THE FEATURE – How chicken changed America and vice versa

By Jim Duncan

Chicken transformed America after World War II, and vice versa. Post-war industrial agriculture streamlined the business and the breeding of poultry. That industry quickly shortened the time it took to raise a market-sized bird, reducing feeding expenses. Believing white meat was more valuable, breeders created flightless creatures with huge breasts and skinny legs, much like Hollywood producers of the day. In one decade, chicken went from being a luxury food usually only served on Sundays to the cheapest protein available. When Kentucky Fried Chicken launched its first national advertising campaign in the 1950s, its tagline was “It’s not just for Sunday anymore.”

Cheap frozen American chicken became the rage in post-war Europe, too. In 1961 alone, German chicken consumption rose by 23 percent because of cheap American imports. German and French chicken farmers feared for their livelihoods. A German farmers association accused the United States of fattening chickens with arsenic. France’s legislature banned American chicken, claiming it caused men to lose their virility. The European Common Market enacted a 25 percent tariff on U.S. poultry. After that, American chicken exports to Europe dropped by 25 percent in one year.

America reacted. Sen. William Fullbright was an international power broker from Arkansas, a chief U.S. poultry-producing state. He interrupted a NATO debate on nuclear armament to protest trade sanctions on U.S. chicken. He even threatened to cut the number of troops America supplied to NATO. In 1963, President John Kennedy met with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the midst of the Bay of Pigs invasion and crises in Laos and Berlin. When asked by the media what their discussions focused upon, Kennedy replied, “About half of our talk was about chicken.” Later President Lyndon Johnson proposed a 25 percent tax on imported brandy, dextrin, potato starch and pickup trucks.

If you ever wondered why American companies control the pickup truck business in the U.S., thank the chicken tax. The tariffs on brandy, potato starch and dextrin were repealed, but the chicken tax on foreign trucks still applies. (It was later revealed that Johnson was making good on an election year promise to UAW head Walter Reuther. Reuther agreed not to strike before the 1964 election, and LBJ promised to stop Volkswagen from bringing its pickup trucks into the U.S.) After the tariff, VW cargo vans and pickup truck sales dropped in the U.S. by one-third in just one year. European and Asian car makers virtually dropped out of the light truck export business.

Alba makes the humble chicken look gorgeous on the plate.

Alba makes the humble chicken look gorgeous on the plate.

Des Moines’ chicken history reflected the international intrigue. A look through pre-WWII phone book yellow pages and menus reveals that fried chicken was the most expensive entrée served, even more expensive than the highest priced steaks. This was the case at Davey’s Supper Club, Curly’s Dinner Club and The Chickadee, all Highland Park legends before the 1950s. Fried chicken remained more expensive than T-bones or NY cuts at those places into the 1950s. Des Moines restaurants began democratizing fried chicken at The Silhouette on Douglas. They advertized “Yes, chicken every day.” The same year, The Chicken Shack on East 17th featured what was likely the first all-chicken menu in town. Harry Hood’s Palm Cafeteria (“under the Strand Theatre”), Jiggs Shelly’s The Question Mark (“The talk of the town — dancing in the bomb shelter”) at East 14th and Hoffman, and Tony’s at Fifth & Keo led their advertisements with fried chicken. Also in the 1940s, Des Moines had poultry markets that advertised “chickens dressed and drawn while you wait.” The biggest was on New York Avenue in Highland Park.

In the early 1950s, years before anyone delivered pizza, fried chicken became the main home delivery dinner. Chicken-In-Flight and Chicken Delight both operated a fleet of three-wheeled vehicles bringing inexpensive fried chicken to houses around the city. That was several years before anyone delivered pizza. Those were successful for awhile because chicken was time-consuming and messy to fry at home. When my grandmother was teaching me to cook, fried chicken was the one thing I was never allowed to do. She deemed it too dangerous because she believed it needed to be made in cast irons skillets with at least an inch of very hot lard.

Until the mid-1960s, pan-fried chicken remained a luxury dinner in Des Moines. Then, along came a character from Corbin, Kentucky. with methods that cut the cooking time. Broasting, pressure-cooking, deep fat frying and “shake and bake” replaced pan frying. Zealous feedlot operators like Bo Pilgrim and Frank Perdue quickened the pace of chicken processing, and suddenly birds became cheap, fast food. Today, the only places that still advertise pan-fried chickens are Christopher’s, The Radish and the Park Avenue Pub. Tursi’s Latin King, Patton’s and Crouse Café in Indianola serve fried chicken that tastes very similar to pan-fried versions, too. The fried chicken at Gateway Market’s deli is made the old way, in lard.

Wings, like these from Gerri’s, have conquered other chicken parts.

Wings, like these from Gerri’s,
have conquered other chicken parts.

But other forms of cooking chicken made pan frying insignificant. Broiled chickens began appearing on Des Moines restaurant menus in the 1950s. Babe’s and Vic’s Tally Ho both advertised that in addition to fried chicken, noting that both required at least 25 minutes. A University of Minnesota doctor named Ancel Benjamin Keys was revolutionizing the chicken business with an invisible hand of good intentions and unexpected consequences. Through the 1950s, Keys relentlessly preached that cholesterol was responsible for heart attacks. That became a serious issue in 1955 when President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, and heart disease, almost unknown three decades earlier, became America’s No. 1 killer.

Keys’ “studies” were dubious at best. A report in Annals of Internal Medicine last year debunked them. However, in 1960, Keys won a seat on the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and persuaded it to endorse his theories. Chicken and fish were in; beef and pork were out of American minds. Broiling and smoking became more popular, and frying less so. Unfortunately, when people cut their fats, they compensated with increased carbohydrates. As Keys’ opponents predicted in the 1950s, that led to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

Rotisserie chicken suddenly appeared in supermarkets like Dahl’s in the 1950s, filling the aisles with enticing aromas. They are still popular, particularly at La Tapatia. Gateway Market brines and dry rubs its rotisserie birds and uses Amish chickens that get top ratings from chickenistas. Price Chopper and Hy-Vee both offer rotisserie cooked birds for about the same price as raw whole chickens.

Tandoori chicken, like this from the buffet at Taj Mahal, brings an ancient dish to town.

Tandoori chicken, like this from the buffet at Taj Mahal, brings an ancient dish to town.

Otherwise, whole chickens are rare birds these days. Even when one buys them at a supermarket, they rarely include hearts, livers and gizzards. Old school Italian restaurants are by far the most likely places to find those things on menus. White meat has become so much more popular than dark meat in the U.S. that most exports to Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are all dark meat. Unpopular parts end up in cheap hot dogs, which are increasingly made more with chicken than pork or beef. Dr. Keys is likely still to blame. Many of the best chefs in town admit they prefer dark meat, but their customers like those little heart symbols on the menu. Ironically, most breast meat sold in restaurants now is in the form of “strips,” “tenders” and “fingers,” all of which are usually fried.

Barbecues (Jethro’s, Woody’s, Uncle Wendell’s, Smokey D’s, etc.) and jerk chicken houses (Eastman’s) added more depth to chicken’s local profile. So did tandoori ovens of South Asian cafés (India Star, Taj Mahal, Namaste) and biryani houses (Paradise, Persis).

The once-humble wing has become the superstar of chicken parts. The cheapest part of the bird through the mid-1980s, these succulent morsels escaped the confines of Chinese cafés in the 1980s with the popularization of Buffalo wings. Invented in Buffalo, New York, as a free food for happy hour customers, these wings were married to hot sauces and now are often the most expensive part of the bird. The sine qua non of sports bars with kitchens, they have become so popular that Jethro’s now sponsors an annual Wing Ding competition to raise money for charity. In Des Moines, wings are smoked or deep fried, or smoked and deep fried. Every place in town that serves them — including sushi joints, pizza houses and Vietnamese cafes — seemingly has a unique homemade sauce.

Pan-fried chicken has a long, glorious history in Des Moines.

Pan-fried chicken has a long, glorious history in Des Moines.

Some chicken things have come full cycle. Chef George Formaro recalls growing up in a house that “still has a chicken house in the back yard.” My grandmother killed and dressed her chickens in her yard at 31st and Grand. Backyard chickens are popular again with locals, even in cities. People care about breeds again, and, in this era of bird flu and salmonella, about free ranging and clean processing. Farmer Tai Johnson Spratt brought central Iowa dozens of heritage breeds of birds before retiring last year. She keeps a personal flock of about 40 birds for her family but says that when she buys chickens she goes to Valley View Farm or Hickory Hills Organic Chicken farm. “Both are in Bloomfield, and Valley View is the cleanest poultry processor I have ever seen anywhere.” RELISH

Tags: ,

Categories: The Feature

%d bloggers like this: