Book Review: Chickens: Their Natural And Unnatural Histories

Chickens:  Their Natural And Unnatural Histories, by Janet Lembke

I had to wait for this book for nearly a month after having requested from the library.  Was it worth the wait to read, even if I managed to devour this book as readily as I devoured some fried chicken while I was reading the book?  In a word, yes.  It is no surprise to anyone that I am immensely fond of chickens [1].  While I have never kept chickens myself, I have known some urban chicken farmers and long viewed chickens not only as a tasty food but also as a source for rich metaphorical and figurative language and understanding.  Perhaps most poignantly is the way that examining my view chickens has helped me see the sort of behavior that marks a predator, with an eye to looking at how chickens are developing in order to see how they would satisfy my own hunger without a sentimental tie for chickens [2] or any concern for their well-being on their own terms.  Admittedly, I find my predatory attitude towards poultry more than a little bit terrifying, even if it is also the source of a great deal of humor with others in my habit of giving names of food dishes to those chickens I have seen around me.

At a bit more than 200 pages, the author manages to cover a consider breadth as well as depth relating to chickens.  The author is rather clever in pointing to chickens both as a set of related species with a natural history (although this is full of evolutionary myths as ridiculous as those recounted by credulous ancients) as well as an unnatural history that has been shaped by mankind and its varied uses for chickens throughout history.  Beginning with a discussion of the author’s desire to own chickens that was long delayed (1) and ending with a story of the author’s eventual enjoyment as an urban chicken farmer (16) including an odd but entertaining blessing of the hen (appendix), the rest of this book is filled with a great deal of fascinating and entertaining and varied material.  Included is a discussion about the mythological natural history of the chicken and its domestication (2), the chicken through various ages like the classical world (3), the Middle Ages (4), the Renaissance (5), chickens as medicine (6), the early modern period (7), the modern period (8), and even flights of fancy like resurrected chicken (9) and the conquering chicken and its global travels (10).  The author then turns her attention to such important aspects as eggs (11), chickens as they are viewed by science (12), chickens in a wide variety of literature (13), as well as people who care for chickens (14) and some tasty recipes for chicken (15).  The book closes with some notes and a bibliography to encourage further reading for chicken-lovers.

It is obvious from looking at this book that the author has a deep love of chickens and a sense of the importance of humane treatment of the animals, showing herself deeply critical of industrial poultry raising techniques as well as the immense spread of cockfighting that can still be found in some parts of the world like East Asia, something I have witnessed myself in my own travels.  The author shows a great deal of happiness in sharing various myths and stories about chickens as well as the importance of early Egypt in establishing patterns of artificial incubation that would be copied by later chicken farmers.  The author also loves passing off the ridiculous myths of the ancient world about how to tenderize chickens through fear (not a good idea) or the thought that thunder made addled eggs, but doesn’t realize that the ideas she parrots about the supposed evolution of chickens is just as ridiculous in a less artistic way as the stories she mocks the ancients for believing, but as long as the reader understands this the book can be read profitably for its mixture of sound insight, obvious sentimentality, and sublime ridiculousness.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example, the following quote from pages 204 and 205 of this book, taken from another book, The Chicken Book:  “Chickens are not pets; they are chickens; they are producers; they exist to lay eggs and to be eaten.  Never name a chicken.  To do this is merely cute–and silly–and an abuse of names.  This does not mean that you cannot enjoy, admire, and love chickens individually and collectively; it just means that you cannot sentimentalize and falsify your relationship to chickens.”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: Chickens: Their Natural And Unnatural Histories

  1. Pingback: The Chicken Whisperer Is In | Edge Induced Cohesion

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