If we were back in the 1920s right now, and you were planning a holiday meal, it would almost certainly not include chicken nless you were either lucky or rich. Having chicken for holidays happens all the time today, but back then, chicken on the menu was either a sign of affluence or that you lived on a farm and had your own chickens. When Herbert Hoover was using “a chicken in every pot” as a campaign slogan back in the late 1920s, chicken was such a rare and expensive treat that people thought Hoover’s promise was about as realistic as promising them pie in the sky. Few people believed that anyone could deliver on that promise.
All this changed because of a fortunate accident that happened near where Frank grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In 1923, when Mrs. Wilmer Steele, of nearby Sussex County, was ordering baby chicks for her laying flock, someone processing the order got a zero wrong. Instead of the 50 chicks she was counting on, Mrs. Steele received 500 baby chicks. She found herself faced with the twin problems of first, the expense of feeding so many birds, and second, the hassle of trying to sell more eggs than the market in Sussex County could possibly absorb.
The solution she came up with changed the eating patterns not just of Sussex County, but of most of the world as well. It also had a lot to do with Frank’s future career. Up until then, chicken production was no more than an adjunct to egg production and when someone had chicken to eat, it was most likely a “spent hen,” a tough old bird which no longer laid a sufficient number of eggs to pay her feed costs. Mrs. Steele transformed all this by deciding to sell all her extra baby chicks for meat when they were only a few months old and hadn’t yet cost her too much in feed.
The young and tender meat from these birds made them an instant success. Consumers loved them, and Mrs. Steele discovered that raising chickens entirely for meat rather than for producing eggs, was a lucrative business.
Other egg producers, including Frank and his father, Arthur W. Perdue, eventually switched over to growing chickens for meat rather than for eggs. Progressive farmers like the Perdues were soon breeding their chickens for larger size, faster growth, and better conversion of feed to meat something no one had thought about when chickens were grown only for egg production. As a result of this specialization, the poultrymen were able to bring the cost of chicken down far enough so that it became affordable for everyone.
These changes literally transformed our eating habits. In 1923, we Americans didn’t consume a pound of broiler chicken per person in a year; today we’re eating about 70 pounds each per year. And where once only the rich could feature chicken for a holiday meal, now everyone can and many do.
The holiday recipes that follow were developed by the Perdue home economists. You’ll find them arranged by date, beginning with January. I’ve included the sample menus that accompanied the original recipes. My favorite among them is the Fourth of July menu that comes from Frank’s family.
Chicken Recipes – The Perdue Chicken Cookbook
Copyright (C) by Mitzi Perdue – Used with Permission