Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food

Article excerpt

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food. By Steve Striffler. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. x, 195. Preface, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, index. $25.00.)

With this book, Steve Striffler gives us a powerful look behind the inexpensive and ubiquitous chicken that many of us buy in supermarkets. Building on solid work done in the new field of food politics, Striffler brings home the reality that eating is a political act. Biting into a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken links one inexorably to international chains of producers, processors, manufacturers, investors, politicians, and traders, and to a biological system of microbes with wide-ranging and potentially lethal effects on water and health. All of this is contingent on the policies we collectively make, whether we like it or not. Sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost.

While cheap chicken feeds the American public, it has hidden costs. Much of it is contaminated with substances that no one wants to ingest. The workers who process the chicken are laboring in inhuman environments for substandard wages. The farms that used to raise chickens have been replaced by giant corporations. The chickens that used to strut around farmyards now spend their short lives immobilized in indoor cages. The book is appropriately alarming, aimed frankly at arousing Americans to address the hidden danger and inhumanity inherent in overtly innocent food choices.

As an anthropologist, Striffler has functioned as plant worker, participant observer, interviewer, and scholar, while investigating and analyzing an impressively broad swath of the chicken industry. In just one piece of the project, he worked in a chicken processing plant in Northwest Arkansas, getting to know his co-workers and himself experiencing a small part of the pain and grinding boredom that visit many of them throughout the years of their degrading employment. Many of these workers come from Latin America, and Striffler's facility in Spanish enables him to explore the social, economic, political, and personal background to their appearance on the chicken line. While Striffler acknowledges the colossal injustice of their situations, he never falls into the trap of patronizing them or exploiting the pathos of their lives. He portrays his co-workers as hard-working and spirited individuals without a shred of self-pity, yet caught in a destructive system that ultimately ensnares "us," as well as "them. …

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