13 Ways of Looking at a Chicken

gespiegelte-Liebesdeklination-600 Johanna Renate Wöhlke


Through the visual arts.

Pioneering photography from the 1850s relied heavily on egg whites to get a precise, glossy finish. Egg yolks, which dry fast and clear, were mixed with crushed pigments to make paint for decorating ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, Byzantine churches and Michelangelo’s early panel paintings.


As Bill Clinton said, ‘Those apples look good, but where’s the chicken?’

Clinton was presented with a basket of apples by Reenie Baker at the 1999 New York State Fair in Syracuse. Baker’s father, Robert, a food science professor and researcher at Cornell University, developed the famous Cornell Chicken barbecue recipe. He had also invented chicken nuggets in the 1950s under an initiative to popularise the poultry industry.


Beginning over 8,000 years ago, chickens were domesticated from wild jungle birds in Southeast Asia, particularly the red jungle fowl. It seems likely they were bred as fighting birds, for religious rituals, for centuries before being realised as a nutritious food source – particularly their eggs.


In 1823, Just Mathias Thiele published a Danish version of the folk fable Henny Penny, in which a chicken panics that the world is coming to an end. Throughout the 19th century various versions of the story appeared, often using the title Chicken Little in English.

A very similar Indian story, The Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts, appears in the 2,500-year-old Jātaka Tales about animal and human rebirths of the Buddha.

The 2005 Disney film Chicken Little was as successful as The Lion King on its opening weekend.


For nearly a century since it was identified, avian influenza only affected birds. In 1997 the H5N1 strain of bird flu jumped species and killed 6 people in Hong Kong. In 2017, Hong Kong-based virologists are battling one particular strain of bird flu, H7N9, which has killed over 500 people since 2013. The original strain, H1N1 – otherwise known as Spanish Flu – killed up to five times as many people from 1918-1920 as had died during the entirety of the First World War.


To the ancient Greeks, chickens were known as the ‘Persian Bird’. This introduction from Asia Minor must have made quite an impact in Athens, because Socrates’ last words were about owing a chicken in debt, and several of Aesop’s fables feature hens and roosters prominently.


Pluck up courage, you’re a chicken

fighting over what came first in time

as the rooster goes cocorico, or cock-a-doodle-doo


The majority of chickens eaten in the world today stem from one single breed developed at Arbor Acres farm in Connecticut, USA, in the 1950s. Before that time domestic chickens raised for meat lived to about 16 weeks. Now they live for less than 7, and some of them get blisters from their breasts being so big that they drag on the ground.


New Zealand’s Hen and Chicken Islands were curiously named, possibly after a star constellation, by Captain James Cook in 1769. Fittingly, they are now a precious wildlife refuge for native birds, many of which had been wiped out after the introduction of European animals in other parts of New Zealand.


Some African-American slaves were allowed to raise and sell their own chickens, and fried chicken was a common creation of black cooks that proved particularly popular with white plantation owners. Over time, fried chicken became associated with southern hospitality. Pete Harman, a restaurant owner in Salt Lake City, wanted something unique and exotic to differentiate his business from other restaurants in Utah. That’s why he marketed the product he had just obtained the right to sell in 1952, from Harland Sanders, as Kentucky fried chicken.


Brazilian meat-processing company JBS slaughters 20 million chickens every single day. Despite this, the number of chickens in the world at any given time outnumbers that of humans by 3 to 1. Brunei can count over 47 chickens for every one person.


Eggshells are an excellent natural source of calcium. They are very useful as a fertiliser in the garden, particularly around tomato plants. Eggshell powder has also shown positive effects in the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.


Chickenpox is rarely deadly in children; it can be lethal in adults. For this reason, some parents – particularly those opposed to vaccinations from big-brand pharmaceutical companies – attend parties where kids are encouraged to play with children who have chickenpox in order to build their own antibodies. Such parties were widely reported in the Canadian media during a flu epidemic in 2009.

This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.


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