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Chickening out of organic: November 2012

posted Dec 9, 2012, 12:55 PM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Dec 10, 2012, 11:45 AM ]
Apparently I need to go on a cookery course: the school's version of chicken pie is much nicer than mine.  Stunned, slightly hurt and keen to get to the bottom of the ultimate in put downs, I asked Maths Geek to clarify exactly what it was, in concrete real terms, about school's chicken pie that beat mine. 
"Well, Mum, first of all, it is never burned".  Confusion here: despite regularly burning their pureed prunes and setting off the smoke alarm when weaning the boys in my sleep deprived haze years ago, I am not aware that I have ever burned their chicken pie. 
"Also, their gravy is much nicer than yours". OK.  Down to personal preference. I'll accept that reason. 
"And the chicken is cut up much neater than yours. You know, little squares". 
"Technically, Maths Geek," I mused to myself, "I think you mean cubes".  Outwardly, I sighed and mumbled a defeated "Oh, ok,".  
I presume Maths Geek is describing those cubes of processed, watery excuses for chicken that I have managed to avoid for over a year, little suspecting that he may infact be getting regular doses via his school dinners, despite their promise that they serve Red Tractor chicken (whatever that promises). 

Since our nation's favourite celebrity chefs have highlighted the plight of standard chickens and disgusted us by demonstrating just what is in cheap processed chicken products (you know, the stuff that would form a great horror movie) I have felt guilty about buying and eating any chicken that is not organic or free-range. Gone were the days when I would tuck into a chicken tikka massala from our favourite takeaway (not that we eat much takeaway anymore in this era of ever escalating fuel bills), preferring to stick instead to chana massala or sag paneer.  Whenever time or money pressures have been too much and I have reverted to type, I have felt like I have been poisoning our children by giving them substandard food. For in this day and age of trendy organic, serving up standard chicken is almost tantamount to neglect! 

Cheap chicken, we are told, is cruelty to the chickens and to our children. According to Compassion in World Farming, standard, intensively reared chickens are stressed, often disabled from their cramped conditions and they endure burns they receive from the ammonia produced by their waste. They are less healthy to eat than they were when I was a child, having a higher fat content than before, and the intensive conditions lead to a lot more diseases that are passed through to us, the consumers.  Reading information like that, how on earth can I justify buying standard chicken to cook or eat when dining out? 
However, it is all too easy to think about these issues in linear, black and white dimensions, assuming that buying organic and free range is the only answer.  But these two seemingly ethical choices are not without their problems.  Compassion in World Farming notes that in the UK we now eat more chicken per month than we did per year sixty years ago. As a global population the demand for meat, including poultry, is sky-rocketing. With an exploding number of bellies all desperate to enjoy ever increasing amounts of meat, organic and free range poultry may not be able to fulfill billions of people's chicken desires without seriously extending agricultural land into already diminishing forest and woodland. This, surely, is not good for the environment, however environmentally friendly these methods are in comparison to intensive poultry rearing.  So is 'organic' a self serving, middle class Western ideal? A reassuring choice where the concerned Dinner Lady can lull themsleves into a smug sense of security?  If I am expecting my Four and a half bellies to eat only organic poultry, what is necessary for us must surely be necessary for the family in Bangladesh, and I am sure they are not eating organic chicken on the scale that we are.  That is not fair, cannot be ethical.

We are advised to read the labels clearly, to think carefully about the difference between buying free range/ organic/ RSCPA Freedom Food (apparently good) rather than Red tractor farm assured (I am told this does not guarantee the standards of the previous labels, although when I read the standards on line it is all gobbledigook to me!). Similarly, next time I buy a chicken for our Sunday roast I will think carefully about what I want to achieve.  If I am wanting to make sure that the chickens have had a clucky old life and are clean of antibiotics I shall of course choose organic or free range. On the other hand, if I am aiming to keep my carbon chicken print low, I may have to think a little harder. 

Worst of the waste

- nine eggs: 3 were from a box which I had saved to eat the night we got home from our half term holiday. I forgot I had been so organised and they sat at the back of the fridge and passed their use by date.  The other six smashed as they fell out of the shopping bag. 

- chicken soup, made lovingly by Gigi for us using left over scraps of chicken and homemade chicken stock. We ate it for one meal and Gigi left the remains in a tupperware pot in the fridge. I forgot it was there and left it for over a week: I hope you are not reading this, Gigi, and if you are I am so sorry! 

Best food saves

- bowl of left over boiled potatoes, sliced and fried in little olive oil and butter for a side dish to go with some poached fish. Delicious. Would have been even nicer cooked in goose fat. 

- Beetroot rosti which I created when I realised I had more beetroots than I knew what to do with. I served this with a large blob of creme fraiche which melted luxuriously on top of the warmed rosti and left over seasonal turkey on the side. 

-With a dozen eggs sitting in the fridge, a bag of potatoes and a pathetic looking cauliflower all shouting at me for attention, I looked up 'cauliflower recipes'  on the internet and made a potato, egg and cauliflower curry