Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Real Food TV?

Watching "Hugh's Chicken Run," a three-part series on the moral and culinary offense that is cage-raised chicken that ran on the UK's Channel 4 last month, I kept wondering - will I ever see anything like this on American TV? But actually, why not? Sure, it was advocacy journalism. But it was also marvelous reality TV. (Here's a link to some clips. )
Here's the concept: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose River Cottage Meat Book was just released in the US, decided to try to get his local market town to give up eating, or selling, caged birds. He held town meetings, pushed take-away chicken restaurants to offer free-range kebabs, and lobbied (and got thrown out of) supermarkets.
And in an elaborate show-and-tell, he filled a big shed with chickens - caged at one end, commercial-style free-range at the other and invited townspeople in to take a look. In one clip - which Channel 4 milked for all it was worth - Hugh, who nurses his own sick chickens back to health, stood weeping at the sight of the half dead chickens which, in his role as a commercial chicken grower, he would have to kill. (In the world of commercial chicken production, it costs more to treat a sick chicken than the chicken is worth.) "I don't want to kill any more chickens," he wailed.
Interesting, how many different things the word 'kill' can mean; is killing a healthy chicken for food a different moral act from killing a sick chicken because it's too much trouble to take care of it?
Hugh also persuaded a group of lower-income local folk to try growing their own pastured chickens on a nearby patch of vacant land, a project that, while largely successful, was also rife with conflict and contradiction. However much they liked Hugh, these new chicken farmers couldn't resist making cracks about his wealth (and his double-barreled name). The project nearly came to grief because the residents came to love their chickens so much they could hardly bear to kill them. And while celebrating the town's turn to free-range chicken, Hugh runs into the woman who became the leader of the project. She's at the supermarket, resolutely and resentfully buying a cheap commercial chicken because, she argues, that's all she (and many others) can afford.


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