“Versatile, affordable chicken has grown in popularity”

From two years ago:

Awhile ago I was cleaning out the closet and found some old unread magazines. Good stuff. As we’ve discussed before, lots of things are better read a few years late.

Today I was reading the 18 Nov 2004 issue of the London Review of Books, which contained (among other things) the following:

– A review by Jenny Diski of a biography of Stanley Milgram. Diski appears to want to debunk:

Milgram was a whiz at devising sexy experiments, but barely interested in any theoretical basis for them. They all have the same instant attractiveness of style, and then an underlying emptiness.

Huh? Michael Jordan couldn’t hit the curveball and he was reportedly an easy mark for golf hustlers but that doesn’t diminish his greatness on the basketball court.

She also criticizes Milgram for being “no help at all” for solving international disputes. OK, fine. I haven’t solved any international disputes either. Milgram, though, . . . he conducted an imaginative experiment whose results stunned the world. And then in his afterlife he must suffer the indignity of someone writing that his findings are useless because people still haven’t absorbed them. I agree with Diski that some theory might help, but it hardly seems to be Milgram’s fault that he was ahead of his time.

– A review by Patrick Collinson of a biography of Anne Boleyn. Mildly interesting stuff, and no worse for being a few years delayed. Anne Boleyn isn’t going anywhere.

– An article by Charles Glass on U.S. in Afghanistan. Apparently it was already clear in 2004 that it wasn’t working. Too bad the policymakers weren’t reading the London Review of Books. For me, though, it’s even more instructive to see this foretold six years ago.

– A review by Wyatt Mason of a book by David Foster Wallace. Mason reviews in detail a story with a complicated caught-in-a-dream plot which the critic James Wood, writing for the New Republic, got completely wrong. Wood got a key plot point backwards and as a result misunderstands the story and blames Wallace for creating an unsympathetic character.

Again, the time lag adds an interesting twist. I was curious as to whether Wood ever acknowledged Mason’s correctly, or apologized to Wallace for misreading his story, so I Googled *james wood david foster wallace*. What turned up was a report by James Yeh of a lecture by Wood at the 92nd St. Y on Wallace after the author’s death. Discussing a later book by Wallace, Wood said, “Wallace gives you the key, overexplaining the hand, instead of actually being enigmatic, like Beckett.”

I dunno: After reading Wood’s earlier review, maybe Wallace felt he had to overexplain. Damned if you do, etc.

– A review by Hugh Pennington of some books about supermarkets that contains the arresting (to me) line:

Consumption [of chicken] in the US has increased steadily since Herbert Hoover’s promise of ‘a chicken in every pot’ in 1928; it rose a hundredfold between 1934 and 1994, from a quarter of a chicken a year to half a chicken a week.

A hundredfold—that’s a lot! I thought it best to look this one up so I Googled “chicken consumption usda” and came up with this document by Jean Buzby and Hodan Farah, which contains this delightfully-titled graph:


OK, so it wasn’t a hundredfold increase, actually only sixfold. People were eating way more than a quarter of a chicken a year in 1934. And chicken consumption did not increase steadily since 1928. The curve is flat until the early 1940s.

This got me curious: who is Hugh Pennington, exactly? In that issue of the LRB, it says he “sits on committees that advise the World Food Programme and the Food Standards Agency. I guess he was just having a bad day, or maybe his assistant gave him some bad figures. Too bad they didn’t have Google back in 1994 or he could’ve looked up the numbers directly. “A hundredfold” . . . didn’t that strike him as a big number??

Update: I emailed the contact person at the Department of Agriculture to sort out the chicken figures, but they never got back to me.

15 thoughts on ““Versatile, affordable chicken has grown in popularity”

  1. I think there is something here about optimal animal size for mass production.

    But I would have thought turkeys would be up there too.

    Maybe close substitutes for production, but demand favors chicken taste.

    And what about rabbits? They are small, breed and grow fast, taste like chicken, kind of, but more bony. But then again, they are furry….

    • I once received an advertising flyer for an astronomy textbook, in the form of the National Enquirer and similar rags. One of the headlines was “Scientists Kill, Eat Alien. Say It Tastes Like Chicken.”

  2. Actually, Milgram conducted not one, but (at least) two very important experiments: the well-known Obedience Experiment, but also the letter experiment that led to the “six degrees of separation”-idea.

  3. Interestingly Chicken and Turkey consumption seem not much affected by the Great Depression.

    “quarter of a chicken” sounds suspicious as it is: none of the books from that era portray eating chicken as THAT much of a special event. A quarter bird a year would have made it a memorable event.

    From the above graph it looks like for most of the Depression the average meat consumption of an American was around 90 lbs-per-year. That sounds like a tad more than what I’d have expected.

    • One thing to consider is at the time most chickens would have been home grown, hence not in the statistics

  4. Eveyone can have a bad day with or without a chicken. My favourite is the introductory sentence in a Scientific American article that reads: “As late as the end of the 19th century, even a visionary like Jules Verne could not imagine a city with more than a million inhabitants”.

    Of course anyone familiar with William Playfair’s work would know that London UK had a population of ~1.1 million at the beginning of the 19th Century and most estimates put the population of Rome somewhere about 1 million in sthe time of Caesar Agustus. I guess they don’t teach history to urban planners.

    • The idea that ancient Rome had a million population is oddly persistent. For a concise but detailed refutation, see Colin McEvedy’s http://www.amazon.com/New-Penguin-Atlas-Ancient-History/dp/0140513485/

      One argument among several given by McEvedy is then when Rome passed 1 million in the 20th century, it was much bigger in size than the ancient city. Adjustments for differences in density don’t affect the main conclusion, that it was much smaller in size.

      • Thanks Nick, I’ll try and check it out. It sounds rather interesting I have to admit that I have just taked the estimate for granted. It seemed to be an ‘assumption’ that while not provable seemed to fit historians’ assumptions though I never really saw an actual reference but then I was not interested enough in Rome’s population to try and track it down.

  5. In more recent versions of this graph chicken has turned over and started going down. Good news for the chickens (although it’s not like individual chickens are being set free because of this).

  6. The more interesting critiques of Milgram’s “small worlds” studies that I’ve read (sorry, no cite) are right up this blog’s alley. The successful experiment, the one reported in undergrad psychology texts, was at least his third try, and the first experiments produced results too weak to (i.e., no or very few delivered packets through the network) to publish. In the famous study, the “sample” of initial seeds was drawn from a list of stock owners (i.e., high SES) and respondents to a newspaper advertisement that asked for people who were sociable. The details of the experiment (e.g., did the envelopes have the Harvard seal and “Important Document” stamped on the outside? Handwritten addresses?) were never published or vetted in peer review. The “6 degrees” finding only refers to the <50% of the packets that made it to their targets, although to be fair this important detail could have been lost after the fact, as the study became popular and captured the public's imagination.

  7. Today’s headline from The Onion

    “American Egg Council Mulls It Over, Suggests Eggs”

    (There’s no story or picture, just the headline, so I’m not including the link. For those who don’t know, The Onion is a humor site.)

  8. cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck, CLUCK! (scatters)


    Cluck C. Chicken, Ph.C.

    (More serious, looking forward to your next stopover at census.)

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