll be able to use up all the lettuce before the next CSA pickup.” Later, the conversations became more multicolored: “How do you cook beets?” and “I’ve got these yellow squashes that look like flying saucers with scalloped edges. What do I do with those?”

Robb is a social worker whose working days are spent with emotionally troubled adolescents and adults. He is on an extremely tight budget and probably always will be – no one becomes a social worker to get rich. That makes me all the more proud that he’s “seen the light”, and I’m glad to answer his questions. I couldn’t help Robb with the price of chicken wings, though, and not just because I don’t do my grocery shopping in Vermont.

It’s been years since I’ve bought CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation – the name says it all) chicken. CAFOs are the reason chicken is so cheap; if you’re buying chicken in a grocery store it’s a virtual certainty it is CAFO chicken. Incidentally, you should ignore labels that tout chicken or any other meat as “natural” and/or “minimally processed”; those terms are meaningless.

We always had pastured, sustainably raised chickens and eggs when I was growing up – either our own or ones raised by farmer friends. But I got used to store-bought chicken during our four-year stint in Chicago, while my husband was in dental school. By the time we moved back to Springfield my grandparents no longer raised their own chickens and I continued buying chickens in the store. Eggs were another matter; I was always able to get eggs from my grandparents’ (also aging) farmer friends. And when I was able to score an occasional chicken from those folks, it always reminded me how wonderfully flavorful chicken could taste.

Then I began learning about commercial poultry operations, CAFOs. And the more I learned, the more I became concerned about their deleterious effects on human health and the environment, as well as the miserable conditions the chickens endure. But I didn’t know where I could get pastured chicken.

That changed when I met Paul Gebhart. Gebhart is a lanky, talkative farmer who is passionate about promoting sustainable farming methods. Many – if not most – of the local farmers who sell pastured chicken today were mentored by him.

People today are largely unaware that chicken tender (aka young) enough to fry or grill used to be only available in the spring. My grandfather, one of nine children, recalled that rich relatives in town always timed visits to their country cousins to coincide with the year’s first fried chicken, leaving the country kids with only the backs and necks to eat. Later in the year, larger, tougher birds would be roasted or stewed.

The vast, insanely crowded commercial chicken operations that operate year-round are what provide really cheap chicken. CAFOs crowd the birds so tightly that the chickens’ beaks are often clipped so that they won’t take out their frustrations by pecking each other to death, particularly in egg-laying operations. (There’s a real reason the term “hen-pecked” came into being.) Conditions are so unsanitary that CAFO chickens are routinely given prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics, although consumer backlash has recently made some headway on this score.

Because they are centered in the South, CAFOs can provide fresh (if that’s the right word) chicken year-round. But in central Illinois, pastured chickens are only available from spring to late fall. The good news is that freezing makes sustainably pastured chicken available year-round.

The increase in the number of local farmers selling pastured chickens makes it easier to buy than it’s been since it was the only kind available. Operations such as Bear Creek and Triple “S” Farms, both with stands at local farmers markets, are increasing in number and scope. And health food stores such as Food Fantasies offer locally raised chicken.

Yes, sustainably raised, pastured chicken costs more than cheap CAFO chicken. But, as the old adage says, “You get what you pay for.” For a few dollars more you can have supremely flavorful chicken, raised in a humane and healthy environment instead of the cheaper option: chicken stuffed with growth hormones and antibiotics and susceptible to salmonella and other diseases because of overcrowded, miserable living conditions. It’s your choice.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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