Wednesday, January 30, 2008

living color

Much has been written about the effects of color on the perception of flavor. Much more has been written on the superiority of pastured meat versus feedlot meat. I'm going to say a bit about both, now.

Couple weeks ago we had a gift card to the organic grocery store in our town. We buy our produce and dairy there regularly, but not usually the meat because it's awfully expensive. A pastured chicken--which is to say, one that grew up scratching in the grass and eating bugs and seeds--costs two to three times as much as one that spent its life crammed a cage in a barn with its beak cut off, choking down a slurry made of soybeans and its own kin. I try to buy minimally processed chickens, so mine aren't shot full of saline and "flavor-enhancing solution," but they still grew up on a vegetarian diet, which is not what chickens are meant to eat. Their meat is acceptable but certainly not premium.

Since I had the gift card, I could afford to splurge. I bought a locally-reared fryer. It was cleaned and prepped just like any bird you'd buy in a chain store. In fact it was cleaner than many; there were no bits of kidneys clinging to its ribs, there were no stubs of feathers in the creases. I thought at first it hadn't been properly drained, because it seemed to be very red.

As I cut it up, however, I saw this was not the case. It was very well drained; there was a little bit of congealed blood in the veins under the wings, but that's common and easily washed away. The meat just had a lot of color. The flesh was pink to salmon-toned at the joints; the fat was butter-yellow. There was a blue and brown undertone to the bone like I'd never seen before. There was rather a lot of fat, too, especially under the wishbone--so much so that I cut part of it off. It tends to not fry cleanly and can get soggy.

I remember now, being a kid and cutting that fat off the underside of the wishbone, because the wishbone was always my piece and I didn't like that chewy lump of fat under there. I haven't had to do that in years; most commercial chickens just don't have that much fat anymore. They've been bred to be lean with a lot of breast tissue.

This bird was well-proportioned, with well-developed thighs, and very moist. We didn't bite into it and say to each other, "Oh my God, this is the best chicken I've ever had!" but it was very very good, and I suspect that if I fried a supermarket chicken tomorrow, we'd be disappointed. It was certainly the best chicken I've had in years.

Fifteen bucks is a lot to pay for a single bird, when you compare the seven or eight dollars I usually pay for a Smart Chicken. But fifteen bucks is not bad at all for a bird that feeds me and the SP for at least two meals apiece. And when you throw in the flavor and the knowing that the bird probably doesn't have salmonella or pesticides in its system, I'd pay fifteen dollars for another one. I know that puts me in a priviledged position, that I can do that, but what better do I have to spend it on? Besides, if the demand gets great enough, perhaps the price will drop. It's worth it to me for two meals a week.

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