Emelyn Rude is a food writer and the author of the recently published book Tastes Like Chicken: a History of America's Favorite Bird.
The modern American chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus, has come a long way from the jungles of Southeast Asia from which its ancestors originated some eight- to ten-thousand years ago. Carried west over the centuries by Harappan merchants, Persian caravans, and Roman armies, the chicken finally arrived in the New World in 1493 as a passenger on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas.
Today's fried-chicken boom would have you think that the bird made an immediate splash on our home turf, but its arrival across the Atlantic was not initially met with the wild fanfare now reserved for cult-classics like Chick-fil-A. Although a godsend to hungry explorers trapped on ships, once back on land, the early American chicken quickly resumed its traditional European role as a side-business for farmers and side-dish for eaters; meanwhile, colonial dinner tables were overloaded with huge quantities of beef and pork. This culinary status quo remained true for centuries, with the chicken always playing second fiddle to red meats at the center of the American dinner plate.
In light of these preferences, the fact that Americans are now consuming an average of over 90 pounds of chicken per year is incredible feat in culinary history. Over the course of the past century, science, agriculture, and consumer preferences have managed to transform a bird that was once widely considered overly difficult to cook, expensive to buy, and even "unhealthy" into the most popular and cheapest animal protein in the country. The question to be asked then is simple: How did the chicken manage to conquer the American dinner plate? From its evolution into a nugget, to a watershed breeding competition, we look at the forces that shaped our appreciation of the chicken.