Friday, January 7, 2011

Let them eat chicken.

Every now and then some food writer comes out with some new declaration involving chicken. They talk about how easy it is to roast a chicken for dinner on a weeknight even while holding down a full-time job. Or they talk about how mass-produced chicken is bad on every level and we should only eat free-range organic chickens that lived good lives during their short time on earth, purchased straight from the farmer or a butcher. The response is, of course, immediate, as food blogger after food blogger eagerly agrees or disagrees for whatever reason. But they are the wrong audience. The people reading articles about roasting a chicken on a Wednesday night or buying free-range organic birds from a local farmer are already the kind of people who do these things. They've already read Michael Pollan; you're only preaching to the choir.

A free-range, organic chicken from a local farm runs about $5-6 per pound at the farmer's market or at my neighborhood butcher. Therefore a chicken which weighs about four pounds and will feed me, a single person, for maybe six to eight meals in different incarnations (not including stock, made from the bones) will run about $20-$25. The free-range (but not organic) supermarket chicken will cost about half that much, and the "regular" supermarket chicken will cost probably half of the free-range chicken. Of course the so-called "free-range" chicken in its plastic shrink-wrap is still a mass-produced product, but that is an argument for another time. I have not bought a "regular" chicken, pumped full of antibiotics and raised, as Pollan et. al have informed us, under inhumane factory conditions, for over a decade. Although occasionally a package or two of chicken wings from the supermarket has made its way into my basket.

The issue is, what about people who can't afford the $25 chicken? For whom $25 is half the week's food budget? Or the entire week's food budget? For a family, not just a single woman like myself? Laurie Colwin's words have been burnt into my brain since I read them, years ago: Tell a working mother that she ought to find organic food for her child, and that mother's face will show you what desolation really means. There is simply no time and often not enough money. There is no right answer to the question, what do people mean when they say they have no time to cook? I dare you to tell someone who is working two jobs and raising three children, without help, that she doesn't have time to cook dinner because she doesn't make it a priority. Someone who has to worry more about rent and a lack of health insurance than the provenance of her pork chops and the terroir of her carrots is not going to give a damn what any food writer has to say about how she is feeding her family.

I have been thinking more and more about food lately. I remember the cafeteria lunches from my elementary school days, more than twenty years ago. They were not much different from Mrs. Q.'s. It wasn't that long ago - ok, it was fifteen years ago - that my cousins lived with us and I got to see first-hand how many chicken wings a teenage boy can consume. The answer is: a LOT. Thirteen-and-sixteen-year-old boys drink a gallon of milk a day and can consume up to two large pizzas - each - at a time. If there are ever teenage boys in my future, I can say right now that my locally-sourced, free-range-organic chicken wings ($3.99-$5.99/lb) will become an economically unfeasible, distant memory. I will hold some other words of Laurie Colwin's to my heart: Provision as much pure and organic food as you can and let the rest go by. Words to live by.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1995. p86.


Rebekah said...

I agree we should not be guilting parents who don't have time to cook or don't have money for organics. But I also think we should be pushing government so that the crap is not subsidized (and perhaps the pesticide-free or lower-risk-of-e.coli-stuff IS subsidized), providing decent school lunches, free cooking classes (the return of home ec, even?). Why not make it easier and cheaper to eat well?

kairu said...

Thank you for the comment, Rebekah! And I do also agree about pushing the government to stop subsidizing crap and start finding ways to make pesticide/GMO-free food accessible to more people. In the same essay I quoted by Laurie Colwin, she writes "As Ralph Nader has pointed out, we are allowing our children to be fed by large corporations who do not have our children's interests at heart. I think we must lean on our government to protect us from agribusiness." This was written in October of 1992. Almost 20 years later, we are not getting better, and are probably even getting worse.

Genevieve said...

Fantastic post. There are so many things at play. The politics of food and the politics of parenting. (both involve people having opinions about how one is doing it wrong.)

Jody Johnson said...

Well said Kairu. Yes, it does need to start at the 'top'. Even as a singleton who puts in 50+ hours a week and runs a house, yard and pets, (and can afford to buy what I want) I still find it takes a considerable effort to buy and eat 'right'. For those who judge they should be happy these mothers aren't feeding their children fast food and at least making an effort. . . even if that effort is grocery store chicken.