FOWL PLAY: SOUP HENS, SOUPED-UP HENS, AND SUPER-DUPER HENS
“I need fowl!” Susan announced, as she materialized at my side. “For chicken soup. It’s almost Passover.” She threw an icy blue stare at the unfortunate shopper who had just avoided tripping over the tote bags at our feet.
It was Saturday morning at the Union Square Greenmarket. The sun hadn’t yet climbed above the buildings to the east. It was cold, damp, and early. I eased the legendary cookbook author and editor out of the fray and into what soon promised to be a patch of sunlight. “I haven’t been able to find fowl anywhere, so I ordered two from Citarella,” said Susan. “Do you know what they sent me?” She paused for effect.
For the uninitiated, the word fowl specifically means a soup, or stewing, hen: not a broiler or roaster but an older, heavier (five- to seven-pound) dame no longer capable of laying eggs. As any good Jewish cook will tell you, a fowl (or preferably two) is the basis for a richer-than-rich chicken soup. One worthy of my mother-in-law’s recipe for matzo balls. One worthy of the Passover Seder. A fowl, in other words, goes out in a blaze of glory.
“Pumped-up birds!” Susan said. She practically spat out the words. “According to the label, they were injected with a fifteen percent solution.”
It’s no deep secret that if you read the fine print on some brands of fresh chicken (parts as well as whole birds), it will disclose that the product is “enhanced” or perhaps “marinated.” Euphemisms aside, what that means is that the chicken carcasses are injected with additives such as chicken broth, salt, water, and water-binding carrageenan, a seaweed extract.
When in doubt, zero in on the “Nutrition Facts” printed on the label: The sodium content of an untreated chicken should be anywhere from about 45 to 60 milligrams per four-ounce serving. An enhanced bird might have up to 540 milligrams of sodium per four-ounce serving, more than one third of the American Heart Associations’s recommended daily allowance.
The so-called enhancement of chicken is done in the interests of moisture retention and—when big discount stores staked a claim in the grocery business—the convenience of selling chicken at standardized weights and prices. What never ceases to amaze how quickly convenience and corporate profit become joined at the hip. Consumers, who work so hard to stretch their food dollars every which way, are paying animal-protein prices for water weight. For bloat.
This is not chump change. In 2009, it amounted to roughly $2 billion a year, wrote Melinda Beck, health columnist for the Wall Street Journal. She cited the Truthful Labeling Coalition, a thriving grassroots organization that includes not only chicken producers who don’t enhance what they sell, but more than 30,000 consumers.
What I find interesting is that nobody seems to have factored all of this into a reported increase in chicken consumption. The average American apparently eats upwards of 90 pounds of chicken a year, more than twice as much in the 1970s. But, given the rise in enhanced chicken, is that really true?
Let’s step into the “Go Figure” department for a quick moment. According to current USDA regulations, enhanced chicken is technically “100% percent all natural.” The reasoning? If you inject natural substances into something else that is natural, then it’s still, well, natural. And a bold checkmark from the American Heart Association doesn’t give a particular brand a pass, either. It simply signifies that the product meets the AHA’s guidelines for fat and cholesterol; salt doesn’t enter into it.
Susan eventually found her fowl at Ottomanelli Bros. on Bleecker Street, a venerable (since 1900) meat and poultry market here in the city. I cut to the chase and ordered mine from Ottomanelli, too—the uptown store at York Avenue and 82nd Street. Weighing in at almost eight pounds, the hen, which came from a private farm in Pennsylvania Amish country, almost entirely filled my largest heavy pot. Just out of curiosity, I also bought a soup hen from Citarella, another venerable (since 1912) New York institution that built its reputation on selling the most pristine fish in the city before branching out into meat, poultry, and fancy foodstuffs. The Citarella bird, from Bell & Evans, a producer that does not inject its poultry, was smaller, but a beaut as well.
Both birds made delicious soup. In terms of the meat, the Bell & Evans was definitely more chickeny, more rounded in flavor, than their typical roaster. The meat of the Ottomanelli bird was even deeper and more complex—the only word for it is resonant.
Susan and I are still gnawing over the mysterious provenance of the fowl she got from Citarella. In addition to Bell & Evans, the store carries chicken under their own name—both organic and all-natural. Aha! I thought, but then Maritza Santana, the customer service director, told me that the soup hens always come from Bell & Evans. “Could we have possibly sent your friend really big kosher chickens instead?” she asked. “I’m so sorry. Those are brined, so the salt content is high.”
You can probably feel Susan’s icy blue stare from where you’re sitting.
The larger puzzle is why don’t supermarkets stock fowl for Passover. They lay in supplies of pike, carp, and whitefish for homemade gefiltefish. They lay in plenty of briskets for the main course, not to mention acres of matzo in every conceivable permutation. In a quick survey in my neighborhood grocery stores, I couldn’t even find a manager who knew what a soup hen, let alone a fowl, was. When I told my mother-in-law I’d gotten my hands on not one but two of them, she couldn’t believe it. “That’s what my mother used!” she said. “I’ll bet your kitchen smells wonderful.”