By Kathryn Matthews
Early spring in New York can be wet and wild, fluctuating between cold and mild; snow and rain. The weather is raw, biting, often accompanied by windy lashings.
As my body struggles to adjust to a season in transition, I often find myself flagging—low energy and fatigued. It’s no wonder then that, this time of year, I crave chicken.
The restorative properties of fowl go beyond its broth or chicken soup. Lighter on the palate than beef or pork and lower in saturated fat, chicken is a wonderfully versatile source of protein. It is abundant in B-complex vitamins, especially niacin (B3), which plays a role in metabolizing fats and proteins, preventing nerve problems, making sex and stress-related hormones and improving circulation and cholesterol levels. Like turkey, chicken is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that your liver can convert into niacin.
Chicken is also an excellent source of B6 (pyridoxine) and B12: both are important for metabolism and brain function—a deficiency in B6 or B12 can result in anemia (and, consequently, low energy). Chicken is also a good source of iron, zinc and potassium. Cooking a whole bird? Hang onto the plastic-wrapped giblets—the heart, liver and gizzard—that you may find stuffed in the bird’s cavity. Though high in cholesterol, giblets, particularly chicken liver, are an exceptional source of vitamin A, B12 and folate, as well as zinc and vitamin C. Gizzards, too, are a good source of vitamin B12 and folate.
But I have to emphasize….while chicken is an amazing source of mind, mood and energy-boosting nutrients, its nutritional integrity—and flavor—can be seriously compromised, depending on how it is raised.
Don’t Cheep Out
At the supermarket, it’s easy to be tempted by house-brand chicken “deals”, from a $3.00 eight-piece “family pack” of chicken thighs and drumsticks, to a whole chicken, selling for $1.19 per pound (that’s $3.57 for a 3-pound whole chicken). No question about it: compared to poultry labeled “all-natural”, “organic”, “free-range”, or “pastured”, you will spend less money on industrially bred chicken.
But you’re not getting any “deal” when it comes to your health. Consider what you’re ingesting.
Commercial chickens, raised for their meat, are grown in large indoor factory farms called CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), a warehouse-like barn with a concrete floor. Each bird may be allotted one square foot, which shrinks to half of a square foot as a bird nears market size. CAFO chickens have no access to sunlight, grass or forage. Without any sense of day or night, these birds suffer extreme stress, and they are debeaked to prevent self-mutilation (their reaction to this stress). CAFO-bred chickens breathe in fecal dust and ammonia their entire short lives (7 weeks for broilers; 8-10 weeks for roasters). Because they are crammed into close quarters, these birds are routinely given antibiotics to prevent infections. They may also be fed growth stimulators, pesticide-laden and genetically modified grains, synthetic vitamins and even arsenic (roxarsone), given to some broilers to control parasites.
The cheap retail price of factory farm chicken reflects what it was fed: cheap, conventional feed. According to sustainabletable.org, “conventional feed can contain meat from animals of other or the same species, meat from diseased animals, bits of feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, manure, other animal waste, plastics and unhealthy amounts of grain.” A grain-only diet also results in chicken meat that is high in omega 6 “bad” fatty acids, and lower in overall nutritional content.
Everything these chickens consume is ultimately passed onto the human consumer. And, not least of all, what chickens eat, as well as the high level of stress they endure, will also affect their taste.
How should a quality bird—one fit for human consumption—be raised?
A revelatory book for me was the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, published in 1999, by local food pioneer and restaurateur Alice Waters, who described her criteria when buying chicken for her Berkeley restaurant:
“The chickens we seek are those raised nearby in small flocks. They are allowed to forage outdoors during the day, where they feast on grasses and weeds, worms, grubs and other insects. They have shelter at night from predators. They are fed organic feed—corn and soybeans. And they taste good, a fact confirmed by scientists who have discovered a chemical in free-range chickens that associated with increased flavor.”
North by Northwind Farms
Happily, I can say that, for the last decade, we have been incredibly lucky to have a wonderful, go-to local farm source upstate for our chicken: Northwind Farms.
Richard and Jane Biezynski, now joined by their 22-year-old son Russell, are the dedicated force behind Northwind Farms, a small, family-run farm in Tivoli, N.Y., located two hours north of Manhattan. A lifelong animal lover, whose great-grandfather had farmed in Columbia County, N.Y., Richard Biezynski moved from Brooklyn to Tivoli, full-time, in 1981 to pursue his passion: farming. It’s been an all-natural, local-minded operation from the start.
The Biezynskis are best known for their poultry (including specialty fowls, such as guinea hens, pheasant and duck), especially their free-range chickens, which are barn-raised, with access to pasture. The chickens are fed a locally grown grain mix, specially formulated by Biezynski for his flocks. They never receive antibiotics or hormones in their feed or water. The Biezynskis also raise small herds of pigs and cows, often seen munching their way through 174 acres of verdant pasture. Some are totally grass-fed; others supplemented by grain.
Though Northwind Farms is in high demand for their poultry and meat among Hudson Valley restaurants and markets, they also accept individual orders. Thankfully, for us.
Right now, Northwind Farms chickens, available fresh or frozen, vary in size, from 3- to 4-pound broilers, to 7-pound roasters, priced at $3.25 / pound.
You pay triple the price per pound than you would for an industrially farmed chicken, but the ROI is well worth the expenditure.
The flesh of a Northwind Farms chicken is muscular, plump, meaty and firm (not flaccid and squishy to the touch, like supermarket chicken), a testament to the happy, active life it led—unlike a CAFO bird.
Since we pick up our chicken directly at Northwind Farms, we know how they are raised. We know they have lived roughly 12 to 16 weeks (depending on the breed), growing at their own, natural pace, before being processed. We have seen the farm’s on-site slaughtering facility—and in operation—as well.
We have no doubt that these chickens have lived a full—and I daresay “happy”—life before landing on our plate.
In the spring, a Northwind Farms chicken is the perfect starting point for a simple Sunday supper: roast chicken.
Bricklin, M and the editors of Prevention Magazine. Prevention Magazine’s Nutrition Advisor. Rodale Press, Inc.; 1993.
Waters, A. Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. William Morrow; 1999.