Monday, June 25, 2012

What the Chickens Were Really Up To....

Gallus gallus (Wikimedia Commons)
This month's (i.e., June's, which should still be in newsstands even though the month is drawing to a close) issue of Smithsonian magazine is all about food.  It includes some interesting articles about food history and about how foods are made.

One of the most interesting articles in the magazine is the history of chickens as a foodstuff for humans. The article notes that the ultimate forebear of the modern domesticated chicken is a wild jungle fowl called gallus gallus (see the picture on the right).  Gallus gallus looks and acts a lot like the modern chicken.  According to the article, DNA analysis has confirmed that modern chickens are descended from gallus gallus, but other genetic strains come into play; up to three other species (possibly subspecies of gallus gallus) seem to have been involved, though the full picture of the chicken's ancestry is not clear as yet.

Although the earliest bones in the archaeological record that appear to be chicken bones have been found in northeastern China and dated to about 5,400 BCE, and the Egyptians systematized the farming of chickens to maximize egg production, it was the Romans who developed techniques to grow and fatten birds to maximize the value of their flesh as food.  Apparently archaeology has discovered that the size of chickens shrank dramatically after the fall of Rome, and though they continued to be eaten, their popularity continued to be diminished until modern times.

Ironically, there is also archaeological evidence that chickens were not originally domesticated for food, but for sport. Yes, the cockfight not only dates back to the Egyptians, but many archaeologists believe that cockfighting was the original reason for taming the birds. (Sadly, the article doesn't give any more detail on this topic.) What this may say about homo sapiens sapiens I will leave as an exercise for my readers to deduce.

Though I liked the chicken article the best, there were other tasty articles in the issue, including:
  • An article about a 95-year-old winery in Los Angeles (yes, Los Angeles) that survived Prohibition by making wine for Catholic ceremonies, and now caters increasingly to wine connoisseurs;
  • An article about the harvesting of table salts, world-wide;
  • An article that sheds light upon the process of how companies develop new breakfast cereals;
  • An article about a peculiar mini-oyster, native to the San Francisco Bay Area, that enchanted Mark Twain.
It's a fun issue, and I commend it to my readers and people interested in the peculiarities of food everywhere.

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