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The symbolism of Chicken

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Why is symbolism important? It’s the mechanism by which meaning is created and communicated. The symbols we collectively acknowledge and respect reflect our culture. We’re constantly, consciously or not, creating and communicating our values to each other and now to the entire world thanks to modern communication platforms. Information overload is going into overdrive. We’re heading into the third year of a global pandemic that’s shattered preconceived notions of life’s expectations. Health and wellness has been at the forefront of our news feeds, blurred by the motives of competing political actors. So I’d like to ask you to consider the symbols that dominate our lives. The stories we tell have become condensed into fragments that follow the format of the latest microblogging platforms. Important symbols within those stories, whether they’re songs, skits, or documentaries, help us create meaning within the story we’re experiencing at any given time. We have an endless array of options for telling stories online, so how does that affect the way we communicate in person? I’d like to explore this with you and see if there is anything we can learn from the symbols we accept and reject in our lives. As a country, we’ve started to reject the cross, with church communities experiencing dramatic declines in attendance online and in person since the pandemic began. Symbols that are on the uptick are status symbols. Luxury brands. The way we communicate online is largely composed of who has what. Artists in music, television and film, the most commercially successful art forms in our culture, are responsible for the symbols they promote. Since we’re not all celebrities and superstars, let’s discuss symbols we all can relate to.

A meal is a story of where the chef has been, and who she or he surrounds themselves with. The dinner table may be a common place where our lives have been most affected, for better or worse. The construction of the ideal nuclear family hinges on gathering around the dinner table to tell stories about how each family member’s day went. A parent can pick up context clues about their kids at the dinner table, and learn how they’re really doing as opposed to how they may say they’re doing. Children may struggle with something that’s bothering them because their family doesn’t gather around the table to share what’s going on in their lives. We can take this tangent even further, and consider a healthy family that gathers around the table and shares the good and the bad of each day as a unit. What do they eat? Is it fast food? Not likely, as fast food is a context clue for a family on the go, likely distracted on the phone or a family that prioritizes work or play when it’s time to gather as a family and bond. You are what you eat, eats! What you eat says something about you, and is yet another common symbol that is shared ad nauseam online. Children and teens may see ads for food dozens to hundreds of times per week, mostly for fast food and sugary drinks. “With more exposure to unhealthy foods, consumer perceptions of what is considered normal eating habits may skew to be unhealthier,” says Ethan Pancer, a professor of marketing at Saint Mary’s University.

Since we’ve arrived on the topic of food, let’s consider something we all eat as a symbol. Chicken is the universal food of our time, which crosses cultures with ease due to its generally agreeable taste and consistent texture. It can be considered a relatively blank canvas for the flavor palette of almost any cuisine. Chicken is also the most consumed meat in the world. Strangely enough, it’s an animal that can be raised and processed in dramatically different ways. The chicken is a worldwide symbol that stretches back millennia and in ways you may have never imagined. It just might represent one solution that is right under our noses. The modern chicken has a bad rap in America. Endless poultry documentaries about CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) chicken only diagnose the problem of inhumane, cruel conditions. They rarely, if ever, have offered viable alternatives that at scale could begin to offer some sense of decency when it comes to what we eat, eats. 99% of chicken in our country comes from a CAFO. There is also a lack of transparency on the part of producers. Good luck requesting a tour from a CAFO. Worse yet, our own government turns a blind eye to the obvious health hazard of inhumanely producing obese proteins for our children to eat. There is also a lack of accountability from the USDA, which proper food producers worldwide recognize as a capitalist joke. Today’s chicken is the way it is because of us humans. Their genes have mutated to the extent that the birds are always hungry and so they’ll eat and grow more rapidly. From the day they are born, they live under automated lights to maximise the hours they can feed. When they’re about to fall asleep in a CAFO, the lights brighten to wake them up and they’re programmed to eat some more. Hens are packed (less than half a square foot per bird) so much so that they can’t spread their wings. There can be as many as 20,000 to 30,000 broilers crowded together at a time in windowless buildings. Imagine 20,000 to 30,000 humans stuck in a space with less than half a square foot of space between them. We’d get stressed out, and so do these chickens. This stressful environment causes the chickens to secrete hormones that negatively affect the texture and flavor of the birds. The situation has become so dire that chickens given access to outdoor space, a cheap marketing tactic that enables the product to be sold as “free-range,” prefer to wait for the next delivery of feed. “Chickens used to be great browsers,” says Gary Balducci, a poultry farmer from Maine, “but ours can’t do that. All they want to do now is eat.” Broiler chickens have become ‘fragile, overgrown baby birds afflicted with metabolic disorders, painful lameness, obesity, and other systemic diseases associated with poor health and suffering in humans,’ (Smithsonian, Adler 2012).

So, what have chickens represented throughout our history? For thousands of years, chicken has inspired culture, art, cuisine and religion. Chicken is a sacred animal in some cultures. The hen is a nurturing symbol of fertility. In Bible verse Matthew 23:37, Jesus compares his care for the people of Jerusalem to a hen caring for her brood, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” For the Romans, the chicken accompanied Roman armies, and their behavior was observed before battle. A hungry bird indicated victory was within reach. Artistic depictions of rooster fighters can be found throughout the world, for example, in a first century A.D. mosaic adorning a house in Italy. The Greek city of Pergamum built a cockfighting amphitheater to teach valor and honor to its warriors. The Italian Renaissance ornithologist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, wrote of mother hens in the 16th century, “They follow their chicks with such great love that, if they see or spy at a distance any harmful animal, such as a kite or a weasel or someone even larger stalking their little ones, the hens first gather them under the shadow of their wings, and with this covering they put up such a very fierce defense-striking fear into their opponent in the midst of a frightful clamor, using both wings and beak-they would rather die for their chicks than seek safety in flight. . . . Thus they present a noble example in love of their offspring, as also when they feed them, offering the food they have collected and neglecting their own hunger,” (Smith and Daniel, 162, and Davis 1996, 31). Some archaeologists believe that chickens were introduced to the New World by Polynesians who reached the Pacific coast of South America a century or so before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Santería, a religion from Cuba with elements of Catholicism, native Carib culture and the Yoruba religion of West Africa, ritually sacrifices chickens, as well as guinea pigs, goats, sheep, turtles and other animals.

You may recognize some of these modern examples of chickens as symbols. ‘Chicken’ can be used as an insult to one’s bravery. In 1999 family favorite Toy Story 2, Woody is stolen by the owner of Al’s Toy Barn. This villain appears in TV ads throughout the film wearing a giant chicken costume. Chicken Run, another beloved animated film from the same era, tells the story of protagonists who dream of a free range life on grass, as nature intended for them. One chicken says, “I’ve never felt grass beneath my feet.” Chicken are indeed jungle fowl, by nature. The villain decides to purchase a chicken pie machine to produce “Mrs. Tweedy’s Chicken Pies.” After the chickens uncover a plot by the owners to modernize their farm with machinery that will produce chicken pot pies, in response, the protagonists plot an audacious escape. In the denouement, the chickens find their ‘chikin sanctuary,’ on fresh grass near water.

Every dinner table in the world is likely to have featured some chicken dish at one time or another. It is the most numerous vertebrate (not just bird) species on land, with 23 billion alive at any one time. The strain of their factory-farmed body means that if left to live even for another month, most birds die from heart or respiratory failure. It’s not stopping anytime soon, as chicken consumption is still on the rise. The meat is cheap, and many producers are moving away from beef and pork in order to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Is the chicken not the mascot of globalization? Since the first drumstick was dipped into a fryer in Beijing in 1987, Kentucky Fried Chicken has opened more than 3,000 branches around China, and is now more profitable in China than in the United States. The chicken’s journey across the Earth is quite extraordinary, as it now outnumbers human beings on the planet by nearly three to one. Yet, the morality at issue is the extent to which the real nature of chickens has been accurately portrayed or distorted in the guise of the symbolic chicken, and the political uses to which the symbolic chicken has been put.

Chicken figures as a symbol of parental and spiritual love in the literature of the West (Davis, Yale, 2002). The natural life of the chicken, along with symbols and images of the chicken as a model of courage and domestic virtues, has been cannibalized by the CAFO chicken. It is now a product divorced from its natural lifecycle, represented in degrading and commoditized images. This meat we eat most often is composed of an animal that is bred to submissiveness, ignorance, and cruelty. Like factory-farmed animals in general, these chickens are frequently dismissed as “just food” that is “going to be killed anyway.”

Can we bring this all together and identify one possible solution for the problem of our time? Aside from the mask as one obvious symbol of this pandemic, ‘the hands could represent harbingers of disease, through washing, they could also represent control and care for one’s larger community,’ (Blum, Yale, 2021). Can the chicken be reclaimed and reinvigorated as a force for good? The pandemic has punished suppressed, vulnerable immune systems. A diet lacking in sufficient nutrients can inhibit the production and activity of immune cells and antibodies.

Obesity is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation. This leads to fat tissue that produces adipocytokines which can promote inflammatory processes. [1, T.H. Chan, Harvard] While research is early, obesity has been identified as an independent risk factor for the influenza virus, possibly due to the impaired function of T-cells, a type of white blood cell. T-cells in your nose are indeed where the Covid pathogens latch on. Certain diets may assist the body in combating microbial attacks and excess inflammation, but it isn’t likely that individual foods offer special protection. Instead, each stage of the body’s immune response relies on the presence of many micronutrients. Some nutrients that are critical for the production and maintenance of immune cells include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron, and protein (including the amino acid glutamine) [3,4, T.H. Chan, Harvard]. These nutrients can be found in a variety of plant and animal foods. Diets limited in variety and lower in nutrients, for example one with ultra-processed foods and lacking in whole foods, can negatively affect a healthy immune system. A common Western diet high in refined sugar and red meat and low in fruits and vegetables can promote disturbances in healthy intestinal microorganisms, leading to chronic inflammation of the gut, and associated suppressed immunity [5, T.H. Chan, Harvard]. Reconsidering the American diet and food system is going to be key to fighting stronger, more advanced viruses in the future.

The versatility and nutritional value of high quality chicken makes it primed to be a champion of sorts for dinner tables across the country, if not the globe. An intentional approach to chicken-friendly recipes and diets that are more health conscious can be rewarded without sacrificing flavor. I’d like to introduce you to a next-generation farming company and food innovator that’s leading the way. If any certifications represent the mission of Greener Pastures Chicken, it’s got to be our Real Organic Project certification. The Real Organic Project shines a light on farms that think beyond USDA Organic, that go beyond meeting minimum requirements for certifications, and those who are organic for the right reasons.


Greener Pastures Chicken has also been recognized by The Cornucopia Institute as the top-rated chicken farm in the South. Not just Texas! Who is The Cornucopia Institute? Why should anyone care what they think? The Cornucopia Institute is composed of farmers, scientists and academics nationwide who aim to uphold the highest standards “in educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agriculture and food issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to family farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders in the good food movement.”

As I mentioned before, the poultry industry as a whole has gone above and beyond to hide it’s processes, but we stand for transparency. Greener Pastures Chicken is USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Real Organic Project Certified, Certified Humane, and GoTexan, and we’re in the final stages of becoming the first poultry farm nationwide to obtain Regenerative Organic Certified status.

Are you familiar with the core values of Regenerative Organic Certifications? We don’t have many harvests left at the rate we’re destroying our soil. Greener Pastures Chicken promotes biodiversity, which basically means we let nature grow wild. We have lots of bugs and our farm team participates in rotational grazing. This particular sustainable farming practice produces about 20% fewer emissions than non-participating farms in the first two years, dropping to 35% fewer emissions after participating for longer than two years. Sustainable and humane!

greener pastures

What does stress-free mean to a chicken? Commodity chicken is factory farmed, where they keep the lights on so they eat more and grow faster. Their diet is calorie dense rather than nutrient dense. Imagine for a moment that your mentality was always focused on where your next meal is going to come from. That’s how chickens operate. Also, they burn a substantial amount of calories (approximately 350 calories a day / our birds typically range from 3.25 — 4.5 lbs), so therefore they always need more calories to maintain body temperature and metabolic functions. Our chickens enjoy safe, healthy and stress-free living. The Greener Pastures Chicken farm team maintains very low cull and death rates (below 5%). The birds eat a nutrient-dense diet from pasture forage and fresh, high-quality organic feed. Chicken are curious creatures so they’re always running around, hunting for food. We provide them with ample feed and they’re raised in an environment that mimics their natural cycle. They spend at least ½ of their lives with good outdoor access, they have alfalfa in their feed and we don’t deal with any antibiotics, hormones or GMO’s.

Our culture and food system needs a champion that will help educate and promote the values that will keep future generations healthy and happy. A symbol for good amidst the convenience and promotion of unhealthy, processed foods. Chicken alone won’t solve the many problems punishing our healthcare system but it can represent a shift in mentality that could pay off in the near future. Greener Pastures Chicken wants to do its small part to contribute to its community. We know who we are and we’re transparent, so if you want to get involved in any way, please contact me at


British Broadcasting Corporation, (2021, December 6) How food influencers affect what we eat,

Harvard T.H. Chan, (2022) Nutrition and Immunity,

Smithsonian Magazine, (2012, June) How the Chicken Conquered the World,

United Poultry Concerns, (2002, May 17) The Dignity, Beauty, and Abuse of Chickens: As Symbols and in Reality,

Yale Daily News, (2021, April 22) Myth, Ritual and Symbol During a Pandemic,

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