Tuesday, December 15, 2009

America's obsession with breast meat

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:

Turkish roast pigeon - click here.

Roasted pheasant with prickly pear glaze - click here.

Roasted grouse - click here.

Grilled dove a la mancha - click here.

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


Elise said...

So well said, Holly. Thank you. It just kills me when people tell me they only eat boneless skinless chicken breasts. All for the purpose of having bony hips!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Yep, it's madness!

Anonymous said...

SHHH!!! The high demand for chicken breasts makes my leg and thigh meat all that much cheaper!


Matt Mullenix said...

A wonderful post! So true.

I've learned a fun secret about game birds that was presaged by a survivalist book I read when I was a kid. In it the variously palatable animals and plant were listed, with cautions noted for spikes or poisons or ripeness. Under birds it said simply: "All birds are edible."

All birds are edible. Imagine. A whole class of vertebrates edible!

The secret of this came much later in life when I started sharing my hawks' catches, experimenting a bit with the sundry birds they killed (and I mean sundry). Note: All birds are edible.

Refining my tastes (and cooking skill) a bit over the years I know that some birds taste better than others. But I've never regretted the experiments and today find duck, rail, crane and collared dove as delicious (if not moreso) than quail and pheasant. And they all taste better than chicken. Or tofu.

Live to Hunt.... said...

I'm with you 99% of the way here Holly - certainly in concept and in principle - I couldn't agree more. But I do have to say that referencing "how incredibly delicious the legs were - that's always where you found the biggest, richest flavors" based on the fact that you're eating pigeon, dove, and grouse legs is just a wee bit overstated. I mean just look at the size of those 'legs' in the photo compared to the size of your thumb. How is there even enough meat to bounce around on your taste buds, let alone "the biggest, richest flavor". A pheasant, ok, I can almost go there. But nibbling a tiny sliver of meat off of a dove, pigeon or grouse leg just doesn't get me all the way to incredibly satisfied and yet filling too! Sorry, had to push back on this one. Great work as usual.

jryoung said...

Bird legs are meat with a handle, who doesn't love meat with a handle (or meat on a stick).

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Hmm legs! defiantly the best bit of a chook. But it's the low fat bit I'm writing in about. I read an interesting piece with a leading food chemist here in london who said that while chicken used to be a low fat food todays factory farmed birds actually have the same fat content as beef due to their sedentary lifestyle. He compounded my horror by saying that the omega 3 levels in chicken are now only 20% of what they were in an 80's chicken. Shiver

NorCal Cazadora said...

Matt: The only birds that really concern me, taste-wise, are the fish eaters. I suppose that's just a matter of changing what you expect bird to taste like, though. If we all like fish, there's really not much reason we shouldn't be able to like a bird that eats fish. It really is all in the proper preparation.

But I really do love a properly raised chicken - a bird that walks around and eats bugs and grass. Them's good eats! (Good eggs, too!)

LTH: I don't think it's overstated at all! In fact, a pigeon was the first bird in which this difference was so striking that it really made me stop and think. Of course, "flavorful" and "filling" are two different things to me.

JR: And oh, if only they came deep fried, too!!!

SBW: I've heard similar statements about factory-farmed chickens. The best was in one of Joel Salatin's book, where he compared the unhealthy American lifestyle (no exercise, too many carbs, not enough green things) to American chickens' lifestyle (no exercise, too many carbs, no green things) and suggested that the chickens' fat is just as unhealthy as ours - unhealthy to the chicken, an unhealthy to those who eat the chicken. It was one of those statements that made perfect sense in its simplicity.

RKDT said...

BINGO. This is great and I love the contrast of the 1940s cookbook (not to mention the 1940s ideas of beauty, body image). I'm convinced you've bugged our kitchen and tapped into more than one conversation on exact same. There's a bluegrass song and lyrics we sing around here at the dinner table... "And the little ones chewed on the bones-oh!"

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, if only I had time!

Seriously, though, it's heartening to know there are so many of us having these conversations. Gives me a smidgen of hope for our society.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I do eat chicken breast from time to time, but our diet consists of a lot of venison, so chicken and pork take a back seat because of that.

I will be honest, though, and tell you that we only cut out the breast meat from the turkeys we shoot. The birds are so mobile here that the legs have little meat - if any - on them.

Wild turkey breast is one prime cut of meat, though. And definitely out-classes any store-bought chicken breast.

Hil said...

Animal fat (yes, even the saturated kind) is one of the healthiest sources of calories on the planet. It will be 10 or 20 years before mainstream science accepts that completely, but some are starting to come to their sense and realize that people on an extremely low-fat diet are not healthy (even if they ARE thin). When I roast a chicken or a turkey I have to fight my 4-year-old for the legs. She can barely choke down some dry breast meat but she'll tell you her favorite food is "chicken with a bone in it!"

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hil, that's awesome! Out of the mouths of babes...

Simply, you must have some real athletic turkeys there! I've only gotten one here in California and his legs seemed pretty normal. But like pheasants, they've got that ridiculous splay of tendons and sinue that makes eating them less than fun. That's one reason I'm not totally bonkers about hunting them - I can make really good use of them, but it's among the lower animals on my list of good eats.

Chief Instructor said...

And food is once again a joy,

Exactly. Life is short, enjoy it.

And I agree with Mary - keep this to yourself - I like my thighs and drumsticks on the cheap!

Carolina Rig said...

Braise a pair of wild turkey legs w/ some vino and aromatics in the crock pot....shred and serve on a warm bun w/ your favorite bbq sauce and cole slaw. You WILL go bonkers.

sportingdays said...

Great post, Cazadora. I could run with this discussion in a number of different directions, but here's one burning question:

What's up with all the hunters who breast out their birds -- ducks, geese, pheasant, even doves -- and toss the rest? To me, this seems lazy, wasteful and disrespectful yet I increasingly find myself in the minority of hunters who actually pluck, cook and serve their birds whole or at least use all parts of the bird in different dishes.

Few things dishearten me more than to see hunters breasting out their birds in the field and then tossing the rest.

NorCal Cazadora said...

You know, Sportingdays, I almost went there in this post, but decided not to so I could keep it focused.

I'm absolutely with you on this. I think breasting out a bird is morally criminal, and in this state, it's also considered wanton waste, which is illegal.

Hank once hunted with some guys who, at the end of their hunt, started breasting out their canvasbacks. Remember when the can was the king of ducks, fine restaurant fare? (OK, do you remember reading about it - we're too young to actually remember.) That's a big bird too. After seeing the expression on Hank's face, they gave him the breastless birds. Plucking was difficult after their breasts had been hacked into, but it was worth it.

I've seen one variant on breasting out that doesn't bother me: One friend plucks breasts and legs and removes breast and leg as one piece, skin on, so there are two pieces per duck. That at least gets to the other major pieces of meat on the bird, and takes advantage of the delicious skin.

But of course, you know we won't do that - gotta make stock with the bones, and soup with the feet, and gizzard carpaccio, and duck liver ravioli, and duck heart tartare... I accept, though, that most people won't do what Hank does with our birds.

Josh said...

Not fair, Holly: Most people CAN'T do what Hank does with your birds.

A great post. I'm a meat-on-bone person, and I seemed to have passed down that predilection to my progency. I'm tickled pink about it.

As for the fat conversation, I'll just throw in that it isn't the fat that's the problem, it's the variety. We need a greater variety of foods in our diets, not just corn and corn by-products with some corn oil. Our limited diets are creating the equivalent of famine conditions, with epidemics in food-related health problems the result.

As for the fish-eating duck comment, I'll only say that FRESH FISH tastes good to me, not already-digested fish, no matter what beautiful feathers it creates.

gary said...

Enjoyed the post Holly, now if you could tell me how to get to the meat on Chuckers. Chucker meat is the very best upland game bird, but those legs I have given up on. I guess you could boil the little meat off them and make a stew, but they seem to have an over abundance of what you call a splay of tendons. No question they are tasty.