Andrew Lawler, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization. New York: Atria Books, 2014. Pp. 336, $26 hb.
This summer my partner Virgil Benoit and I hosted a fête du champagne in the new chicken house on our farm in northwestern Minnesota. Like most of our renovations, constructions, assemblies and installations, the chicken house was a long time coming. And pleasurably so, since we could greet every stage of its burgeoning existence with some kind of impromptu, on-the-spot ritual.
Most of the time, our rituals amplify or comment on daily efforts to make the best of things. Animals die, machinery breaks down, bad weather kills crops or freezes waterlines and newborn livestock. But rituals can reshape these losses into recuperative performances, usually songs or stories, depending on our moods and the seasons. We make time for reading, reciting, thinking, exploring, for celebrating what we can imagine life to be on its own finite terms. And, since both of us “work out,” as farmers say, describing the ever-growing number of people holding off-farm jobs to pay the bills, we indulge ourselves at home.
In a way, we embody some contradictions that veteran science writer and intrepid traveler Andrew Lawler pursues in his compelling book on chickens. The book’s corny, retro title turns out to be utterly, uncomfortably, suited to its subject. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? Short answer: because it could. And still does so, repeatedly, in greater and greater numbers. For more than 10,000 years, people have kept chickens everywhere but Antarctica. They outnumber the combined total of all dogs, cats, rats, cattle, and hogs living today. They produce more than 100 tons of meat and 1 trillion eggs per year. Pharmaceutical companies turn eggs, the major source of animal protein, into vaccines, using three eggs per dose.
The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization? Indeed. Epics and sagas need wide scope, universal purpose, conflict, and, most of all, suffering and sacrifice rendered with serious intent. Consider Claude Levi-Straus, who famously spotted anthropological contradictions between “the raw” and “the cooked.” He traced human behavior through kinship networks of foodways and ceremonies which solved the unsolvable questions that all humans ask: Who are we? Why are we here? Almost single-handedly, Levi-Strauss turned exceptionalist notions of “primitive” back on themselves, exposing mythologies created by so-called “civilized” societies as necessary rationalizations. Likewise, Lawler illuminates the prevailing concept of chickens as ubiquitous, mundane, and intrinsically comic by exploring their past noble histories. He pulls them from their current sorry status as food-only entities—the United States Department of Agriculture provides them with no legal status as animals—to explore their crucial connection to human history, theology, politics, neuroscience, medicine, evolutionary biology, folkways, and, most importantly, to economic systems built upon their thoroughly commodified bodies. He explains how the cock, who actually has no penis, became one of the most enduring symbols of male virility all over the world for all time. He shows how West African slaves in South Carolina, barred from owning any other livestock and responsible for feeding themselves, cooked what later became Southern fried chicken, lucrative enough to be seized by proto-industrialists of the nineteenth century and seized again by Colonel Sanders, who was no colonel and no cook. He explores the story of how American politicians, legislators, scientists, and businessmen, fearful that the return to beef and pork after WWII ended would eclipse the growing chicken market, created a full-scale effort to make chickens the national food, important enough to be an industry, not a backyard enterprise run by housewives. Lawler’s chapters are part travelogues and part detective stories, where more chicken parts turn out to serve as genetic links to histories of human evolution. Like fish, reptiles, and humans, chicken embryos have gills. Lawler’s visits to evolutionary biologists in laboratories and research centers explore how DNA coding enables genetic modification to correct cleft palates and other fetal deformities in humans.
According to Lawler, chickens were first domesticated in Indonesia, gradually spreading throughout Asia, India, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas as people travelled by boat, caravan, or cart, chickens in tow. They were too important to be eaten. They served religious or ceremonial purposes, including cock fighting, prophecy, healing, carrying messages back and forth between earth, sky, and the underworld.
Inadvertently, our first chicken house party echoed this travel theme when we called the contractors down from their scaffolds to toast the new weather vane they had just mounted. Eight year-old Gretchen, the littlest hardhat, had ridden the scaffold up to the roofline, where she solemnly helped her grandpa bolt a huge metal rooster in place. The big bird had ridden over a thousand miles from his maker’s Quebec blacksmith shop to spend the winter indoors at our house, propped up near the chimney so we could see him every day. Now he glistens in the sun, swinging as the wind aligns him with the three iron weather cocks posted along the roofline of our Quonset. Black, gold, and red feathers make him a coq qui chant, the New World version of tenth-century weather cocks who, Lawler reminds us, topped every church roof in Christendom by papal decree.
I knew nothing of chicken divinities on Egyptian pottery or Greek arcades or Polynesian drums when we looked up and drank to the weather vane on that day a year ago. My memories of raising chickens in the 50s on our hardscrabble Iowa farm were nasty, brutal, and way too long: scrubbing down the chicken house walls with strong disinfectant which might rid them of lice; burning acrid piles of wet feathers on slaughtering day; washing manure-covered eggs to be hauled into town each week. So this summer, when we staged our second chicken fête with family and friends, my sisters and I agreed that our long-dead parents would laugh and point and laugh again at a few ridiculous facts about this new chicken house and those who dwell within it: 1. It is bigger than our own small house, with wallboard heaters, full-length counters, and windows, a fridge, a microwave, three comfortable chairs and wooden nests which can be opened from the back so that eggs under a setting hen may be removed sans injuries to hand, arms, or eyes. 2. It represents our membership in the latest “backyard poultry movement,” which I have openly mocked since its inception 15 years ago, when Martha Stewart’s own chicken portraits were regularly featured in her Martha Stewart Living magazine. (Writer Susan Orlean was thrilled to bring two of her six chickens for a TV interview with Martha in 2008. She at least acknowledged that chickens are unpredictably aggressive with each other and with their keepers.) I had no inkling that our vaguely ceremonial gestures echoed ancient chicken rites. I was just happy to have 50 little fluffballs peeping and clucking and scratching away in the chicken house. I liken their steady cheeping to BBC Radio Overnight reports of the sounds that storm kestrels make. These tiny birds leave South America each year to fly thousands of miles to the North Sea islands of the Atlantic. Each season they nest in abandoned stone huts used by sixth-century Irish monks, finding cracks in the stones to rest and lay their eggs. Human travelers can book passage on a barge or a cargo boat headed north from the Hebrides to find an island, squeeze themselves into a hut, and listen in the dark.
Roughly half of the chickens at our party were commercial-grade layers and meat birds; the rest were exotics who will lay colored eggs and sport pillowy feathers on their legs or splashes of black and white “lace” on their necks and wings, just as they did in Victorian times, Lawler reports, when London socialites paraded their imported Chinese cochins on bejeweled leashes in Hyde Park. We drank Sapphire mojitos to commemorate the blue medicated chicken water my sister had loved as a little girl on our Iowa farm. But we followed the CDC’s warning not to “cuddle or kiss” the chickens, since salmonella is easily transferred from chickens to humans. Thirty-six U.S. citizens had been hospitalized with the disease in the first week of July, victims of salmonella spread by packaged raw chicken bought in grocery stores. Compared to the millions of turkeys and laying hens destroyed by the avian flu in Iowa and Minnesota this spring, the salmonella alarm seemed unnecessarily amplified. This flu has disappeared for now, but, since 90 percent of the turkeys and most of the liquid eggs produced in these factories are exported to China, its impact has been global. Glen Taylor—Minnesota’s celebrated billionaire entrepreneur—is owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Minnesota Lynx, the Star Tribune, City Pages, and 80 global companies including the vertically-integrated poultry mega-industry Rembrandt, Inc. Big investors can take advantage of small producers whose flocks are decimated and cannot afford to restock their barns. Taylor’s company may have lost more than four million laying hens and turkeys these past few months, but he’s ready to grow even larger.
Back at the party, we admired our five tiny red jungle jowl, the evolutionary origin of all domesticated chickens. They darted and flew incessantly, staging larger and higher trips to the ceiling. Shipped by air freight from a Lubbock, Texas, hatchery at one-day old, they were ready for a fight. They leaped from their cardboard box, no larger than a family-sized Kleenex dispenser, ahead of their 20 mates—Partridge Cochins, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshires, Blue Wyandottes, and Red Broilers. Now that John Stewart has retired from Comedy Central and can devote more time to the farm sanctuary he bought in 2008, growing credence will be given to the clarion claim that postal travel for day-old chicks, a standard U. S. shipping procedure for more than five decades, is inhumane. “The chick business is not an alternative to the factory farming industry; it is part of it. It treats animals as mere inputs and outputs in a mass-production model,” says farmsanctuary.org. Lawler’s description of factory chickens with breasts too large to walk or spread their wings, the cynical use of a “free-range” label and a “hormone-free” sticker used by large producers who place a single ramp outside huge sheds holding 5,000 birds, and haven’t used hormones in chicken feed for 50 years, the chlorinated killing of 200 million baby rooster chicks every year, is far more concerning. Lawler was denied admission to every factory chicken barn he tried to visit, but he was welcomed into research laboratories, chicken rescue operations, and upscale chicken fights.
I grabbed another blue mojito, sank into a rocking chair, and looked at my Stromberg’s chicken catalogue again. Dozens of rare breeds and endangered chickens and game birds were just a mouse-click or phone call away. Catalogue photos are attributed to various photographers who capture heroic poses. These rare chickens are
noted for proud, upright carriage and gameness (liveliness and courage). The males pictured as dubbed—trimmed wattles, comb and earlobes—a show requirement by the APA (American Poultry Association). Males are territorial. Separate males of 6 months of age and older from each other. (11)
Code for cockfighting? It is now illegal in all of the United States, including Louisiana, the last state to bar this blood sport in 2008. But a cockpit headquarters in southeastern Minnesota was broken up in March of this year. No doubt more rings and networks are thriving in the Midwest, now that immigrant Thais, Hmong, Somalis, and Filipinos have been in Minnesota for two and three generations, along with longer lived communities linked to traditionally oriented cultural practices from Mexico and Central America. Lawler’s chapter on cockfighting in Manilla is thrilling, yet unwavering in its investigation of corporate takeovers of this ancient sacred rite. Now the whole enterprise is an industry, with commercial chicken feed, amphitheaters, high-end entertainment, and reserved seats for wealthy patrons and celebrities. The cockfight I saw in Juarez, Mexico, some three decades ago, was managed by Chinese men who held their birds close, stroked their feathers, and yes, kissed them. Decidedly low-rent entertainment, but seriously cock-sure. Defeated roosters were distributed among onlookers who carried them away, presumably to butcher and dress. Lawler wasn’t sure what happened to the corporate gamecocks, but no one claimed the losers right away.
Deeply human questions of our relationships with other living creatures were not discussed at either of our chicken parties, but reading Lawler’s book makes some interesting, unexpected connections. Like other contemporary investigators of human-animal relations, Lawler refuses linear narrative and simple cause-effect arguments. Instead, he lets the past inhabit the present and predict the future. Chickens cross and re-cross the world, as he travels to Venezuela, the Philippines, France, Indonesia, Switzerland, Kenya, and Vietnam. Driving past the dozens upon dozens of poultry barns near his home in North Carolina, where no chicken is in sight, Lawler raises the most unsettling questions about industrial production of cheaply produced meat and eggs. If chickens have been reduced to food, then people have been reduced to consumers. Lawler clearly shows the tragic dimensions of this diminishment which human greed and ignorance has caused:
The Romans took chickens with them into battle, where their prophetic powers could be consulted. In Cicero’s day, people still recalled what took place on the morning of a crucial naval battle two centuries before. The sacred chickens kept on a Roman warship refused to eat the grain, which wasn’t the omen desired by that arrogant consul, who had the offending birds tossed overboard, allegedly saying, “Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat.” The enemy defeated the Romans. His blasphemy against the sacred creatures was not forgiven or forgotten. (188)
Perhaps the latest outbreak of avian virus in the United States will produce such catastrophic effects that systematic changes will replace cosmetic tinkerings and corporate public relations campaigns which usually pass for action. Consumers may demand chickens and eggs which actually taste like poultry rather than cardboard mush. They may demand that chickens be treated like the animals they are, with room to spread their wings, take dust baths, and enjoy privacy when they lay their eggs. Of course the epic question still remains “Which is better, a long boring life in a chicken pen (nowadays in a factory cage) or a pampered short life ending in a 30-second blaze of blood and glory?”
Almost unwittingly, and for entirely unmetaphysical reasons, we gave praise to the chickens in their new coop, topped by the coq qui chant and furnished with rocking chairs. We took their pictures, imagined their fates. And, thanks to Andrew Lawler, I am left to wonder if the best of all revolutions—those which happen when no one is noticing—may be underway.
Sherry O’Donnell, Professor of English, University of North Dakota
This is review and much more appeared in NDQ 80.4-82.4 Welcome to the Wormhole.