The United States is the leading world producer and exporter of poultry products, three-quarters of which represent chicken meat in various forms, the rest a combination of eggs and turkey. The 2004 market was worth $29 billion. By weight, the production represents 35 billion pounds of broiler chicken meat, 610 million pounds of turkey meat, and 70 billion eggs. According to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, the average American consumes just short of 60 pounds of chicken a year, double the level of just 20 years ago, and greater than either pork or beef. Americans like turkey in many forms (nearly 18 pounds per person per year, the highest level in the world), but chicken reigns supreme among edible birds. Duck is widely available, but generally considered a luxury food.
While Minnesota ranks number one among American states in turkey production, the winner in the chicken department is Georgia. Poultry makes up more than half the state’s total agricultural income and employs over 100,000 people. California heads the list in organic poultry production, accounting for about half the nation’s production.
Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Gold Kist are giants, controlling over 50% of the U.S. poultry market. Perdue Farms, Sanderson Farms, Wayne Farms, Mountaire Farms, Foster Farms, OK Foods, and Peco Foods round out the top ten poultry companies.
At the time of this writing the U.S. poultry industry had not been affected by worldwide concerns about the spread of avian flu. American factory-type production methods, criticized though they may be by animal rights and labor groups, are generally not conducive to the spread of such viruses, though of course American birds are by no means immune.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a Food Safety and Inspection Service that inspects all poultry produced in the United States. The safety inspection must be completed before the poultry can be graded for quality. A safety inspection stamp is awarded which must appear on the product’s packaging.
Because harmful bacteria can be present on poultry despite the best safety inspection procedures, the USDA also requires a product label giving instructions for safe handling and proper cooking of the poultry.
Once the safety inspection has been completed, the USDA, under another system and using different stamps, grades the poultry in terms of quality. Grade A poultry is the only one of the three quality grades that is usually seen at a retail store. Grades B and C are largely used for further processing. The grading system applies not only to chicken and turkey, but also to duck, goose, guinea hen and pigeon. The desirable food pigeons, aged less than one year, are called “squab.” The best ducks are young “ducklings”.
Chicken and turkey meat commonly sold in the United States is classified generally as “white” meat, from the breast or wings, or “dark” meat, from the thighs or drumsticks (legs). Young chickens suitable for broiling, roasting, frying or barbecuing are labeled as “young chicken,” “Rock Cornish game hen,” “broilers,” “fryers,” “roasters,” or “capons.” Older birds, more suitable for stewing and soups, may be labeled as “mature chicken,” “hen,” “fowl,” “stewing chicken,” or “baking chicken.”
In food markets, raw chickens are available whole, cut in pieces, in breast fillets, or in narrow strips cut from breast filets called “tenders.”
Major American chicken-based restaurant chains include KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Chick-fil-A, Boston Market, Bojangle’s, Church’s, El Pollo Loco, Golden Fried, Popeye’s, Wingstop, and California Chicken Grill.
Of course chicken is prepared in almost any conceivable way in restaurants of all kinds, but several distinct and popular types of American chicken include:
- Fried chicken: chicken pieces coated in a spiced batter and deep fried. Almost always considered “fast-food.” Associated with the American south but consumed all over the country. Available eat in or “to go” at restaurants, or at food markets (warm and ready-to-eat, or frozen).
- Pan-Fried chicken: chicken pieces coated in spiced flour, breadcrumbs, or batter, often with an initial coat of beaten egg. May be fast-food, but may also be gourmet; an Atlanta restaurant soaks its chicken pieces in brine for 24 hours, then in buttermilk for another 24 hours, before lovingly pan frying. Associated with the American south.
- Broiled chicken: frequently broiled in some kind of rotisserie device that turns the bird constantly for an even charring of the skin. The skin of the chicken is usually rubbed with flavorings and spices: lemon herb, Italian garlic, barbecue flavoring. Available nationwide whole or in pieces at restaurants and also hot at food markets.
- Barbecued chicken: the subject of debate, but according to purists a chicken rubbed with or marinated in spices or sauce and slow cooked using indirect relatively low heat or smoke. Associated with the American south, but available all over the country. Served with barbecue sauce.
- Grilled chicken: chicken pieces or breast filets, sometimes marinated, usually spiced in some way, quickly grilled over a direct flame, often showing parallel or cross-hatched grill marks, and served with barbecue sauce.
- Chicken wings also called “Buffalo” chicken wings (after the city in western New York State where they first gained popularity): chicken wings, heavily spiced, often so spicy hot as to earn sobriquets like “atomic,” “nuclear,” or “Chernobyl,” deep fried with or without breading, with or without bones, and traditionally served with celery sticks and a blue cheese sauce. A festive food suitable for parties, often consumed with beer, and associated with American “bar food.”
- Chicken fingers, also called chicken tenders: strips of boneless chicken breast meat, spiced, breaded and deep fried. Enjoyed as casual snacks or “bar food.”
- Chicken-fried chicken: a large, boneless chicken filet, pounded flat, spiced, battered and deep fried. A derivative of “chicken-fried steak,” a term which simply means a pounded steak filet fried like chicken. Both food items are associated with the American south and with Texas in particular.
- Chicken pot pie: a thick stew of chicken pieces and vegetables baked in a flaky pastry crust.
- Chicken soup: a rich soup consisting of chicken, vegetables, and seasonings frequently made with the addition of either noodles or rice. Since chicken soup is said to be health giving and is served to people with colds and other illnesses to help them get well, in popular culture the term “chicken soup” acts as a metaphor for anything healing; a number of self- help “chicken soup” guides to various aspects of life have become national bestsellers.
- Chicken fajitas: strips of boneless chicken, quick grilled with sliced onions and bell peppers, served on a hot grill platter with common Mexican-American condiments like guacamole (mashed avocado) pico de gallo (chopped tomato and onion), sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, and served with flour tortillas. Despite the Mexican name, chicken (and beef or shrimp) fajitas are available in many American dinner restaurants.
- Delicatessen chicken salad: chopped white meat chicken mixed with diced onion and mayonnaise, served in a sandwich or in a scoop in a salad platter; a partner of tuna salad.
- Restaurant chicken salad: generally refers to the common practice in dinner restaurants of offering salads of various types with slices or chunks of grilled boneless chicken filet on top or mixed in. The chicken may be marinated or variously flavored. Applebee’s, the country largest chain dinner restaurant, offers, for example, Apple Walnut Chicken Salad, Grilled Italian Caesar Salad, Oriental Chicken Salad (with almonds and rice noodles), and Santa Fe Chicken Salad (with guacamole and tortilla strips).
- Chicken burgers, variously flavored, usually served on a soft bun as an alternate to hamburgers.
Turkey, in addition to being associated with the American feast Thanksgiving, is often served sliced for sandwiches. Fried turkey legs are a popular snack at amusement parks and fairs. Turkeys are most frequently baked, though real turkey devotees often claim that deep fried turkey, which requires a special high capacity frying device, yields the tastiest results. Turkey burgers are widely available in restaurants and food stores, and are somewhat more popular than chicken burgers.
A “turducken” is a specialty dish, associated with the American south and the Louisiana Cajun country in particular, that consists of a boned chicken stuffed into a boned duck which is in turn stuffed into a turkey.