Tasting Like Chicken
Its evolutionary origins.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
At least once a week, someone tells me that some food other than chicken “tastes like chicken.” People throw the analogy around constantly. Virtually any meat that is pale in color, firm in texture, and lacking a strong flavor is subjected to the chicken comparison.
Why chicken? It’s probably at least in part because most of us haven’t eaten very many types of meat. The meat universe of a typical American carnivore is limited to chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and perhaps lamb. That’s a pretty narrow selection in a world that includes more than 10,000 species of birds—let alone the rest of the vertebrate world. (And saying that things “taste like chicken,” it appears, is a distinctly American habit.)
The range of species I’ve heard compared to chicken, flavor-wise, is very broad across the evolutionary spectrum: various birds, of course, but also snakes, lizards, small mammals, certain fish. Which made me wonder: Can we trace the taste of chicken back down the evolutionary tree to a common ancestor? What was the first creature in evolutionary history that tasted like chicken? And for how long in the Earth’s history has life been tasting like chicken? Something had to come first, and I don’t think it was either the chicken or the egg.
In order to answer this question, we need to start with chickens and work our way back through the evolutionary family tree.
Does chicken taste like chicken? Don’t laugh—this is an important question. Even lifelong chicken eaters usually have a very narrow experience because the birds sold in grocery stores are usually one of a very few breeds that have been designed to grow a lot of breast meat very quickly in factory-farm settings. A Plymouth roasting hen slaughtered for market at 7 weeks does not make for the same eating experience as a 2-year-old Rhode Island Red. I once ate a bantam rooster that tasted more like iguana than a grocery store chicken.
I posed a question for a group of friends on Facebook, asking them whether they thought Cornish game hens taste like chicken. Some of the respondents were adamant that the little birds have their own flavor and texture that hardly resembles chicken. What I didn’t mention when I asked the question was the fact that Cornish game hens are simply ordinary chickens slaughtered at a younger age. Our idea of what chicken tastes like seems to be as informed by our expectations as by our palate.
A consensus has emerged in the scientific community that chickens and other birds are probably the direct descendants of dinosaurs. I have lost many good nights of sleep wondering what various species of dinosaurs tasted like, but the fact is that we don’t have any left to eat. Other than birds, the closest living relatives that we have to eat are the crocodilians, which date back to at least 250 million years ago.
I have eaten alligators on several occasions and have found that they can have a lot in common with chicken. Like chickens, their muscles are primarily light meat, which is made of muscle fibers that are well-suited for short-term bursts of speed and power. Tail meat tends to be somewhat tough (except in a very young animal), while the limbs are more tender. The best alligator meat I have ever eaten was in a bar on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the bartender brought out a tray of “gator wings.” These alligator limbs had been prepared identically to conventional Buffalo wings, and they tasted exactly like enormous Buffalo wings, with the most noticeable difference being that the bones were less delicate. I figure this similarity dates the taste of chicken back at least 250 million years right there. (This is assuming, of course, that the crocodilians of yesteryear didn’t taste terribly dissimilar from the alligators of today.)
Looking back even further on the evolutionary tree, modern reptiles are related to chickens through a group of animals known as diapsids, which originated around 300 million years ago. Modern snakes and lizards are both descended from the diapsids—and as it happens, I have had the pleasure of eating a nice assortment of them: black spiny-tailed iguanas, green iguanas, and various snakes. What all of them had in common was a taste and a color after cooking that was like chicken, coupled with a texture reminiscent of crab meat. You wouldn’t mistake the texture of snake for chicken, but run it through a meat-grinder, and you wouldn’t know the difference.
Another group of animals related to diapsids are the testudines: turtles and tortoises. Their exact evolutionary origins are murky, but what’s clear is that they taste like chicken. Raw snapping turtle meat is multicolored, with individual chunks mottled either red or white. But cooked, snapping turtle is indistinguishable from chicken to most palates. My 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son have enjoyed battered, deep-fried “turtle tenders,” and they have deemed the meat identical to chicken. (I agree.) If it passes the taste test of a fussy 8-year-old, it probably really does taste like chicken. (Maybe the ranch dressing helped.)