Free Birds

In an American supermarket there is nothing finer than the rotisserie chicken. Hot, fresh, slow-roasted, a few spicing options but not too many, kept warm but done cooking, juices sealed in a custom leak-proof container—and, at somewhere between six and eight bucks, a shockingly good deal. For my money, rotisserie chicken competes with sliced bread and prewashed salad greens for the title of Greatest American Supermarket Convenience.

I always end my grocery-store trips with a stop at the rotisserie counter. But on my last visit, two words caught my eye—words I wish I had never seen. On the top row of the stack of warm chickens, beyond the “herb blend,” “lemon garlic,” and “BBQ” varieties, sat a solitary chicken labeled “free range.” Of course, I knew of the distinction between free-range and “normal” chickens. I had heard about the inhumane conditions that prevailed on industrial poultry farms, and at bottom I did want chickens to have a better life, roaming free, stopping only momentarily to deliver their potential for propagating themselves into a foam carton for my Saturday morning huevos rancheros. I had already decided that yes, I was willing to pay a little more for their freedom—my gift back to chickens for a lifetime of breakfasts. But until now that decision was confined to the egg aisle. What was a free-range chicken doing at the rotisserie counter?

I have flirted with vegetarianism in the past, and once gave up meat for Lent. But I found the sacrifice too difficult—even harder than the time I gave up using electricity at home. Not only am I culturally immersed in meat-eating, but at six feet, five inches tall (and under 190 pounds), my caloric needs are just too high. During my meatless Lent, I felt like I ate my weight in nut butters every day. So instead I try to follow guidelines that allow me to continue eating meat with a relatively clean conscience: sticking to grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and so on. Even those guidelines aren’t guarantees—reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma complicated my sunny mental image of what “free range” implies. But I feel better about resolving to buy what is unappetizingly referred to as “ethical meat.”

Still, adding yet another fraught decision to my grocery-store routine may be more than I can handle. Food has always been marketed according to taste, and that’s easy enough to deal with (“I like it”). Over time it has also been branded according to health (“good for me”): low-fat, diet, high in antioxidants, whole-grain, Omega-3, and the ubiquitous, meaningless “light.” Then there are the “organic” and “local” labels, which extend the “good for me” feeling to a wider circle (“good for the earth” and “good for our children’s children”). Lately the question of justice has come into play, as I have had to decide whether my coffee beans should be “fair trade” (“good for the hard-working people of Sumatra, wherever that is”). Now the obligation of discernment has extended even to the convenience of the rotisserie counter.

I am a man of my word, though, and here was a chance to keep my promise. I would grab the one free-range chicken on display—the limit of what the ethical-meat market can currently bear. I would be the only ethical consumer of a rotisserie chicken in my neighborhood that evening. As we sat down to dinner, my family and I would give thanks for the chicken’s freedom. Our consciences would finally be cleansed of the taint of factory farming—wait, sixteen dollars?! I saw the price tag and withdrew my hand from beneath the heat lamps. Justice for chickens doesn’t come cheap.

I chose the herb blend and went home feeling guilty. But I knew Lent was just around the corner. The chickens would have to wait for me to try my resolve again.

Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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