"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mail Order Chickens

When I was a little kid, we always used to have little, dyed chicks for Easter.  There they were, brought by the Easter Bunny and left in a box in the basement.  My sister and I raced down the stairs, almost as excited as we were on Christmas morning, and pulled out the sweet, furry, warm and cuddly little babies.  We loved the way they pecked and poked around on the floor under the wet bar, under the stored patio furniture, and over by the furnace.  We played with them all day, laughing at the little squirts they made on the floor, pecking at it like little dummies, eating their own shit, but so cute and adorable.  We put them back in their box at night, and returned in the morning to play with them.

A few days later, they were gone.  My sister and I never asked where they went, who took them, or what would become of them.  They were just gone, like Easter.  Gone like the Easter dinner at Auntie Ona’s who made lasagna and corn fritters and Italian ham pie. Gone like the elaborately-painted Easter eggs, hand-crafted by the Sister of the Sacred Heart, gifted to my father after he made his rounds at the convalescent home.

For two summers in Tuscany, we borrowed a rabbit from the Vannis who ran the local grocery store in Chianacce, a rent-a-pet for our five-week summer idyll. At the end of our stay when we returned the rabbit, my daughter asked, “Daddy, what’s going to happen to Buns?”

I replied that of course he was going back to the wonderful home that the Vannis had made for him.  He would be happy with his brothers and sisters and he would be loved,.

“Are you sure?”, she said.  A few days before we had gone to one of the fabulous open markets in the area – blocks and blocks of fruits and vegetables, wheels of Parmesan cheese, stands of fresh pasta, fish, chicken and…..you guessed it, rabbit.  Before I could turn the little ones’ heads, they got a full frontal view of a dressed and trussed Buns, all glistening, reddish meat with the head on and, for some reason, fur still on his little paws. 

So, my sister and I had the same intuition as my children – the cute little chicks were going to meet their maker somewhere other than in the protective confines of our basement.

In my adult years, I have wondered what exactly did happen to those chicks.  Did my father simply let them loose in the woods behind our house? Drive them out to Mrs. Rozicki’s farm in Southington? She was our cleaning lady and I overheard her saying to my mother, “I take baby chickens, Mrs. Parlato.  They grow up quick and I eat them”.  I think that’s what might have happened to them, but at the time I couldn’t believe that my parents would do that, give them to ugly, wart-faced Mrs. Rozicki and let her fatten them up for the slaughter. 

More than likely they came from Mr. Geraci, the same chicken man that sold us freshly-killed chickens – Ben Geraci, a small, dark, hairy Italian whose chickens he guaranteed were beheaded the very morning of delivery.  I can still remember the smell of singed chicken stubble and my mother complaining that the birds might be fresh, but Mr. Geraci could have shaved them a little closer to the skin.  Mr. Geraci raised, slaughtered, and sold chickens, so he must have raised a bumper crop that would grow from egg to chick before Easter, dyed them red, blue, green, and yellow, and sold them to the good customers who bought his ready-to-eat-except-for-the-stubble birds.

Now comes this article about mail-order chickens.  Millions of them shipped from Perdue-style industrial chicken farms, dyed and boxed, to homes like mine fifty years ago. The problem is that now they carry salmonella, a disease we never even heard about in the old days when chickens were local, Mr. Geraci wielded the cleaver that chopped off their heads, and they were prepared and eaten before any bacteria could get to them.  An article in today’s (5.31.12)  Washington Post recounts the story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/hundreds-of-us-salmonella-cases-tied-to-live-mail-order-chicks-backyard-farming-blamed/2012/05/30/gJQAZlfV2U_story.html

Those cute mail-order chicks that wind up in children’s Easter baskets and backyard farms have been linked to more than 300 cases of salmonella in the U.S. — mostly in youngsters — since 2004.

Parents in 2012 do not go down to Ben Geraci’s to buy a box of dyed chicks, but the pet store where hundreds of them are peeping, squirting, and pecking in cages.  The experience must be very different.  Today’s Easter Bunny, a father more preoccupied with mergers and acquisitions than the spirit of Springtime renewal, rebirth, and resurrection, has to put up with the rank, ammonia-smelling, nastiness of mini-chickens, mailed to the retailer.  Some mail order businesses have worked around US Postal Service regulations and manage to mail the chicks directly to the home – by Easter if you order early enough.

The problem is that although the dyed chicks-for-Easter business is still good, the urban chicken business is even better.  Thousands of Americans taking the idea of ‘locovore’ to its logical extreme, are growing chickens in their own backyards.  There have been many articles (some references found on this blog) about urban chicken farming which, given the confluence of locavore eating and animal rights, is far from the barnyard peckers of fifty years ago.  Same principle – chickens bobbing and weaving out back, culled, chopped, plucked, dressed and eaten – but with more love, caring, and attention to their right to grow up happy before being beheaded.

The problem is that before the chickens have a chance to be given the love, attention, and respect their owners believe they deserve, they have been infected with salmonella:

An estimated 50 million live poultry are sold through the mail each year in the United States in a business that has been booming because of the growing popularity of backyard chicken farming as a hobby among people who like the idea of raising their own food.

Which proves the old adage: “For every solution, there is a problem”.  Urban poultry-raising is a way to provide humane treatment to animals, assure a hormone- and antibiotic-free diet, and a kosher-style execution.  Yet, because few busy urbanites want to spend the extra time getting from egg to chick, they have to rely on mega-breeders a la Perdue, and hence the salmonella.

Uncle Guido is not very worried about salmonella.  The cases linked to mail-order chicks are few and far between and as usual the concern is more a function of media-hype and over-mommying than anything else.  Perverse relative that he is, Uncle Guido is thinking of the strategic, military applications of infected mail-order chickens. Instead of using Stuxnet and Flame computer viruses which take months of highly paid geek hacker time to perfect, why not just send unsolicited mail-order, salmonella-loaded Easter chicks to the Iranians?  Have you ever eaten morgh polou or khorak morgh? Delicious, especially with that toasted, browned, crunchy rice that goes with them.  The demand is there, and who in Teheran would suspect a shipment of chicks for fesenjan, the special Iranian holiday chicken dish?

I wish that there had been mail order Easter chicks back in the day.  As excited as we were to run down the basement stairs to find our little dyed chicks on Easter morning, we would have loved even more to greet the mailman who would have brought us a box full of live, peeping, adorable birds.

In any case, Uncle Guido thinks that this love-thy-chicken locavore, urban chicken phenomenon is totally nuts.  Whole Foods has great organic, free range chickens which roam around large barnyards out in the countryside and do not have to breathe urban bus exhaust, particulate matter from coal-fired power plants, and aerosol spray infected with all kinds of rhinoviruses sneezed by twenty-something condo-dwellers.  They could grow little organic chicks, sell them as coddled, loved, babies, and take them back to be disinfected and sent back to the gulags of Southern Maryland.  A win-win situation for all.

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