The conquerors of Egypt, the Greeks loved roasted birds of all stripes, but the Romans loved chicken. They also loved grain, which was largely imported. In an effort to save grain, a sumptuary law was passed forbidding the eating of fattened hens, which lead to the eating of fattened male birds, capons – the law of unintended consequences is something to think about as we eagerly wait to tax soda pop. Geese, swans, peacock, pheasant, were all popular foodstuffs well until the Middle Ages. Pouleteers, merchants who sold roasted birds (household kitchens did not really exist in urban settings, price of fuel, lack of ventilation, etc), would have made a roasted chicken as enticing and easy as those rotisserie chickens are today. Also worth noting, Pouleteers were not the part of any guild or trade association, making their product cheaper with fewer restrictions on how and where it could be sold.
The bible isn't full of ducks or chickens which is a clue to how popular they were in the Levant but they were popular in Europe. Through the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, the roasted bird is a prominent feature in paintings. Chickens small size and ability to live on scraps made them ‘passengers’ on sailing ships that went around the world with explorers. Some reasonably make the argument the chicken reached the new world before Columbus. However the bird arrived, for centuries European settlers were more likely to exploit natural wildlife stocks than set up henhouses.
It wasn’t until the mid 19th Century that a combination of Darwinian concepts of improvement, affordable education via the expansion of land grant colleges and agricultural entrepreneurship fueled what is called ‘hen fever’. The new breeds were prized more for their egg laying abilities than for meat. In 1928 when Herbert Hoover promised ‘a chicken in every pot’, US citizens were eating a ½ pound of meat per year and chicken cost more than steak or lobster in the store. At the end of WWII we were eating 5 pounds; by 1970 - 40 pounds, which is pretty close to the average today in the EU. In the new millennium, we consume close to 90 pounds per person per year in the States and chicken meat is cheaper than new potatoes in the store.
There are some pretty favorable policies that make chickens cheap, while price is related to consumption; on a certain level culturally we like chicken…In the US there are far more chickens than people. Culinarily - chicken is quick, cheap and easy, which outside of hardcore-foodist circles are pretty big answers to the question ‘What’s for dinner’.
Part 2: How to grill a chicken, will be answered next week