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Where Heritage Birds Come From

Sep. 8, 2016

Where Heritage Birds Come From

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By Emelyn Rude

In 1842, Queen Victoria received the unusual gift of two male and five female Cochin China Chickens from one of her intrepid explorers returning from the Far East. The scruffy European chicken at this time was not considered a particularly beautiful creature, and so the elongated necks, slender bodies, and dazzling gold, green, and auburn feathers of these new “Shanghai” birds made quite the elegant contrast. The Empress of India was immediately smitten, calling for more birds to be brought to her at once and an even bigger royal menagerie to be built to display these fowls’ feathered beauty.

Hearing word of their Queen’s new hobby, the English public quickly began coveting their own fancy chickens. Catching wind of what the English were doing, eager Americans began breeding their own fowl as well, and this great “Hen Fever” rapidly spread across the Pond.

It is impossible to overstate how chicken obsessed the American public became at this time. This craze was first exhibited with much fanfare at the 1849 Boston Poultry Show, an affair that drew a crowd of over ten thousand to marvel at these wondrous birds. The fascination with fowl collecting and breeding quickly grew into a plague that infected everyone, from senators to governors, the old and the young, the rich, the poor, and the “white, black, and gray.” Egg prices swelled to $1 a piece ($30 in today’s currency), and a pair of fancy chickens could reach prices of up to $125 ($3,750). People who had never met a chicken before in their lives were lured by legends of birds the size of ostriches and as fearsome as tigers, and spent their entire life savings on buying, maintaining, and breeding beautiful birds.

But as quickly as the Victorian fascination with fowls spread, by the mid-1850s, almost inexplicably the fancy, chicken bubble burst. Where once these chickens were so valuable fanciers hired bodyguards to protect their coops, without warning, prices plummeted to the point that they barely covered the freight costs of shipping the fowls over from Asia.

Many a fowl speculator lost a fortune after the implosion of the “Hen Fever,” but the world as a whole came away with a newfound appreciation for the diversity of chickens that these fanciers created. There are over one hundred recognized breeds of chickens today, at least two dozen of which can be traced back to the ecstatic celebrations of this Hen Fever. The majority of these varieties are now coveted as “Heritage Chickens” and find places of prestige in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste catalog: the Jersey Giant, the Plymouth Rock, the Rhode Island Red.

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In 2016, the average American is predicted to eat 92.1 pounds of chicken, but only 1.3 of those pounds will come from these Heritage Birds. Over the past 160 years, choices made by both consumers and producers have elevated efficiency and low prices above the breeding and beauty so desired by a nineteenth-century fancier. But this shift is the result of collective choices, and new choices can unmake old ones. Like choosing the right mate for a prize chicken, or choosing to attend a Slow Meat event, one’s choice of chicken for dinner can have effects that reverberate out from one’s home, and onto the bird and the industry. There is no Hen Fever in the modern United States, but maybe, if we choose to, we can again let this fowl obsession rage.

Emelyn Rude is the author of Tastes Like Chicken: a History of America’s Favorite Bird. This piece was adapted in part from that work.

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