I once had a co-worker who was kind of psychotic about food. Obsessed with being rail thin, the only meat she would eat was chicken, and the only part of the chicken she would eat was the breast. Skinless, of course.
She was a sick puppy, for sure. But in reality, her diet was just an extreme manifestation of America's bizarre obsession with breast meat. And it wasn't until this fall, when Boyfriend went on an upland-bird-cooking spree, that I realized just how bizarre it was.
Here's what got me thinking:
Looks good, eh? Yeah, I know, I eat well.
But that's not the point. This is: Every time we dug into those upland birds, no matter what species it was on any given day, we took special note of how incredibly delicious the legs were - that's always where you found the biggest, richest flavors.
None of the breasts was bad, mind you. But the truth about these birds' breast meat is inescapable: It dries out easily, and even if you can keep it moist, it never has as much flavor as the legs. (Be honest with yourselves, hunters - how often do you eat breasts alone without bacon on them? That's what I thought.)
And these upland birds were all just the wild cousins of the domestic birds that are popular in American cooking - chicken and turkey. The domestic versions follow the same principle, only with more fat and less flavor.
So why do Americans gravitate to breast meat? While we do have a long history of favoring white meat, the current obsession has a lot to do with fat. In the 1990s, we saw that we, as a society, were too fat and plagued by way too much heart disease, and we decided animal fat was one of the big reasons.
Yo, drop that chicken thigh, Fatty! Try that boneless skinless chicken breast - it's way lower in fat.
So, in classic style, rather than just eat a little less and exercise a little more - which is almost always the correct answer - we went way overboard. We became obsessed with turkey and chicken breast meat, thinking that putting it on our plates would be our salvation, both in the mirror and in the doctor's office.
Demand for those cuts is so high that we breed our domestic poultry to produce enormous breasts. Chickens sometimes have a hard time walking under the weight of those breasts. Domestic turkeys' breasts are so big they can no longer breed naturally - artificial insemination is the only thing keeping them going as a species.
I mean, check out the turkey on the cover of this cookbook, which was originally published in 1940. Go ahead - click on it to see a larger version. When's the last time you saw breasts like that on a domestic bird?
Because consumer demand is tilted toward breast meat, we actually ship a lot of the other chicken parts overseas because they just don't sell as well here (check out this Meatpaper article on the subject).
And you know what this whole business is? It's dietary self-flagellation. We must deny ourselves flavor in hopes that it will somehow make us more perfect people. And it's bullshit.
I know from experience. I bought into this craze for a while and went on a pretty extreme low-fat diet in which chicken breast was the dominant (but not the sole) meat. Between that diet and a rigorous exercise regimen that included sometimes three tae kwon do classes a day, I was able to get pretty skinny. So skinny that my guy friends frequently told me, "Holly, you're too skinny."
After a few years of that, I finally decided there was more to life than being rail-thin, so I resumed eating food that actually tastes good. Chicken thighs started creeping into my grocery cart. And pork shoulder.
When I started hunting, it got even better. When you shoot a whole animal, you eat the whole animal. Lots of species, lots of different cuts of meat. Suddenly, there was little need to buy any meat at the grocery store.
Yes, I gained weight. But my weight and body mass index are all in the normal range, and despite eating all the meat and animal fat I want, my cholesterol levels are outstanding.
And food is once again a joy, not just one of several bodily functions that must be performed to stay alive.
I still eat breast meat. In fact, when I bite into a roasted upland bird, I often eat the breast meat first because it's easiest to get to. And because I'm saving the best - the leg meat - for last.
Which brings me back to the photo at the top of this post, which I had to buy from iStockphoto because I don't have anything like that in my house. I literally cringe when I look at those two pale, fat-free, flavorless blobs of meat, and I pity the people whose diet revolves around them.
I know not everyone can eat as well as I do, with a diet rich in flavorful wild game and a boyfriend who cooks like mine does. But it makes me sad that with all the choices they do have in the grocery store, so many people go straight for the least satisfying one. If someone told me that was only meat I could eat for the rest of my life, I'd probably go vegetarian and eat tofu. The flavor's just about the same.
© Holly A. Heyser 2009