Big Chicken

The drummies are your favorites.

Oh, sure, there’s something to be said about a pile of wings with a good buffalo sauce, and few can resist a meaty breast cut, but there’s something about a drumstick that feels like comfort food. Who could imagine, then, as in the new book “Big Chicken” by Maryn McKenna, that a bite of chicken could come to bite you back?

How many recipes can you make with chicken?

Many, of course, but it wasn’t until she tasted a “French market chicken” that Maryn McKenna began to wonder why a bird from halfway around the world tasted better than the ones she’d had at home. Like most Americans, she grew up eating chicken and when she began pecking at the subject, she was surprised.

It all started in the 1930s.

Until then, chickens were generally raised for egg-laying; roosters were eaten when the flock was culled and hens were eaten after they stopped laying eggs. Chickens, in other words, were not yet a major crop, but they would be soon and they’d need feeding. In search of more efficient, cheaper chicken chow, researchers tried a product that had been mixed with antibiotic, and they discovered that it made chicks grow bigger.

“Word got around,” says McKenna, and soon, every scientist and farmer wanted some Aureomycin mash. Nobody seemed to think that was a problem, although Nobel Prize winner Alexander Fleming expressed fear that “self-medication” of that sort could lead to problems with penicillin-resistant infections.

But the chicken was out of the coop by then, and antibiotics were the new thing in science and in society. Penicillin could be bought over-the-counter and in cosmetics; it saved countless lives but by the late 1940s, hospitals began to note infections that medicines couldn’t stop: Those chickens had come home to roost, and they brought dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria with them. “It was not solely an American problem, either,” says McKenna; it was happening around the world…

Ask anyone who lived through World War II, and they’ll tell you that today’s meal of chicken isn’t what it was back then. But why?

The answer is only part of the shocker inside this book.

Reading somewhat like a medical detective novel with personal-interest inserts, “Big Chicken” examines two sides of the same feathered coin: Meat, and what we’ve done in our appetite for it. It’s the latter that’s chilling: Author Maryn McKenna draws a long line between antibiotic-resistant infections and meat-raising, in anecdotes that you won’t want to read while you’re eating. There’s heavy-duty science in this book, and exciting tales of research; readers will also be charmed by McKenna’s tale of a man who rescues heritage chicken breeds from extinction. And as for the potential-meal-on-the-grill you picked up for tonight?

Let’s just say Great-Grandma might barely recognize it.

Readers looking for hope will find it here, but there’s an urgency to heed within and it’s going to take real work. If you eat meat you don’t raise yourself, “Big Chicken” sounds a drumbeat of caution.

(Terri Schlichenmeyer developed her love for books at an early age and was reading by age 3. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with her two dogs and thousands of books.)

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