One of the most popular slideshows on our site, day after day after day after day, is a recipe collection for that perennial favorite, that do-no-wrong blank canvas of a weekday dinner: boneless, skinless chicken breasts. This is our livelihood, our bread and butter--our boneless, skinless chicken breast, if you will.
But where do boneless, skinless chicken breasts come from? We felt it was our duty to seek out the source, to see them in their natural habitat, at the farm that makes approximately 97 percent of American dinner dreams--according to 2012 figures from the USDA--a reality.
Three hours north of New York City, past rivers and dales and supermarket poultry aisles, we're a world away from the bright aisles of our supermarket. Here, the boneless, skinless chicken breasts are born. And here, one brave man is not changing the way everyone thinks about chicken dinner.
The farm looks just as the packaging promised. Red barn. Silo. Rolling hills and a big yellow circle that appears to be the sun, but might also be a jumbo-size Vitamin D lamp. Either way, the "sun" is radiating the premises, where it glistens off the vacuum-packed plastic of rows of boneless, skinless breasts, sunning themselves as far as the eye could see.
I say sunning, but closer examination reveals parasols and cabanas shielding the breasts. Some have their plastic wrap slathered in zinc oxide. "Without their skins, they gotta be careful outside," comes a voice. "We don't want them getting overcooked, now, do we."
It's Farmer Jim, head of Beau Sanspeau Farm and my tour guide for the day. Jim is chewing on a Slim Jim cut to resemble a piece of straw.
First, we saunter over to the silo, which houses what Jim calls the nursery. The chicken breasts don't develop their plastic coatings until about 3 weeks old, Jim explains, so they stay in the nursery. Free-range would actually be harmful to the pale, fleshy blobs that are slowly coming into their styrofoam trays. Some of the older breasts have clearly started to develop a wrap, the plastic bubbling out of the tan beige pinkish chicken-breast-colored breasts. The blobs are tumbling about, settling into groups of two or four or even eight--however many will make up the final packaging.
We leave the nursery and head back outside. Where on other, more whole-body-type farms, there might be a plucker, here stands a series of treadmills, mats, and individually portioned weight-lifting machines. This is where the chicken breasts are trained to be ready-in-a-minute. Flexible. Versatile. Anything you need, right when you need it. A farmhand is running a bunch through interval drills--the better for low fat content. By the end of it, they'll be nothing but skin and bones. Metaphorically speaking, that is.
I can now see that some wear stickers like Girl Scout badges. Some are sporting: All Natural. T-t-t-tender. 2 for 1 special! On others: Fit 'n Fresh. Dinner for One. A particularly jaunty one with a seemingly high protein-to-fat ratio has just been awarded a "100 percent Wholesome" badge. The breast puffs with pride.
Inspirational banners are set up here and there. "Beauty is more than skin deep." "Sticks and stones ain't got nothin' on us." "You are what you eat--Make no bones about it."
"It's a friendly place," says Jim. He nods in the direction of a panama hat, which is shielding a bunch of breasts nestled together in their styrofoam. "These guys don't have a mean bone in 'em."
I open my mouth to suggest that the breasts aren't just lacking mean bones but are bone-free entirely, but before I can say anything, Jim steers me into a nearby a barn. Hair salon chairs are lined up in front of marquis-lit mirrors. This is where tenders are shorn off each season. A nursery where nuggets are laid is just down the hall. On row after row of padded tables, specially trained pressurists bang breasts into cutlets, pulling and prodding to the plink-plunk of spa music. On others, attendants insert needles.
Sodium-water injections? I think to myself. "Acupuncture," Farmer Jim declares, smiling.
We go back out into the shining light. Chicken breasts flop around us. The plastic wrap almost sparkles in the sun. It feels good to know where our food comes from. Too many people today are disassociated from the farmer, from the land and the animals and the people that tend them. Too much food goes eaten and digested, unknown and unhonored.
I leave with arms laden with tenders, fingers, and nuggets. I plunk a bouquet of skewered strips in the passenger seat. I'll munch on them during the long trip back to New York. The skewers might be all gone by the time end of the drive. But I'll always remember my day on the farm. I turn on the road to head back to the big city. Jim waves his Slim Jim in the air to say farewell.
Until next time, featherless friends! See you around the supermarket. And I drive off, the "sun" still hovering, in the east, above the hill.
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