Chickens are contained, caged, squished, bred, anti-biotic’d, fed other chickens. They put the word “processed” right on the package. Chickens are turned-out, rendered, butterflied, quartered, fileted and tendered.
The genetic acrobatics it took to go from red guinea fowl from Peru to two legs and a breast in your KFC meal is a testament to the human capacity to transform the world to suit us. Chicken suits us all. It’s the number one meat cooked for dinner. Cooking Light magazine boasts one hundred easy recipes for chicken breasts. Eating chicken is what most people do. 110,000,000 chickens are eaten across the world every day. If normal is defined as “everyone does it,” then eating chicken is the most normal thing you can do.
When my grandmother was young, people raised their own chickens. Eating chicken was normal. The word “processed” when referring to chicken was less so. Somewhere in the late twentieth century, it became abnormal to raise your own chickens, around the same time it became weird to get married and have a baby before you were twenty.
Except, not exactly. Where I’m from in Utah, it is not uncommon to see a woman with six children in tow. You might call these families a brood, but then you’d be comparing them to chickens, which most Utahns would disapprove of. Chickens are meant to serve, not be compared to, growing families. You’ll find these growing families taking up two, three, sometimes even four tables at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, eating chicken, sharing one refillable soda among the group of them.
I am from Utah, not Kentucky, but Utah claims the first Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken. I am a little bit addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The chicken provides comfort. It reminds me of home. A confused home that is Kentucky in demeanor, but Utah in place. Drive to State Street and 3900 South in Salt Lake. You’ll see the sign. Why they didn’t call it Utah Fried Chicken is obvious. No one associates Utah with any food but Jell-O. Colonel Harland Sanders was from Kentucky. He cooked his own chicken there, but sold franchises across the country. The first one to take Sanders up on his venture was pioneering restaurateur Pete Harman. Harman was the youngest of fourteen children; perhaps he needed to create something unique to distinguish himself from his many siblings.
At home, making fried chicken is a long process. If you bathe it in buttermilk for twenty-four hours like you know you should, plus the dipping and frying, you’re in and out of the kitchen for more than a day. Back then, fried chicken on demand was unique. Now, of course, KFC, re-monikered, with the emphasis on “fried” understated, you can eat fried chicken off the bone, in little nuggets, with buffalo sauce or ranch dressing. These days, fried chicken is ubiquitous, like children — but for Pete Harman, he was on the cutting edge.
When I was three years old, my grandma took me to the original chicken restaurant even though there were several closer to her house. She wanted me to share a piece of history along with my biscuit and corn. The chicken came in a fabulous box—perhaps inspired by Bento, perhaps by TV dinners, perhaps by the Huntsmans, producers of Styrofoam and fellow-Utah natives—and little inner containers of mashed potatoes and coleslaw. On special occasions, my grandma would buy me one of the tiny cream pies—a pie all to myself. The sign that Salt Lake City, Utah is really my home. I ate my chicken and licked my fingers and used my spork to eat all my potatoes. I kept the spork for the cold pie, the tines nicking the edges of the crust, sometimes puncturing the thin aluminum pan. If I ate all my pie I could take the pan home, where I’d stow it with the others. Even though it was fast food and therefore meant to be a discardable experience, I wanted to keep it. I was sentimental for my grandma and cute spoon/forks and tiny, tinny things.
At fifteen, I still loved Kentucky Fried Chicken. We had just been to the Planned Parenthood to take a pregnancy test. Thankfully, the test read “no.”
I wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken. He hated the place. He believed the urban legend that someone had found a fried mouse instead of fried chicken in their bucket. As I licked my fingers, I kept imagining finding a tail instead of a bone in my hand. I shrugged. I wasn’t planning to order chicken anyway.
“I don’t want to order the chicken,” I told him. “I just want potatoes and gravy.” I wanted to feel the spork’s plastic triangles scraping the roof of my mouth. I wanted to taste that gravy, made surely more from beef suet than chicken grease, from some amalgamated animal product, thickened with something more glutinous than flour. When I make chicken gravy at home, I have a Platonic form of gravy in mind. I make my grandmother’s recipe, almost burning the roux, adding chicken broth and stirring with a wire whisk, but in my dreams, my ambition for chicken gravy is to match KFC’s strangely beefy flavor.
“I don’t need to go in,” I told Mark. He pulled up to the drive-thru. I leaned over him to yell into the speaker to make sure the lady got the order right.
“One large mashed potatoes and one large gravy. Don’t mix them, please.”
“You need a whole gravy?” Mark asked me. I told him that’s what he got for almost knocking me up. I also asked for extra salt and pepper.
The lady handed me the bag. I checked to see that there were two separate containers. Mark shrugged at her, like he and the lady had more in common than he and I did. They probably did. They were closer in age.
We pulled over in the parking lot. I seasoned the gravy, dipped my spork into the potatoes and then dipped the potatoes into the gravy. I forgot all about the peeing on a stick and the long lecture by the Planned Parenthood counselor. I forgot all about the boy sitting next to me in the car, not eating a thing. Instead, I thought of my grandmother and how great it had been then to have my own box of chicken and my own tiny pie.
I licked the lid of the now-gone gravy. I was a little embarrassed. I was still hungry. I ordered another Large Mashed Potatoes and Large Gravy. The lady looked at me suspiciously, like I was some kind of mashed potato cult member.
“That will be $3.38.”
“That’s twice as much as it should be.” I gave her $2.00.
“It’s $1.69 for the potatoes. And $1.69 for the gravy.”
It occurred to me that one can misunderstand basic math. A large potatoes and a large gravy should have been enough food for one non-pregnant person. I’m good at some kinds of math, but basic addition can be a slippery thing.
Two weeks later, still no period. I did more math in my head and counted back the days. Maybe I’d been too on top of things and had taken to the test too early. Or maybe I had taken it too late. I dug around in my wallet. I was already out of money and it would be another $12.99 for a pregnancy test at the Walgreens next door.
I didn’t want to see a “yes” in that window. I knew it would say yes. I could rely on the hard-to-swallow prediction of two tubs of large mashed potatoes and two tubs of gravy. Maybe I could dive into the mashed potatoes and hide there the rest of my life. Maybe I could have a baby. I was 15. Women had had babies at that age before, especially in Utah.
State Street on a Saturday night, in Salt Lake City, is thrown back to the 1950s. People cruise State. They stop in at Hires Drive-in. They do not, but may as well, wear poodle skirts.
Mark and I had gone to Hires for root beers and fries. I lathered my French fries with fry sauce—a concoction of mayonnaise, ketchup and spices known only in Utah. Mark looked at me like he had looked at me when I piled the gravy onto the mashed potatoes, like who could eat that much?
“I’m pregnant,” I said when he looked at me scarfing down my fries. It felt weird to say it again so loud, but the whole idea made me happy.
We had looked at an apartment in Memory Grove that afternoon. Mark was 18. He could sign the rental agreements. We bought a baby blanket at Deseret Industries Thrift Store. I made a mental list of everything else babies needed. I relied on a combination of what my aunt had bought my youngest cousin and commercials to make the list: tiny shirts with snaps on the bottom (I thought they were called onesers), pajamas, baby socks, baby hat, soft washcloths and hooded towels, a cradle or a crib, four bottles, and baby blankets. The thrift store had beautiful quilts, if a little mildew-y smelling. I had a cradle for my dolls. Maybe I could use that.
I asked Mark if he thought I should breastfeed. I wanted to, but the only person I’d seen nurse a baby was my aunt Brooke and that had been five years ago. Anyway, there was something so delicious about the smell of Similac.
As we left Hires, Mark drove south toward my house.
“We’ll have to tell them soon.”
“It will be two months.”
“I just wonder how it happened. You were on the pill.”
“It’s only 99% effective.”
“Let’s tell your mom first. She had you when she was really young. Younger than you are now.” I loved Mark’s mom. She had long legs and was ultra thin. She didn’t eat tubs of mashed potatoes. She laughed whenever she thought something was ridiculous, which meant she laughed most of the time. She made us popcorn and laughed when her husband punched the wall. “Oh Randy. Jesus Christ,” she laughed. I could take her laughing better than I could take my own mother’s pinkie-biting disappointment.
“I’m going camping this weekend,” Mark told me.
“I don’t think my mom will let me go.”
I didn’t know if he meant it didn’t matter what my mom thought, she wasn’t the boss of me anymore, or that it was OK that I couldn’t go. I didn’t have time to ask which. As we slowed for the stoplight, a loud crack, and then we were accelerating. I moved forward without the car. The metal dash came toward me. My head fell forward, hitting the metal, my chin bouncing off my chest. The seatbelt bit into my stomach.
We skidded to a stop. I held my hands on my stomach and started crying. I imagined felt crushed fetal skull and crushed fetal elbows. I did not feel the bruise on my forehead. It was real. I knew it was real. I’d put my hands on my stomach, not out in front of me.
“Will the baby be OK?” I asked.
Mark wouldn’t answer. He wouldn’t even turn and look at me.
I planned a wedding at my parents’ country club. I could wear my prom dress. It would be hard to tell my parents. They wanted me to go to college. I planned to tell them I would still go to college. It would be OK. It wasn’t 1950. We wouldn’t have to hide. We wouldn’t have to lie.
Until Mark changed his mind.
Maybe it was the baby blanket. Maybe it was the onesie. Maybe it was the apartment application that read “employer’s name” and “previous rentals.” Something made the pretend real, and a real baby is a different thing entirely. I was having a harder time distinguishing between the pretend and the real.
If you believe a baby is an egg, then it’s one thing to let it go. If you believe it’s a chicken, it’s another. And, if you are a vegetarian, it’s another thing entirely. But “belief” and “want” are not necessarily the same things. What was this thing, this desire, this fetus, this potential future? It was, I think, the perennial question: which came first, the chicken or the egg. The trouble with my thinking was that I wanted both, simultaneously. A little baby, a cute husband, domesticity. Also, a wild life, out of Utah, something besides this Mormon plan. Chicken and egg came at the same time.
It didn’t really matter what I wanted. As soon as my mom found out, all domesticity would be sucked out of me. Some chickens are bigger than other chickens. Some chickens, like my mother, followed the domesticity path. She thought that being a chicken at all is a bad choice to begin with. Eschew the chicken, she believes. Think Owl. Think Eagle. Think Cougar. Think Bear.
You can eat at KFC if you don’t think about it much. You can eat at KFC even if you do think about it and still want it badly. You can rationalize yourself into thinking it’s a good idea: You’ll only eat it once. You’ll have salad for the rest of the week. You’ll throw it up later. Really, Alton Brown says if you fry things correctly, they absorb the slightest amount of oil. Eat gingerly. Use a napkin. Do not lick your fingers. At least save yourself those calories, that stereotype, that shame.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals want you to focus on the process of chickening. Not so much the frying or the cooking but the growing and the killing. They target Kentucky Fried Chicken in their campaign to end cruelty against animals. PETA’s website calls KFC “Cruelty Capital” and lists all the ways KFC makes the chickens, even before they have their heads chopped off, suffer. From stapling the chickens’ feet to the floor to breaking their wings and legs to make them fit into their cages, the chickens KFC buys to keep its costs down and its customers sated on deep-fried, if broken, wings and legs are treated with efficacy and order. The cruelty is uniform. Each chicken is debeaked. Every one of them is boxed and caged with five of its fellows. Cruelty isn’t a priority; it’s a cost-effective necessity.
Still, sometimes, abnormal cruelty escapes. PETA recorded outlier incidents. The charges escalated from accusing the chicken slaughterers of throwing the chickens in boiling water to swinging the chickens around their own heads and then throwing them against a wall. There’s a difference between utilitarian cruelty and intentional cruelty, although perhaps not to the chicken.
Intentional cruelty has a thought component. How could you be so cruel? The opposite question is how could you be so careless? You control your carelessness through forcing yourself to read PETA’s website while you eat fried chicken. You control your carelessness by reading page thirty-four of A Child Is Born to see just how big a five-week-old fetus is anyway. How do you make a body real?
It’s not as if KFC goes out of its way to procure chickens that are cruelly killed. They just need a lot of chickens, all the time. Passive chickens, the kind that don’t move and don’t peck. Beakless so the chickens can grow biggest, fastest, without beak-holes in their flesh. PETA argues that if KFC, the number one purchaser of chickens in the U.S., would institute some sort of policy or standard, then the chicken industry would have to step up and say something — like stapling chickens’ feet so they don’t peck each other to death might be a little on the extreme side, or maybe letting a chicken have a square foot to walk around would make the chickens less susceptible to disease. Of course, the modern chickens, bred for big breasts, fall over if a staple or a chicken or wire mesh isn’t holding them up. Maybe a campaign for gigantic drumsticks could provide a solution. A drumstick to balance a big breast.
KFC needs its chickens fast. They must go from tiny to full-breasted in six weeks or less. To slow down, for KFC, would be an anathema to their industry. And, unlike chicken, successful businesses aren’t the norm. Perhaps, KFC would argue, you should think of it this way: how many people does KFC feed, and how cheaply? How many jobs does KFC create? How much market value do they contribute to the economy? When judging what’s right and what’s wrong, you have to weigh both sides. Millions of chickens, prone to self-pecking on the one hand, thousands of franchises satisfying a need on the other. You don’t mean to, but you feel yourself understanding the needs of KFC. You can see why they go the way they go.
Was it cruel for Mark to come with me to the Woman’s Clinic? Was it cruel that he broke up with me a week later? Was it cruel that I mourned the loss of him more than the loss of the crushed fetal skull? Did I know the difference between egg and chicken yet? Between chicken and owl? What did I want it to be — a bad story, a mouse fried like a chicken? Or a story of renewal? Creation?
Maybe eggs are always a better ideal, the true Platonic form—full of potential and promise, but no real bodies to deal with. Once you have a chicken, you spend its whole life deciding when you’re going to eat it. Imagine a world with only eggs, only potential, only glue and meringue. Delicious, unless you crave chicken. You spend your whole life trying to modulate the craving.
These days, whenever I’m at KFC, the restaurant is empty. The line to the drive-thru wraps around the building. People sit in cars eating their chicken. A guy in a Lexus brushing the crumbs off his tie. Three skinny girls from the high school up the street, eating macaroni and cheese, large mashed potatoes, large gravy. A grandmother with her daughter, a sticker from Tuba City on their rear bumper, will order a bucket of chicken, turn the car around and drive all the way home. Everyone knows that KFC is not good for you. But maybe it is good for you, if that’s what you crave. KFC does 9.2 billion dollars a year in sales revenue, but people hide it. They’re ashamed. They eat it in their cars. No one talks about it. But still, so many people eat there. It would be better, even though it is as complicated as trying to separate cruelty from utility, the imagined from the real, the chicken from the egg, if we could admit it when we eat at KFC.
Nicole Walker’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt, released in June 2013, won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg, and edited (with Margot Singer) Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction and (with Rebecca Campbell) 7 Artists, 7 Rings: an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she is the nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University, where she will host the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference.