Chicken: Get Over White Meat. Join the Dark Side!

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alberto Ruggieri / Getty Images

Russia, an article in Slate announced this week, has taken steps to close its chicken gap. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is putting the brakes on U.S. exports of dark-meat chicken — the legs and thighs that once carried around those skinless breasts so many Americans are buying. This Putin stuff is bad news, since nobody in the U.S. apparently likes the gamier meat in legs and thighs. Which is too bad, because I'm going to let you in on a secret. I'm going to be the one to say what nearly every person in the culinary world thinks: We all hate chicken breasts. Hate them. I speak for every chef, food writer and butcher in America here. There's not one of us that has the slightest interest or respect for the chicken breast, at least compared with the dark meat. It might as well be a McNugget.

We love the flavor of the dark meat, its succulence, its complexity, its wealth of delicious, tasty skin, the way the meat is proportional to the bone, keeping it moist and sapid during cooking. We hate that our birds have been bred to have grotesquely disproportionate bodies — Christina Hendricks' bust on Kate Moss's legs. We hate that when you cook a whole bird, the dark meat can never be cooked right because it is hostage to the vast expanse of flavorless breast, which overcooks if you so much as look at it the wrong way. Most of all, we hate taking the skin off. That's the ultimate insult to the chicken and the kitchen both.

Chicken, in case you hadn't already guessed, fascinates me. And not just because I like to eat it. It carries a freight of meaning that goes far back in our history and continues to undergird the way we live today. Last week I wrote about fried chicken and the African-American experience, but I could as easily write about the Jewish-American chicken experience in a column entitled "The Saga of Schmaltz," or about chicken as the original Protestant colonists knew it ("The Yardbirds of Monticello"), and on and on. Chicken is the universal food, a symbol of plenty and a symbol of poverty at the same time. It's a food that is meant to be eaten communally; not until the 20th century and the introduction of prebutchered birds was there any opportunity to cook just one part of the chicken.

But, like so much else about the way we eat and think about food, that changed, and for the worse, in the postwar era. You've probably heard some version of this. We stopped knowing where our food came from, the small grocers and butchers went out of business, and our food became overprocessed and unhealthy, a corporate commodity controlled by faceless corporations. We became the Big Mac nation, in short, and went to hell in a handbasket.

This may or may not be true, but we've definitely been reacting to that notion. Americans are trying to eat more natural meat and produce, to limit their kids' exposure to sugary drinks and massive hamburgers, and to eat foods that actually taste like something. Our pizza is better. Our bacon is better. There's a milk revolution in the works. But there's one area in which culinary time is standing still. When it comes to chicken, our tastes are stuck in a suburban tract in northern Indiana in 1976. And I know this from experience. My own wife will only eat white-meat chicken! Worse still, she insists on it being entirely nude, lest there be anything about it suggestive of an actual animal, or flavor or a reason for eating other than bare sustenance.

People will tell you they prefer the white meat to the dark because it's leaner, healthier, has less cholesterol, or whatever. Even if it were true, it would be disingenuous: nobody but the infirm worries about an extra gram of fat in the main component of dinner. In fact, as the Slate piece makes clear, the difference is negligible: according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 g of white meat has 0.56 g of saturated fat and 114 calories; while the same amount of dark meat has 1 g and 119 calories. Meanwhile, the same people who are supposedly policing their tables for half a gram of fat are probably using copious amounts of mayonnaise, butter or oil to make their dry, tasteless breast meat palatable.

Enough is enough. The time has come to get with the dark-meat program. The boneless thigh may be the most perfect piece of meat or poultry imaginable: even without the skin, it's still delicious, and even the most diffident cook can make something great with it after three seconds spent searching for a recipe on Google. (Don't have three seconds? Here you go.) You will be making your life better. You will be calming the secret rage and scorn of the culinary sector. And, best of all, you'll be standing up to Putin and the Russkies, and showing them that we don't need Moscow's permission to deal with our dark meat. The day the U.S. needs Russia to finish our chicken, we'll put up onion domes on the White House!

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for, appears every Wednesday.