“NASA has studied whether a chicken could survive a trip to Mars since we are unlikely to leave this planet without one. 100 million tons of meat and a trillion eggs every year, this wild jungle fowl has become world’s most loved food,” reveals Andrew Lawler in his book Why Did the Chicken Cross the World.
Frequently, I take a walk in Defence Colony in Bengaluru for my breakfast, and as I reach near the park, I notice serious people of all ages doing workouts. It looks as if they are fighting to relax, not being mindful of beauty around them! Beside this, two huge iron cages of a poultry shop stop me every morning. Looking at the jam-packed chickens, I always felt the vulnerability in their short life span; they appeared searching for some fresh air and space, just like those people in the park.
As a kid, I wondered why no culture ever questioned killing of animals for our food and ceremonies. I argued and lost many times. I haven’t eluded my curiosity; Ali and Basant Sanu were my rivals as we drove towards Rasa Gurukul. My query was “do you ever imagine the sadness of an animal you ate or feel its hullabaloo from your tummy in sleep?”
A sensitive Sanu looked somewhat guilty and silent until Jasmine served a fiery Chettinad pepper chicken for dinner. He forgot our profound discussion whilst savouring the flavour. A thoughtful Ali, on the other hand, stepped in with a counter, which I heard from hard-core meat eaters all the time. “How about the life of vegetables and plants, don’t you get hurt when you eat them?”
In the past, having a chicken dish was a luxury and pride for middle-class families. Today, you add up all the dogs, cats, cows and pigs and there would still be more chickens—20 billion of them live every moment, three for every human! Andrew Lawler claims chicken seems to have been the early driver of both democracy and free market capitalism.
It is a fascinating exploration to unveil the extraordinary legacy and the sad condition of man’s most important animal companion. In 2012, the cost of eggs shot up in Mexico City after millions of birds were culled due to disease, resulting in riots and even rattling the government.
Emerging from the Asian jungle as a magical creature and initially used for cockfighting and religious ceremonies, the chicken played a pivotal role as a guide to the future, a messenger of light and resurrection. Apparently sailors carried it across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, and by the 17th century, chickens lived nearly in every continent and became world’s most migratory bird through imports and exports.
Various parts of a single bird may end up on opposite sides of the globe, Chinese like the feet, Russians the legs, Turks the intestines, and breasts are favoured in America and Britain. Precisely, chicken crossed the world because we took it with us or sent it everywhere.
Long ago, every home and hamlet was incomplete without traditional cages and free spirited chickens silently walking around the gardens. People woke up with the melody of their crowing, announcing the sunrise with a glimpse of their soothing colours.
Living birds have largely disappeared from our urban lives and a vast majority of chickens inhabit shadowy poultry warehouses and slaughterhouses surrounded by fences, sealed off from the public. Apart from their meat and eggs, the fowl has been a friend and an inspiration; they deserve better respect and an important place in history.
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain of restaurants