I am inordinately fond of the chickens my wife and I keep in our backyard. I obsess over their well-being (I was once the butt of a long-running joke after I brought a sick chicken to the vet), and I talk to them as if they were my children. Lately, though, I've been in crisis, and so far a solution seems out of reach: I love my chickens, but I also love eating chicken thighs.
I'm embarrassed to admit it, but this issue crystalized for me only recently. I walked in on my wife watching a documentary that showed hidden camera footage of tens of thousands of birds crowded in a huge barn. Men wearing bandanas over their faces (presumably to avoid breathing the air) were grabbing the chickens by their feet and shoving them into cages the size of milk crates. The narrator explained the birds had never seen sunlight. This wasn't news to me. The terrible conditions in which most chickens are raised in America is well-worn territory, as are the mind-blowingly unfair contracts large-scale chicken farmers are forced to sign with the handful of corporate food distributors. But the images of those birds being crammed into tiny cages made me sick. I told her I didn't want to watch it. She shrugged, tilted her head and looked down like she always does before she says something painfully true. "Well, those are the chickens you buy at the grocery store."
She was right. I can't help myself. Dark chicken meat (chicken breast is for stew) cooked on the bone will be served at my wake. For that particular day, I'd like them to be marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, a little sugar, rice vinegar and chilies, and it would make me happy if you promised to grill them. It's not that those scenes from the documentary came as an epiphany. It's more like I had been getting away with buying the Big Chicken meat for so long, I had lulled myself into a state of voluntary ignorance. But standing in front of my wife that night, there was no hiding. I told her right then that I'd stop buying meat raised on factory farms, and I would find some more ethically produced chicken thighs. "Good," she said.
Easier said than done.
Unlike beef, pork and lamb, finding good meat from happy chickens is tricky. Every grocery store in Missoula sells "free-range" chicken, which is considerably more expensive, you'd think, because free-ranging birds require more attention—more labor—than birds raised in factory chicken houses. The only free-range chicken from Montana I've been able to find is from the New Rockport Colony in Choteau, where they produce more than 15,000 birds a year. But a quick search on the USDA's website says free-range only means the animals were given access to the outside. It doesn't specify how often, for how long or how big the outdoor space should be (I mention this not because New Rockport chickens are not given adequate time outside, but rather to show how misleading USDA labeling can be).
Local chef Olivia Donovan says it's even difficult to find ethically produced chicken for commercial kitchens. As chef de cuisine at Missoula's Silk Road, she orders all of the food for the restaurant. She says finding local chicken can be a challenge, and the cost of free-range meat can be a bit jaw-dropping. "Just last week I saw chicken leg quarters for $.40 a pound," she says. "And then to get the birds that walk around—that have a little bit better life—they were $3.40 a pound. And it was from California." She says Montana chicken was not available through her supplier that week.
According to Steffen Brown, who works for the Western Montana Growers Co-op connecting local farmers to restaurants and markets, the problem with chicken is pretty simple: "There's no processor." In order to sell chicken meat, farmers must slaughter and butcher their chicken at a state-inspected facility, and the closest one to Missoula is more than three hours away. He says a group of Bitterroot farmers are currently raising funds to start a mobile-processing operation, but until it gets off the ground, people like me—who appreciate the meat and the animal from which it comes—are out of luck.
This problem is not exclusive to chickens. Pick a food you love, follow it down the production line to its source and, in many cases, you'll find something that makes you uneasy. Whether it's the treatment of livestock, the chemicals used to grow and wash produce or the wages paid to workers, feeling good about the food we buy seems like a gift we only get when farmers markets are in-season. This doesn't seem fair, but I won't presume to know what fair looks like. What I do know is that I'm tired of pitting my moral compass against the balance of my bank account and my desire to eat what I want to eat. I just want to buy some food without feeling an accessory to a crime. I just want some chicken thighs.