Roasting Old Hens

When I was a kid watching old cartoons (Disney and Warner Brothers from the 1940s-1960s) on Saturday morning I always thought depictions of roasting chickens strange, mostly because they didn’t look anything like the roast chickens I saw in real life. Their legs were always sticking up in the air, while the chickens I saw my grandmother prepare were always fat-breasted and their legs small and to the sides.


Raised from a day old chicks, these Rhode Island Red hens layed eggs for a couple of years on grass, and then were killed, plucked, eviscerated, and roasted. They will make fine soup or stew. And look how their legs stick up like in old cartoons!

I think I may have figured out why. Years ago chicken was more or less a luxury food. Chickens, after all, eat mostly grain. They are graminivorous birds despite the ideas of pastured poultry evangelists. Chickens do peck and scratch grass, but my observation is that they derive little more than a vitamin/mineral supplement from being on pasture. It is no surprise that EVERY pastured poultry producer feeds grain-based feed like everyone else. Pasture does improve their health, and I think, their flavor. It is why I support the idea, but let’s not kid ourselves. Chicken meat is  NOT an ecologically sustainable staple protein source. They eat foods that we can just as well eat (wheat, corn, and soybeans), and despite their unsurpassed (among warm-blooded animals at least) feed conversion ratio (1.8 to 1), you still need to grow grain, usually though tillage, to feed them. In fact, on pasture, chickens eat considerably more of this grain based feed to reach a given slaughter weight. This is why ruminants are the most ecologically benign source of animal protein–the diary cow being the queen among them–because they can derive their basic nutriment from perennial grasses, legumes, and forbs (and can self harvest it). Farmed, herbivorous freshwater fish (various Carps and Tilapia) are the only animals that come close to rivaling ruminants to my thinking, and these are among the least favored fish flavor wise (at least to most Americans, the Chinese wisely disagree).

Years ago, all this mattered to the general economy. Since WWII we basically wallowed thermodynamic excess. We have all the diesel to burn in our tractors. We have all the natural gas to make into nitrogenous fertilizer. We have all the propane to dry corn/roast soybeans. Years ago, when we didn’t have this energetic largesse, we had to use horses to work the fields, and use the air to provide the nitrogen, and air-dried our corn in cribs, which placed a limit on how much we could store. We didn’t even grow soybeans because they are mildly toxic to most animals (certainly to all poultry) unless roasted, and nobody had that kind of energy back then. We roasted the chicken back them, not their food. The major energetic input came from the SUN, not from the GROUND.

So, most chickens kept were mostly for their precious eggs, almost essential to good cooking. Though eggs have never been a STAPLE protein source. The chicken meat eaten years ago was more or less the byproduct of egg production. About half of all chicks are going to be male and so will never lay eggs. You can either dispose of them, as is done in modern egg laying operations, or you can raise them up as a cockerel (intact young male chicken) or a capon (castrated young male chicken) to be eaten when they are about 4 months old. Since a hen lays about 400 eggs or more over her career, you need relatively few hens to produce all the eggs a society needs, and you will get only a moderate amount of male chicks as a byproduct. They weren’t a primary protein source. Beef and lamb and milk were. Or fish taken from the vast ocean in places like Japan. Or plant proteins were the primary source (and unfortunately an inferior source) in some very poor places.


The Cornish x Rock broiler chicken, a hybrid grown for meat production. I call them “fake” chickens sometimes. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. I’ve never kept these things and never probably never will.

Well, back to my original observation of cartoon chickens. Cornish x Rock broilers are bred to grow extremely fast. So fast in fact that their bone structure and heart can’t really keep up with their muscle growth (particularly breast muscle). At about 10 weeks or so of age, their bones are too weak to hold up their enormous weight, and they can no longer stand, or sometimes they suffer heart attacks. Their diet is scientifically formulated, expensive, and very high in protein (about 22%).

Cornish x Rock broiler’s legs are relatively stumpy and wide set, because people prefer white breast meat to the dark meat on the thighs and legs, so when you roast them their legs don’t stick up very much. They just kind of flop there. When you roast a spent hen (a hen that no longer lays) or a young cockerel or capon from an egg-laying breed of chicken like a Barred Rock (one half of the Cornish x Rock hybrid) or a Rhode Island Red, the legs stick up in the air like in old time cartoons, because these chickens actually used their legs in life. The muscles were strong and supported their weight. Of course they are dark and less succulent, but they indeed have more flavor. In fact, about half as much “real” chicken is needed to achieve strong chicken flavor in a stew or soup, and about about 3x to 4x as much time is needed to make “real” chicken tender. But contrary to common propaganda about the matter, OLD HENS and YOUNG EGG-BREED COCKERELS/CAPONS MAKE FINE EATING if you do it right. Since cutting broiler-type chickens out of my family’s diet completely, I haven’t missed them a bit. In fact, when I eat it at relatives’ or at parties I am stunned by how bland and dry commercial chicken tastes.

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