It doesn’t take much digging to realize that the quality of our commercially available food these days is going downhill faster than a toboggan run on Harris Hill. The evidence is on our taste buds, our spice rack and is responsible for the creation of over 50,000 different chemically derived “natural” flavors sold by flavor labs around the world. The endeavor to find cheaper flavor sources not only answered a call to decrease the amount of money food companies had to spend on expensive ingredients, but it solved the problem when the more natural, more expensive sources were unavailable. In 1975, Madagascar’s vanilla extract production was devastated due to political instability, drastically driving up its price. American food companies that depended on the extract for their food products shuddered knock kneed as McCormick (the spice and flavoring company,) tried to come up with a solution quickly.
The product of this foray into the world of “Imitation Vanilla” was predicated on a compound discovered over a hundred years before called vanillin, the majority of which is made from pine cones. Now food companies, chain restaurants and even mom-and-pop diners could use this elixir to dazzle taste buds across counties … cheaply. No longer did businesses depend on the exports of other countries. They could get it right here in the U.S. and they didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg.
The chickens of todayLong before this “spice boom,” American chicken farming underwent drastic changes as a result of the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest in 1948. This contest proved that chickens grew faster and were brought to market more quickly if they were prohibited from going outside to forage and were fed a diet of bland grains fortified with vitamins. Chickens got fatter faster, died younger and began to taste blander and blander until there was no flavor left. Chicken has come to symbolize a generic term. If anything has no specific taste, it “tastes like chicken.” The only problem with this is that today’s chicken tastes nothing like chicken used to.
The American flavor boom was necessitated by the lack of taste in food. Flavorless chicken needed more than just salt and pepper. In Mark Shatzker’s book “The Dorito Effect” (by now, you know I love his work,) he writes about his love for devouring cookbooks from cover to cover. In older cookbook editions, chicken is seasoned with just salt and pepper. In more recent recipes, however, things are rubbed, brined, soaked overnight, basted with spices and served with flavorful sauces. Wouldn’t we have to do the same thing to cardboard?
During Christmas of 2019, our real last hurrah, I set out on Christmas Eve morning to brine the turkey we would have the following day. I added a spice pack and some herbs for good measure, a few sprinklings of salt and water, substituting with chicken and veggie broth where I could, praying all the while that it would have some flavor. Any flavor. It almost had floor flavor when my reportedly agile and responsible uncle (who looks strong and is 6’4”) offered to help me by holding the brine bag. How hard could it be? He picked it up and promptly sent an ocean of raw turkey salmonella juices all over the counter and onto the floor. I told him I wouldn’t let him live that down. This year, it’s official, Dan — No. More. Helping.
Although my husband suggested wrapping the bird in bacon to give it flavor, the turkey turned out well, but perhaps that’s less due to the brining and roasting and more due to the way in which it was raised. Primarily because I want the bird to have been humanely raised for its sake and mine (we eat the stress and misery in which this bird lives, not to mention the antibiotics it was given), this was a pasture-raised turkey that ran free its whole life pecking at various bugs and grasses with its friends, living life and raising young, going wherever it pleased. Or at least that’s what I hoped.
Chickens in particular used to be raised for about 16 weeks. That is nearly thrice the amount of time that today’s chickens spend on God’s green earth, but it’s what happens during those extra eight to ten weeks more that is most interesting. It’s not that the chickens get an extra all-expense paid vacation and are less stressed when they’re ingested. Contrarily, they get more time to make the all-important omega-3: DHA.
Neither beef nor pork are particularly good sources of the omega-3s DHA or EPA. These are the highly coveted omegas we strive to find in fish and olive oil (and is why we find ourselves taking fish oil supplements). Chicken used to be a good source of omega-3s, not because they innately contained it, but because they converted it themselves. Imagine that. An animal who is purportedly the dumbest thing around (not so, if you’ve ever raised or really known a chicken) that can churn out their own omega-3s.
Here’s the catch. Chickens of today (as a result of the Chicken of Tomorrow contest), don’t live long enough to convert much ALA to DHA, but have been bred to grow so quickly, and to develop meatier breasts, that, should they be kept alive for a few extra weeks, they wouldn’t be able to support their own weight at the rate they grow. In fact, those chickens that are kept alive until they’re 15 weeks in order to reach sexual maturity to be bred must be starved or else they would grow too quickly and be too big to mate.
We are eating extraterrestrial, Martian chickens. Some people worry about what the COVID vaccines do to us, but what in the world is this alien chicken doing to us? Especially if it’s pumped full of steroids, hormones and antibiotics?
Which came first?
OK — the tree in the woods and the chicken and the egg. Regardless of which we believe to be the predecessor of which, we eat eggs, which are innately healthy and full of our beloved omega-3s … or we eat most of the egg, anyhow. The ’90s sponsored the phrase “egg whites only,” which surprisingly is still a thing today for the waist-watchers among us. Egg whites may contain protein, but certainly are not the antioxidant-rich, nutrient-dense ball of omega-3s that the yolk is. Cholesterol is raised by saturated animal fats, heavy creams and rich dairy, and incidentally, by sugar (but this is for another column). Eggs are not bad guys, nor are they the bandits they’ve been made to be. They’ve actually been proven to raise our good cholesterol (HDL)!
The problem is, when hens are commissioned to lay eggs as their life’s work and are given nothing but bland grain and no chance to be outside — let alone turn around in their cages — their output starts to suffer as well. The quality and nutritional content of eggs from “conventional” hens, those not allowed outside and given antibiotics, is lower in nutrients than pasture-raised eggs. They contain fewer omega-3s, leading food companies to fortify their eggs by feeding hens flaxseed. Pasture-raised eggs are higher in vitamins A and E, and are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. Eggs from free range hens who were allowed to work on their tan in the yard produce eggs higher in vitamin D — something most of us could use.
What to do?When possible, we can source good quality, free-range chickens that have been allowed to be outside, pecking at insects, living a good life until around 14 weeks or so. Not only are they likely to be more nutritious, but they’re apt to taste better, too. Because of this combination of things, we actually need to eat less of it, because it’s more satisfying.
Our best egg choice will, of course, be those in our backyard chicken coop, but for those of us who don’t have that option, free-range, pasture-raised eggs win, hands down. “Vegetarian fed” simply denotes that the hens were not allowed to peck at insects and that their outside access may have been reduced to a hole in the wall they were too scared to use. Chickens aren’t innately vegetarians, and eggs are higher in nutrients when hens are allowed to eat as they were meant to.
The source of our food matters. It may be the thing that matters most, after all, we are what we eat.
Yields 6 servings
6 eggs, beaten in a measuring cup
Feta cheese, crumbled
Mozzarella cheese, shredded
Cheddar cheese, grated
Onions (thinly sliced)
Salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 350°.
On a hot griddle greased with olive oil, sauté onions until golden brown, or caramelized.
Brush each cup in the muffin tin with a light coating of olive oil.
Combine ingredients in combination as desired in each cup.
Season with salt and pepper.
Pour egg into each cup until nearly to the top.
Bake for 20 minutes.
Serve or freeze.