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When did the notoriously bland meat become good enough to be a reward?

Capons are still favoured for Chinese New Year feasts and Christmas in Spain, but it never caught on in India.

, ET Bureau|
Mar 02, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s knowledge of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) has come as a surprise to fans of the online multiplayer game (and their less than happy family members).

But presumably he has never played it to a win because what would our strictly vegetarian PM have made of the “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” banner that appears at that point? Vegetarian gamers have lobbied for a veggie version but that seems unlikely to happen. The phrase is even appearing on T-shirts.

Many have speculated where it comes from, with theories ranging from Las Vegas dinners, a 2008 movie and Cockney rhyming slang. There’s no clear answer, but a better question might be: why chicken? When did the notoriously bland meat — which chefs deride as nonveg paneer —become good enough to be a reward?


Chickens originated in the Indian subcontinent, descendants of the red jungle fowl of north and north-east India. It was used for meat here, as analyses of food residues in pots from the Indus Valley civilisation show, but it never became a favoured food. It has been theorised that the scavenging habits of chickens, searching through waste heaps for food, caused them to be seen as unclean.

Chickens were developed outside India, both in Southeast and West Asia. Meat was just one reason – they were also used for cock fighting, egg laying and temple sacrifices. The birds would have been like the desi chickens of today — long-lived, free-ranging and tough to eat, though tasty enough when long cooked in stews and soups.

But there was an alternative: capons, meaning castrated roosters. Castration reduces aggression and activity, leading to softer, fleshier fowls. Usually only one rooster can be kept in a flock, but castration enabled males to be raised together without fighting. Creating capons is efficient for farmers since hens can be kept for egg-laying, and later used in stews, while rooster chicks, instead of being killed at birth, can be raised with care for roasting and frying.

Capons were known in ancient China and Rome as favourite foods of the rich. In Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It, man’s fifth stage is “The Justice, in fair round belly, with good capon lin’d”. They are still favoured for Chinese New Year feasts and Christmas in Spain. But it never caught on in India, though it’s been suggested that in Country Captain, the British Indian dish, “captain” comes from capon.

The problem with this is that capons aren’t mentioned in manuals like Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner’s Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888). This has remarkably detailed section on poultry raising, indicating how the British developing the practice India, as the most acceptable meat in a country where beef and pork were often unavailable. The authors are scornful of “the khansaman’s bazaar chickens” and give many tips on raising tasty chicken, but don’t mention capons

Castrating animals for better meat was practised in India. Castrated goats, called khashi, are favoured in Bangladesh, for the rich taste they give dishes like kosha-mangsho. But castrating roosters is tricky, since they don’t have visible testes and learning how to do it usually involves killing quite a few birds. It seems that the skills never really developed in India, and even abroad, the practice has faded out. A modern alternative, of using oestrogen implants, is low-risk and easy, but consumers are uneasy about consuming hormones.

Capons also lost out to broilers, a bird developed in the US. Americans might take pride in their steaks, but in fact chicken was better suited to their smaller and more urban families. Flocks could be raised easily by farmer’s wives, and also poorer African-Americans, who really developed fried chicken.

Chicken was so favoured that in 1923 a candy company introduced a candy bar called Chicken Dinner. It didn’t actually contain chicken, but had nuts and was positioned as being as nutritious and desirable as a chicken dinner. In 1928 the campaign to elect the Republican Herbert Hoover as US president resurrected a phrase first used by the French king Henri IV, and promised “a chicken in every pot” if he won.

Hoover’s presidency actually resulted in the Great Depression, and during its bleak years a chicken meal remained a sign of missed prosperity. It also pushed many into poultry farming, as was entertainingly recounted by Betty MacDonald in her best-selling comic memoir The Egg and I (1945). World War II caused a huge demand for meat, and with most beef and pork going to soldiers, chicken consumption rose sharply at home.

This was why in 1945 the US Department of Agriculture, along with the A&P Food Stores chain, launched the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest to breed a better bird for meat. The winner, Charles Vantress, bred a bird that put on weight so fast it could be killed at just over three months (shorter than the growing span of most plants). This combined with new technology, like electric incubators, and newly discovered antibiotics, which prevented flocks closely crowded together in coops from developing diseases, resulted in the modern broiler chicken.
Broilers have come with huge costs, which we are only realising now.

But broilers have come with huge costs, which we are only realising now. The cruelty involved in the process is immense, starting from rooster chicks that are now just killed at birth, and the crowded coops the birds must live in. The liberal use of antibiotics now stands accused of leading to drug resistance in both humans and newer and deadlier microbes.

And all this has been done for a bird that has none of the taste that we always valued in chickens. The only real winner has been the huge and powerful poultry industry and it makes one wonder who PUBG’s “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” is really aimed at?
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