A chicken in every pot was not first promised by American politicians but by a French king. Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) said, in the 16th century, “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” Nowadays, chickens outnumber humans worldwide, and just about everybody can boil up a bird once considered so sumptuous that it was forbidden for religious fast days.
Today’s chicken, regardless of the variety, is descended from Gallus gallus, a wild red jungle fowl indigenous to south Asia. First domesticated in India about 4,000 years ago, the chicken was originally a sacred bird sacrificed for the sake of augury. However, it is likely that chicken made it to the table early on, though documentation seems to show that eggs and cockfights were of greater initial interest to those who later adopted the fowl as food.
Though chicken probably reached central Europe by 1500 BC, it appears not to have reached the Middle East for another hundred years or more. However, a painting of a chicken was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which shows that it was in Egypt by at least 1350 BC, and the chicken’s appearance on Assyrian seals shows that it had reached Asia Minor by the eighth century BC.
The Greeks and Romans didn’t exactly rush to get the chicken in their pots, but the Greeks had the birds, as evidenced by a 720 BC law that barred roosters from the town of Sybaris, because they woke people up too early. References to hens’ eggs started appearing in the fifth century BC, and by 185 BC, chicken was being widely consumed. Greeks on the island of Cos were the first in the West to develop methods of fattening chickens for the table. (The reason that eggs were for so long the main focus of interest in the ancient world may be hinted at by the fact that, even today, the chickens of the Mediterranean regions are better for laying than for meat.)
The earliest cookbook still available, written by the first-century Roman gourmet, Apicius, lists numerous chicken recipes, and the bird held a place of honor on the tables of Pompeii. Though Romans learned to raise chickens from the Greeks, it is likely that Rome’s insatiable desire for Chinese luxuries, which included foods as much as silks, was a major factor in the escalating popularity of chicken, because the Silk Road carried new culinary ideas as well as trade goods. However, the Romans did not only adopt ideas. It appears that they invented the capon (as a letter-of-the-law response to a ban in 162 BC on the raising of fattened hens, to conserve grain). The Romans are also credited with the invention of the incubator. Just as they heated their homes with hot steam, so, too, they heated hatching chambers. Chickens were hatched in ever increasing quantities. (Actually, it’s hard to nail down “first place” in this contest, because just about the same time, the Egyptians came up with “ovens” for hatching chicks, and the Chinese were beginning to successfully incubate duck eggs.)
In Europe, the chicken, and more especially the capon, enjoyed huge popularity during the Middle Ages. So great was the fowl’s success that, by the early 800s, city councils were expressing concern about over-indulgence. But the fowl’s popularity continued to grow. Cookbooks started to appear in the mid to late 13th century with recipes for stuffed capon and chicken stew—the first known mention of chickens in cookbooks since Apicius’s early effort.
Etymologically, the word “chicken” comes from the Middle English chiken, which in turn comes from the Old English, cicen, a young chicken. Because Old English was spoken from the 7th century to about 1100, the chicken had obviously made an early leap across the channel, probably with Germanic invaders, for whom the bird was kuchen. (When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought their French terms, hence the addition to our language of poultry and pullet.)
In the 1800s, China sprung the Cochin on the world. This previously unknown breed of chicken was a showstopper—a feathered beauty far showier than the common run-of-the-farm breeds. Europe and the U.S. launched into a chicken-breeding frenzy that produced hundreds of new varieties. The chicken took on new importance as a farm animal. While many breeders sought to produce gloriously plumed birds for competitions, others thought in more practical terms. It was during the 1800s that the champion of all laying hens, the white Leghorn, emerged, and Cornish birds of this era gave rise to progeny who boasted the best meat.
Chicken today is probably the most universally eaten of all animals. Its tropical origins have not kept the bird from acclimating to the majority of habitable regions, and among domesticated animals, only the dog has a wider range. Even in poor countries, or countries with limited grazing land, chicken can be easily and inexpensively raised, which is why almost every cuisine in the world—especially in Asia and Africa—has chicken recipes. It is amazingly versatile, appearing in dishes that range from humble to luxurious. As Brillat Savarin noted, “Chicken is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.”
©2008 Cynthia Clampitt