‘Tastes Like Chicken’ Will Have You Wanting Seconds

All the great information in Emelyn Rude's Tastes Like Chicken is distractingly indulgent and at times appears to lack direction.

Pigs accounted for more than half of all animal executions in the Middle Ages. One sow was publicly executed for the crime of eating a four month-old girl. Tastes Like Chicken doesn’t reveal the method of execution or if the sow was eaten. I’d imagine a beheading with a nice slow braise to get that pork shoulder fork tender.

This has nothing to do with chicken or what it tastes like, but it is a sample of the fact soup prepared and served rather cold by Emelyn Rude.

Rude explains in the introduction how Tastes Like Chicken will tell “a story of agriculture science and human health, of the economics of feeding a nation and the politics that encircle the making and eating of food. But on a more intimate level, this is really just the story of dinner.” Rude also pursues a more specific question: how and why is chicken so popular today when it spent much of its domesticated life neglected in favor of pork and beef?

This question and the story of dinner never becomes a thesis and the information presented never reaches a finer point. We wander from the early days of domestication in South East Asia to the southern fried chicken of the American Civil War to the 99 billion meals and counting from the McDonald’s restaurants of today. As we move through these eras we’re given a lot of historical information about culinary life and health, and much of it is genuinely fascinating. Unfortunately, the pursuit of this information can lead us astray from the topic of the chapter. Medieval animal executions being just such an example.

Let’s take a moment to retrace the steps from the opening of chapter two, ‘A Healing Broth’, to the point about animal executions. Rude begins by discussing President Harrison’s need for chicken broth to combat what was likely typhoid fever (it didn’t work). We move on to Moses Maimonides and his belief in the healing properties of chicken soup, or what is now called “Jewish Penicillin”. Then it’s the English who use chicken soup to settle stomachs — they did not consume much chicken, otherwise. The English prefer beef. The Romans were predisposed to plants and thought the meat eating Britons were barbaric.

Now we’re on Galenism and its regulation of the medieval English diet. There’s a brief history of Galen of Pergamon and how his medical philosophy led the English to love the meat of land animals. From there we’re told that the symbol of France is a rooster, thus making their rivals in England suspicious of the bird. Besides, scrawny medieval chickens were not even considered a meat, which brings us to a discussion of the term ‘meat’. Besides, scrawny medieval chickens were not even considered a meat, which brings us to a discussion of the term ‘meat’. From there we learn about the beef eating habits of the English. Then it’s over to the Americas for a discussion of pork consumption. Then we’re back to medieval Europe learning about pigs and how they were crafty nuisances worthy of capital punishment.

I can see how this all fits together, it’s in service of showing how the idea of chicken soup as a meal for the ill developed over time. Every such point raised is something I would be interested in knowing more about. Yet some of these facts are so glancing or inconsequential discussed that they may as well not be included. Opening the topic of animal executions and specifying the crime for which a particular sow was executed isn’t necessary in a chapter about chicken soup.

But now that I know this — and I do enjoy knowing this — I have so many more questions. In the Middle Ages, were chickens executed as the pig was? Does publicly executing, rather than slaughtering or putting down an animal, suggest that people believed the birds possessed a conscience or a sense of guilt? And were they eaten? Rude and Tastes Like Chicken do not have the answers.

It’s all distractingly indulgent, but it makes Tastes Like Chicken appear to lack direction. I can’t help but get lost in all the information as we jump from one time period to another and from one juicy fact to another. Perhaps the intention is to convey a more conversational tone. This is certainly how it reads to me. Details and facts arise as they might if you were speaking with Rude about the history of chicken dinner. It can, however, be frustrating when the conversation strays from the topic. Frustrating may be the best way to describe Tastes Like Chicken. It’s frustrating when it tells us too much and when it tells us too little.

There’s so much good information complied in Tastes Like Chicken I might recommend it for the purpose of amassing some great trivia. Rude does deliver on one key question: Why do so many other foods taste like chicken? The answer is given early on, so I don’t think spoilers really apply (you can also just Google it). “The hypothesis is that all four-limb vertebrate animals share a common ancestry, and therefore a common flavor.” Coloumbus remarked on the chicken-like flavor in iguana meat and it’s possible the Tyrannosaurus Rex might have tasted like chicken, if one were inclined to give it a try.

RATING 6 / 10