Erikka Askeland: Seeking chicken soup for the soul

Picture: Jon Savage
Picture: Jon Savage
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What would we do without chickens? Omelettes and fried eggs would certainly be off the menu, which would blow a major hole in my usual diet.

People have kept and eaten chooks for nigh on 8,000 years. They might even be some of the first animals that we tamed. Although it is thought dogs came into the camps, ate our scraps and became loyal compatriots first. But perhaps the benefit for the descendants of wolves is that many of us tend not to eat our canine friends, let alone their unborn bits.

This human/avian history is set to be the subject of a major academic investigation next year. Forget the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and some vote or other coming up – 2014 has thus been dubbed “the year of the chicken”. A group of UK academics this week were awarded a £2 million grant to launch a ground pecking and scratching multi-disciplinary study, dubbed the “Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions”.

The grant is from the Arts and Humanities and Research Council and the project will be led by researchers from Bournemouth University, bringing in specialists from the fields of archaeology, cultural anthropology, genetics and history from the Universities of Durham, Leicester, Nottingham, Roehampton and York.

We know our domesticated egg-layers and key ingredient of coq au vin are descended from wild jungle fowl. The oldest known remains of a domesticated hen date back to 5400BC in China, while signs that our cockle-doodle-doo’s wild ancestors, red junglefowl, were being used by folk 7,000 years ago have also been found in India.

The researchers will go so far as to dig up chicken bones used in religious ceremonies and investigate the “cultural significance of cockfighting”. Sounds like the project will be covering anything and everything to do with the flightless bird that roasts up so nicely with a little sage and butter.

Of course, the whole mission has been blasted as being “bird brained” by those often tiresome nitpickers at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, who noted that the amount of public money funding the “ridiculous” project “isn’t chicken feed”. But frankly, I’m disappointed they have cried “fowl” in this intriguing endeavour. For what do chickens offer us but fundamental questions about the human condition? Which came first, the chicken or the TaxPayer’s Alliance?

Then there’s the perennial question, why did the chicken cross the road? The punchline I remember from childhood was always a slight let down – “to get to the other side”. But this then leads to the great, deep philosophical inquiry that, if the chicken did cross the road and nobody saw it, was there actually a chicken?

Any results which come short of finding the answers to these important questions could show that the researchers chickened out.

Personally I’ve committed to only buying free-range poultry when shopping in supermarkets. I’ve seen enough of those undercover films of misshapen chicks cooped up in tiny boxes for the entirety of their sad, shortened lives to grieve me.

Looking into how they came into our lives will give us some insight into how our culture evolved. I’ve read some fascinating books about how humanity was shaped by such commodities as salt, coffee, and cod. So surely a study of poultry is yet another look into how we ended up going from the cave to flats with all mod cons and day jobs typing on computers.

Without our feathered friends, we’d have nothing with which to compare the taste of more unusual meats.

Apparently frog, alligator and ostrich all taste like the much more common, pleasingly bland protein. Or at least that is what we tell the gurning one who is refusing to eat whatever odd stuff is on offer.

Actually, having indulged on at least a few occasions, I can report frogs’ legs do indeed taste like chicken, except they have the extra added benefit of naturally occurring skewer sticks in the form of frog thigh bones.

Chickens are also deeply associated with human cowardice, despite being just one among many types of animals that freak out for next to no reason. Although frankly, if I were one myself – at the mercy of fox raids and the sudden twist of the neck by the kindly woman that used to feed me – I’d probably be of a pretty nervous disposition too.