Cold Turkey on Chicken Breasts
Could you and your family go for a whole month without consuming chicken breasts? Does the thought of that startle you, or even horrify you? Does it seem silly?
I just posed this question to the friend who inspired this challenge. I think she would have been more eager to go for a month without washing her hair. She tried to bargain with me. Why not just two weeks? I could hear her thoughts, “Gosh, I love Jill and I get what she’s trying to do but this is just going too far.”
The idea itself was the outcome of a conversation I’d had with her a few weeks ago. She asked me what I knew about the chicken breasts that I bought from Jim when I lived back in Hinsdale, IL. Were they organic?
I explained that I’d been told they were free of solutions, antibiotics and hormones. We don’t really consume enough for it to matter that much to me. Their role in my foodlife is to accommodate guests who are picky, augment chicken pickin’s when I don’t have enough for a particular dish (chicken pickin’s are the bits of meat I pull off a roasted chicken and save for later use) and occasionally make baked chicken nuggets. I hadn’t thought about it, but I rarely use them anymore because- frankly- they bore me.
Elena was astonished. Her astonishment astonished me. So I asked, “How often do you eat chicken breasts?”
The astonishment continued. Her answer? Two to four times a week.
Bleeeeech! Gag! Ugh! You have GOT to be kidding me. How can you stand that?!
And then- in a cinematic, hazy flashback sequence- I remembered myself doing that same thing just a few short years ago. I was probably cooking chicken breasts at least twice a week.
Contemplation of this reality has disquieted my culinary soul ever since. The reality is, Elena and her family are typical. They’re trying to make good choices. They read parenting magazines and pay attention to nutrition segments on morning talk shows and watch Dr. Oz.
The basic message they absorb is this: An occasional steak or pork chop isn’t a total abomination. Fish is good but it might poison you and might be bad for the environment. Quinoa and farro are nice ideas but you need protein, protein, protein. Seriously, you can’t get enough lean protein. And what’s our favorite lean protein?
Let’s say it together: “Chicken Breasts!”
This is bullshit.
What’s my beef with chicken? I have a lot of them.
• It is bland, boring and generally unimaginative. There is not a cookbook out there that will change that. You probably don’t really realize this. You may find it insulting that I’ve so pretentiously passed judgment on your tastes. Hear me out.
Have you ever read the children’s book, “Priscilla and the Pink Planet?” In the book, Priscilla lives in a world where everything is pink (Parents of little girls probably think they live there now.). Priscilla develops the idea that there might be other colors, and goes on a quest to discover where they might be found. She encounters The Great Queen of Pink, who- so enamored of the beauty of the color pink- banished other colors from the rainbow.
Are you The Great Queen of Chicken Breasts- so enamored of their simplicity and likability that you’ve banished all other proteins from your planet?
• It doesn’t stretch your family’s palates. It is genuinely important to set the expectation of the unexpected at dinner. I know you serve chicken breast because you know your kids will usually eat it without objection. That’s precisely the problem.
• You use it to shelter yourself and your family from the fact that what you are consuming is a dead animal. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are free of blood, bones and sinew. You just LOVE that about them, don’t you? Well folks, I’ve observed that those values coexist with a general lack of gratitude for and paranoia about food. When you see your meat as a whole animal, you start to care a lot more about the circumstances of its life as it pertains to your plate.
Those reasons are all compelling but here’s the big reason: Because you are eating so much chicken, you are not eating other proteins: fish, turkey, lentils, quinoa, nuts, beef, scallops, duck, eggs, rabbit, tempeh, farro, ricotta. You are not getting their nutritional benefits. All of these things have very different nutritional profiles.
I am thoroughly convinced that one of the most important and oft-neglected food choices we should be making is variety. Our family rarely eats the same protein more than twice in the same month- much less in the same week.
If it makes you feel a little better, most of the families I know are a bit hung up on protein consumption. I run about 15 miles a week and lift heavy free-weights about 3-hours a week- like a dude, not little girly-weights. I don’t take protein supplements. I only eat meat at most once a day as a side-dish sized portion and most weeks my diet is totally vegetarian for three days out of the week. My iron counts are great- as are those of my kids- and none of us is suffering at all. Eating less of any kind of meat is better for your health, your bank account, and the environment. [Mark Bittman recently contributed a great op-ed piece on this topic in the NY Times that’s worth reading.]
So back to my little challenge-
I’ve spoken with a few family cooks who really need to try this. They are exceedingly apprehensive. They look stressed out by the thought of it. They’re the ones I really want.
I’m looking for a minimum of 10 families who will sign on to give up chicken breasts for one month.
Why a whole month? I’ve had plenty of first-hand experience with making life changes: quitting smoking, giving up processed food, losing weight, learning to exercise daily, and on and on. I’ve found the month-long period to be a bit of a magic number. The first week is shocking and daunting. In week two, you’re starting to get a grip on the change. In week three, you’re hitting a bit of a stride. By the end of week four, your new behaviors and choices may be happening below the surface. You may not even realize what you’re still doing.
Could there be a better time of year to shake up your foodlife? You’ve got a whole summer’s bounty of produce ahead of you. Farmer’s markets are everywhere. Fresh herbs will be growing faster than you can eat them.
Misery loves company- though I hope this doesn’t actually make you miserable. Take on the challenge with your neighbor, best friend or sister-in-law. You’ll also have the opportunity to get to know other students in the kind of camaraderie that only forms through shared suffering.
You may cook and consume a whole chicken. Heck, you could even cut up two whole chickens into parts, eat the breasts one night, the legs and thighs another and then use the carcass for soup. You must simply consume the whole chicken by the end of the month.
Yes, you may eat a processed chicken nugget. (You may also eat bugs. I wouldn’t do that either, but its up to you). Trust me- that chicken nugget is made of everything but white meat chicken breast, so it’s fair game.
I will support you. We will check in regularly. I will set you up with lots and lots of links to recipe suggestions each week. I will be around to answer your questions, or even just listen to you bitch at me about my stupid project.
You’ll all learn a lot and everyone will take away something really different. I can’t wait to learn from you all.
So I’m waiting. Email me (email@example.com) or let me know through Facebook or Twitter that you’re like to join the challenge. As soon as I get my ten bold souls, we’ll get started.