The Shmoo was the brilliant 1948 invention of Al Capp, the cartoonist who brought us Li’l Abner. Essentially a self-sacrificing blob with a face, a Shmoo met all human needs. Fried, its meat tasted like poultry, broiled, like steak. As a species, the animals lived to be eaten, and they bred copiously, so their supply was inexhaustible. They also could be made into leather or lumber, even toothpicks. The Shmoos made people so happy, lazy, and carefree that the creatures were threatening to destroy society, and thus their kind was exterminated by the U.S. government, those killjoys.
But the Shmoo does exist, in a less-happy, real-life form, in the modern-day chicken. “Farmed” by the tens of thousands in close, airless factories, dosed with antibiotics, bred for either turbocharged egg-laying or rapid growth and enormous, front-heavy breasts, the chicken as we now know it exists solely to meet human needs and is as cheap, popular, and ubiquitous as the long-ago imaginary Shmoo. If only these mass-produced, bioengineered animal products, who are, after all, sentient and alive, were as happy as the Shmoos about their lot. (Too bad they can’t be bred not to have brains.)
However, instead of potentially destroying society, like the Shmoos, chickens saved us. There are currently twenty-four billion of them in the world, more than any other species of bird: enough for a chicken in every pot, chicken every Sunday (and all other days), and chicken soup for every soul. Chicken crosses all cultural and culinary boundaries; KFC is conquering China, chicken tikka masala could be called the national dish of Britain, and fried chicken, the American favorite, is an African take on a Scottish dish. And General Tso’s chicken, which was invented in a Midwestern strip mall, is as American as apple pie.
Also like that of the Shmoo, the meat of the chicken will do whatever you want it to. It plays well with anything you throw at it: spices, herbs, vegetables, fruits, sauces, grains, legumes, other meats. Spicy, salty, crunchy, creamy, savory, sweet, subtle, it all works; broiled, fried, grilled, baked, boiled, simmered, sautéed, stir-fried, stewed—any way but raw—you can’t go wrong. Every part of the bird except the feathers, which can be used for down, is eaten somewhere on earth: gizzards, cartilage, feet, beak, skin—and, of course, the fat, or schmaltz, which is classically paired with chopped, broiled chicken livers on Jewish holidays.
“It tastes like chicken,” the assurance of parents to wary kids confronted with some new foodstuff, should be reversed. Since birds came from reptiles, it might be more accurate to say, “Chicken tastes like dinosaur,” if alligator and crocodile are any indication. The chicken is a direct descendant of the red jungle fowl, which was first domesticated in southeastern Asia five thousand years ago, where it was used primarily for cockfighting, as it was in India and the Middle East. The Egyptians figured out how to build incubation chambers for chicken eggs, which have to be kept between 99 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, but they also prized the chickens most for their aggression. Roosters are fierce fighters, which is interesting in light of our associations with “playing chicken” and the neurotic fears of Chicken Little.
Also valued by the Greeks for their fighting abilities rather than their tastiness, chickens didn’t catch on as food in any big way until Roman times. The Romans, those gourmands, loved the birds so much that the authorities, probably rightly, feared their people’s gluttony for chicken would give way to moral decay (also reminiscent of the Shmoo-based anxiety). So a proscription was passed limiting Romans to one chicken per meal—whether for the table or each individual diner, it’s not clear. They fattened their fowl with milk-soaked bread as well as grape marc; this decadent practice was prohibited too, but the crafty Romans, who also invented the omelet and the concept of stuffing, got around this by castrating their roosters, which led them to grow plump on their own, giving rise to the capon.
Once the Roman Empire fell, along with its huge, efficient farms, pheasant, quail, geese, and partridge took over as the dominant game birds in Europe until relatively recently. The chicken arrived in the New World with the Polynesians about a century before Columbus did, but the plentiful native wild duck and turkey dominated the fowl scene for hundreds of years afterward.
Because chickens need vitamin D, farmers generally could keep only a few, raising them in the barnyard, where the naturally omnivorous birds could soak up sunlight while they scratched for bugs and ate scraps. A chicken was a special Sunday treat; eggs were treasured. It wasn’t until the twentieth-century invention of synthetic vitamins that the birds could be mass-produced indoors, a development that gave rise to the wild popularity of chicken in cuisines worldwide.
In modern cookery, excellent, classic chicken dishes are so numerous that it’s easier to keep listing them than to choose only a few: the word chicken is paired in the names of recipes with paprikash, cordon bleu, jerk, buffalo, satay, au vin, parmesan, barbecued, fried, Alfredo, potpie, fricassee, cacciatore, Provençal, with dumplings or matzo balls, noodles or rice, potatoes or biscuits,and marsala, stroganoff, tacos, tagine, curry, yakitori, stir-fry, with broccoli and cashews, fingers, nuggets, croquettes, salad…and on and on.
Two of the best chicken dishes are also the simplest. The first, avgolemono, the nourishing, gentle egg-and-chicken Greek soup, might soothe a cold even better than traditional chicken soup does; because of the addition of lemon, it’s the hot toddy of soups. My recipe: Into a pot with three cups of strong, fresh chicken broth, place a chicken breast and two-thirds of a cup of arborio rice, and simmer until the rice is cooked and the breast poached. Remove the breast and shred it with a fork, then put the meat back into the pot. In a separate bowl, beat together two eggs with the juice of one lemon. Drizzle a cup of hot broth into the egg-lemon mixture while whisking madly. Turn off the heat under the soup, add in the egg-lemon mixture, and stir well, season with salt and black pepper to taste, and serve to an invalid in bed on a tray. There will be enough for the cook as well.
The second, roast chicken, can be made a thousand different ways, but one of my favorite recipes is that of the late, great Laurie Colwin, the novelist and home cook whose Gourmet pieces were anthologized in Home Cooking and More Home Cooking.
My version of her famous, much-beloved slow-roasted chicken goes as follows:
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Farenheit.
Cut up four Yukon Gold potatoes, four medium carrots, and two onions, all organic. Sauté them in two tablespoons butter until soft. Season with salt and pepper, adding thyme or rosemary. Put the vegetables into a roasting pan, then deglaze the sauté pan with a bit of water to scrape up the bits and add that, too.
Wash and pat dry a three-and-a-half-pound organic, antibiotic-free chicken that enjoyed some sunlight and exercise in its lifetime and was not force-fed corn. Stuff its cavity with half a lemon (setting aside the remaining half), several peeled garlic cloves, and a sprig of rosemary. Place it on top of the vegetables in the roasting pan “like an ocean liner among tugs” and season with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Roast it for at least two hours, or even three, basting with the pan juices every fifteen minutes. It is troublesome, but worth it, because this is the juiciest chicken you will ever eat. Toward the end of the cooking time, squeeze the reserved lemon half over the top of the chicken. It’s done “when the leg bone wiggles and the skin is the color of teak,” in the words of the original recipe.
“There is nothing like roast chicken,’’ Colwin wrote. “It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.”
Malcolm X agreed. “We all like chicken,” he said of the real-life Shmoo.