Part I. In Theory
Chicken feet. Many people will probably feel a little sick just reading those words, and yet for most of our bubbies, chicken feet were an essential ingredient for a rich, nutritious soup stock. And according to nutrition writer Sally Fallon, it was with good reason. "Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons--stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain." Maimonides prescribed chicken soup for a range of maladies (Rosner, Fred. The Medical Legacy of Moses Maimonides. KTAV Publishing House, 1998, p. 243). The American cooking classic The Joy of Cooking also has high praise for the humble foot and calls it "perfect for stock." (Rombauer, Irma, et al. The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking. Scribner, 1997, p. 579) (For studies on positive health effects of chicken soup, see, e.g., here).
Besides the general health-fortifying qualities of chicken soup, chicken feet are full of gelatin. "Gelatin acts first and foremost as an aid to digestion and has been used successfully in the treatment of many intenstinal disorders, including hyperacidity, colitis and Crohn's disease. Although gelatin is by no means a complete protein, containing only the amino acids arginine and glycine in large amounts, it acts as a protein sparer, allowing the body to more fully utilize the complete proteins that are taken in." (Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing, 2001, pp. 116-117). So if chicken feet are so good, how did they disappear from our soup?
Well, one answer is that convenience became the catchword of the latter part of the 20th century. People took less time to prepare their own food and depended more and more on the burgeoning industrial food complex. Traditional soup stocks at home and even in most restaurants were replaced by less expensive synthetic flavorings and vegetable oils, and for soup this meant soup mixes and instant soups, which did make life more convenient, but at what cost? Food producers totally embraced those changes, and heimish food producers were no different.
For instance, someone recently gave me a pack of Manischewitz Vegetable Soup Mix. The company's tag-line is "Quality Since 1888"... sounds wholesome and traditional, right? Just like Bubbe made. But among the ingredients are: partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, and corn starch. Back in Bubbe's day, soy oil was used in the US in the manufacture of paint and glue products, not as food. (Lierre, Keith. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. PM Press, 2009, p. 224). And soybean oil and cottonseed oil are both extracted from two of the four main genetically modified crops grown in the world. Cotton is not even classified as a food crop and therefore more potent pesticides are applied liberally to it. It sounds like the definition of "quality" has changed a little around Manishewitz since 1888. But, life is more convenient. All I have to do is drop that soup mix in a pot of boiling water and let it simmer for two hours, and it tastes pretty good.
Real chicken soup is, however, still a Shabbos-table staple, although without the feet. And why is that? Well, when our society embraced synthetics, chicken feet became kind of gross and the market was lost. Today, you can't get ahold of chicken feet even if you try. When you buy a whole kosher chicken at Trader Joe's, the word "whole" is qualified; it comes with a chicken body and maybe a neck if you're lucky, but no gizzard, no heart, no liver, and certainly no feet. In fact, you can even buy your kosher chicken with no skin or bones, in a nice little plastic package, if you want, without all the stuff that's great for making stock, and they charge more for it.
So what do they do with the feet that belonged to all these chicken bodies? They export them to people who still value chicken feet. According to documentation on the USDA website, $64 million worth of chicken feet were exported to Hong Kong in 2005 alone. I have read one estimate that the chicken foot export business to China is today worth over $380 million per year. Meanwhile, they're taking all those good chicken feet in exchange for lead-laden toys for our children.
That being said, those chicken feet are from factory farms and maybe there is some wisdom in avoiding factory-farmed chicken feet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the effects of factory farming "include groundwater contamination, air contamination, respiratory disease, and the creation and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria." Yum. Taking into consideration that those effects are just on the community around the farm, I don't really want to take the risk of eating the feet of the chickens who lived on the farm. Fine, so send them to China.
Part II. In Reality
I want to contrast factory farm conditions to a polyculture farm, where, rather than approaching farming from a factory model, it is instead approached as an ecosystem, similar in the way it functions to a forest or plain (and similar, I imagine, to the farming practices that the Alte Rebbe encouraged his brethren to take up). Yesterday I spent the day on such a farm in the Santa Cruz mountains. It's called Green Oaks Creek Farm and about thirty of us were gathered for the shechting, plucking, eviscerating, and salting of a number of poulet rouge chickens. The chickens were raised entirely on pasture, specifically, on a fallow field which was at rest between growth cycles. The chickens ate bugs, rodents, seeds, and whatever else they found in the field, in addition to certified organic feed, and in exchange they left their droppings as manure and their thighs became plump. They were not treated with antibiotics or growth stimulants, which are de rigueur in factory farming.
We were there working with Caleb Barron, the actual farmer who had raised the chickens, Naf Hanau, a compassionate shochet who is a personal acquaintance of mine, and Rabbi Seth Mandel as the mashgiach, overseeing the process for the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California. I was particularly impressed by Rabbi Mandel's knowledge and experience in the industry, and his down-to-earth and approachable manner. I also was thankful to Anna Hanau, under whose tutelage I worked as an organic farmer during the summer of 2008. She was slated as the event "mentor," and indeed she gave me a couple tips on evisceration. The event was organized by Hazon in conjunction with the Hazon Jewish Food Conference taking place over this weekend in Northern California, and I am very thankful to have been a participant.
Was it beautiful? In a certain way, yes. Although the most accurate descriptor for me at the time was "natural." However cheesy it sounds, it felt like I was back in place, back in the "Circle of Life." I was back with Adam haRishon who named all the creatures, when he slaughtered his first animal and was thankful to G-d; back with Avraham Avinu, raising flocks in the pastures of Bethel. For one morning, I was back in that circle, and it felt natural, and because of that it was beautiful. Please don't misunderstand--there is nothing innately beautiful in taking another creature's life; nor about watching a chicken's body flail as its blood drains and its dying nerves fire hotly; nor is it innately beautiful reaching inside a chicken's carcass and pulling out a handful of guts. But to know that it can be done with respect, that we can raise G-d's creatures with respect, and respectfully kill them as G-d allowed, that is beautiful. The process was flanked by explicit praise of G-d as halacha prescribes, al pi r'tzono yishtabach shemo.
Needless to say, I took a bag of feet home and I will be making some gelatinous soup stock.