Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Great San Francisco Chicken Crisis

My Feathers are in a Right Old Flap
From last week's CUESA newsletter: "Beloved market mainstay Hoffman Game Birds announced that they will not attend the market in 2007".

After reading this mouthwatering post about her love affair with Hoffman chicken by Anita from Married with Dinner a month before Christmas, I resolved to get to know chicken a little better in 2007. We are not big chicken eaters in this household. We only buy it a few times a year. And when we buy it, yes, we buy bought Hoffmans. Why? Well, everyone said it was good, and it was. It tasted delicious. One time, before the existence of Hoffmans had been etched onto my cerebellum, I arrived at the famers market too early, more than 15 minutes before it opened even, and discovered a huge, long line of patient people snaking around the still empty neighbouring stalls. It was because I wondered what those people were queueing for at that time, that I first discovered Hoffmans. I spotted a work colleague in the queue and so I went and asked her what she was waiting for. "For the best chicken I ever tasted", she replied. How could I ignore such a recommendation?

I can't vouch for the authenticity of this webpage I found, but it seems well informed. This is what I discovered about how the Hoffman's raised their chickens:
At their farm in the San Joaquin Valley, the Hoffmans raise about 100,000 birds a year in flight pens that measure 50' x 300'. All of the birds are raised from their own breeding stock. The feed is milled by a local feed mill to the Hoffman's specifications from fresh whole grains that contain no steroids or antibiotics. The birds are free to roam in the flight pens where they can also forage on native weeds and grasses that can grow up to 3-feet high inside the pen.
Last week I was organised. I mean really organised. By Thursday I had scanned my new recipe book collection and decided upon a recipe for the potluck I would be attending on Saturday night. Heck, I had even written the shopping list, happy in the knowledge that I was making the most of one of my other private resolutions: to use up some of the things I already have in my pantry instead of buying new ingredients week after week. Yep, I was planning to make a chicken dish for a change.

So, then when I recieved the CUESA newsletter on Friday my feathers were thrown into a flap. With Hoffman gone, where would I buy good, well-raised chicken instead? I didn't know what I was going to do, it was too short notice to do find the time to do any research, but I resolved to go to the market as normal and just try The Golden Gate Meat Company or something. I wish I'd found these posts by Miss Steak & Dairy Queen on The Ethicurean before my trip because they give a good background to the dilemma:
1) Alas, Poor Rosie
2) A major clucking sound: The great Bay Area chicken shortage of 2007
3) Bay Area pastured poultry panic may be premature

Luckily for me, as things turned out, whilst I was perusing the frisee at Star Route, I couldn't help but eavesdrop on someone else's panicked no-Hoffman's-chicken conversation. "You can buy heritage chickens from Prather, but they are frozen", I overheard him saying to his friend. Hmm, I did not know that. I thought they just sold juicy beef and succulent lamb. So off I trotted to see the Prather guys, which is not really a hardship since they are all so cute and charming to boot.
"True Heritage Chicken cannot be found anywhere in the United States other than at a few farmers' markets. Thanks to Frank Reese, heritage chickens are available in significant numbers for the first time in 60 years."
Prather assured me that Heritage Chickens are the best kept, well-looked after chickens available on a large scale in the USA. By large we are still talking small - Prather told me they were the only independent store selling these Heritage birds. So what makes them so special? Read to this statement from Heritage:
"While it is hard to judge an animal's happiness, we believe that if an animal is able to act out its natural instincts while it is alive that it is happy. This is why all the animals we sell live outdoors as nature intended and maintains a natural diet. Every product we sell comes with a traceable label that allows our customers to verify our claims for themselves."
The downside is that they are frozen, not fresh, but I bought one all the same. It was just over $12 for a very small bird. I was really happy to find, once I had defrosted my chicken, that both the liver and giblets were included, especially as the recipe I had earmarked suggested using the liver too if at all possible.

But the problem is that Heritage chicken is from Kansas. Shouldn't I be buying local products? Should I buy Rosie's chicken from nearby Petaluma even though on her blog, Dairy Queen commented "“Rosie is a free range chicken, allowed to run and forage outdoors in an open-air, fenced area outside the barn.” Note use of the word “allowed,” as opposed to, say, “encouraged.” When Michael Pollan visited Petaluma Poultry, he saw not a single bird outside either time"? Or should I add to the air polution problem by driving over to Berkeley for my bird?

I guess it's something I am going to have to think about a little bit harder and a little bit longer. This surely is an omnivores dilemma...

PS - More about the bird and the recipe another day, this post is already long enough and rambling enough, even for me, and I wrote it.

2006 | Homemade Ricotta
2005 | Ha - Another Chicken Post!
The Great San Francisco Chicken Crisis


  • At 9/1/07 01:44, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Can't wait to see what dish you created.

  • At 9/1/07 01:48, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    Have just discovered your wonderful food blog, after searching high and low for a great Bakewell Tart.

    Thank you so much for sharing!!

    Adelaide, South Australia

  • At 9/1/07 02:19, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Sam

    We don't have access to Hoffman's but recently - well for the last year or so, we have always bought our meat and poultry from our local butchers who uses local farms for everything. I couldn't go back to the ordinary supermarket stuff now. It tastes so good from the farm. there is little or no waste and so much less fat. i reckon that realistically it is cheaper in the long run too.

    Following on from Annabel's comment, do you have a recipe for Bakewell pudding? I am interested because as a child I lived four miles from Bakewell in Derbyshire, and "the Pudding Shop" which claimed to have the original recipe said that they had locked it away in the vaults of a local bank............myth maybe, but they certainly weren't letting anyone near the recipe!! Meanwhile another local teashop - Byways - also claimed to have the original recipe. Neither of course were like the Bakewell Tart that is sold commercally, and both used the term Bakewell Pudding rather than tart..............

    So I would be very interested for your thoughts on this please? (Just out of curiousity!)


  • At 9/1/07 06:21, Blogger wheresmymind said…

    Man...I wish I could get some quasi-real chickens within walking distance of my house

  • At 9/1/07 07:20, Blogger Anita (Married... with dinner) said…

    Thanks for the sweet compliment, Sam. I wish I could say it dulls the pain of being Hoffman-less.

    I wrote a letter to Mrs Hoffman the day thati read the news, and asked her if she would please talk to the folks at Drewes and/or GG Meats about stocking her birds. Despite my intentions, I know I'll never make it to their lone Berkeley retailer.

    Can't wait to hear how the Prather chicken comes out. Frozen birds don't usually fare so well for roasting or grilling, which is how we prepare them 75% of the time, but I will keep an open mind.

  • At 9/1/07 11:44, Blogger Jennifer Maiser said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 9/1/07 13:04, Blogger Jennifer Maiser said…

    Though I haven't written about it, I often tell people "I don't care *where* your food comes from as long as you know where it comes from and have a good reason for choosing it."

    And this goes directly to that statement. You've done some serious due diligence. Prather Ranch is dedicated to making serious decisions about their animal sourcing. With them, I kind of feel like if it's good enough for Prather, it's good enough for me.

    And really, I would rather have a well-raised chicken that has travelled a little bit farther than a local chicken that we know wasn't as well taken care of.

    This is a true dilemma because there are so many shades of gray to it. And I'll take your chicken rambles any day ;)

  • At 9/1/07 13:25, Blogger Bee said…

    My friends generally think that I'm crazy for not eating (much) chicken, but I find that it's so much harder (and apparently getting even harder) to find quality chicken (and by that I mean something that's raised in a way that doesn't totally creep me out) than it is to find other kinds of meat. That said, your willingness to persevere may make me look a little harder next time I'm out shopping. I'm dying to hear how it tasted.


  • At 9/1/07 14:34, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    You are lucky to be able to get chicken's for $12. I was going to buy a small organic chicken yesterday until I read the label, €20! I'd love to be able to feed my family on organic but I'm afraid it's just too expensive. We do eat organic carrots though.

  • At 9/1/07 20:39, Blogger neil said…

    I feel for you losing your favourite brand of chook. Our fave here in Oz is the Glenloth brand and I would be very sad if they stopped trading. They're not organic but free range and what I've noticed over the years is that they are always heavy for their size - they look small but there is plenty of meat. We always get two meals from a 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) bird plus chicken stock between two adults and a six year old, which costs AUS$15 or about $2.50 a serve. When you buy a regular caged bird, you not only buy meat you get a lot of fat as well, about 1/2 a cup. With the free range we add fat or oil to it as it so lean and of course it tastes like meat not cotton wool.

  • At 9/1/07 20:55, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sam, a good chicken is wonderful, and hard to find. My attitude towards buying local is that it should only be done to support quality product. If you don't think there's a suitable local bird, then you should buy frozen.

    I can't wait to see your chicken recipes. For what it's worth, there are few things finer than a superbly roasted, crispy-skinned, juicily-fleshed chicken.

  • At 9/1/07 23:20, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Bonnie at Ethicurian is doing some research into where to find other good chickens in SF. She discovered Martinelli Farms chickens at Bryan's Meats in Laurel Heights, but was unable to source it. I have had one Martinelli chicken from Bryan's in Marin, and it was **really good.** But I don't know what the growing environment is for the birds either. (I'll ask Bryan... what the heck.)

  • At 10/1/07 05:26, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I found your blog among the nominees for the food blog awards. It's beautiful. Congratulations and best wishes for a very good 2007.

  • At 10/1/07 07:40, Blogger Sam said…

    Hi Everyone - don't get too excited about the dish I created - and well I didnt really create it - I just copied it from a book.

    Sally - unfortunately I don't know the secret bakewell pudding recipe, I am not sure I have even eaten one - sometimes I do make a crustless version of my bakewell tart however and it is scrumptious. I have tried to read up about it on the net, but other than that I am not sure where to point you? sorry.

    Anita - maybe you should start a campaign? I would sign a petition!

    Jenn- thanks - I am thinking the journey to Berkeley might be better because fresh chicken wins over frozen for me.

    Bee - it's tough to find as you can see, even here in the Bay Area where a great deal of people actually care about these things.

    Beccy - we arent talking organic in particular here since Hoffman's are not certified so (although they are raised without pesticides), we are actually talking about chickens which are not raised in horrendous conditions. If we can't afford to buy these, perhaps we shouldnt be eating chickens?

    Neil - maybe I need to move down under?

    Rob - you are correct which is why I might make the effort to do a 'chicken run' across the bridge together with a few other people once in a while when we want to eat chicken. I already have other people interested.

    Cookie crumb - you didn't actually read my post did you? I linked to the Ethicurean 3 x including the article you are suggesting and quoted them once in another part of the post. Please do ask Bryan - we would all love to know!

    smari - thank you very much for your kind compliment

  • At 10/1/07 09:05, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Congratulations on the Food Blog Award win!!!

  • At 10/1/07 09:07, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I find myself in a tailspin about these issues all the time, and often just give up and have a salad. You have to figure that living in Seattle or the Bay Area, if we have trouble, it's even worse other places. My recent chicken roast was a Rosie's, but I don't feel particularly good about it (although it was really tasty). But, I guess awareness of the issues is the first step to solving them...

    Great post Sam!

  • At 10/1/07 09:09, Blogger Kalyn Denny said…

    Sam, off topic here, but much congratulations on the Food Blog Award!

  • At 10/1/07 09:29, Blogger Guy said…

    I have a 26 dollar chicken in my freezer. Or was it 23, I can't remember.

    See, I was expecting to see the Fatted Calf stall this last Saturday in Berkeley. Jan and I just stood there at the empty space, wondering where they be? Turns out I think it was Mexico. Anyway, after spending a handful of minutes just standing, staring in disbelief, I wandered up the street. I was in a meatless fog, I was.
    There's an old man who usually just sells eggs and taters, always wonderful stuff. Anyway, he had a sign out for Friers and Roasters with a little picture of a rooster on it. I axed for a frier and he pointed to the cooler out front. See, he can't lift anything. So, you have to do the food gettin' yourself. The cooler will filled with frozen fowl. Ducks & chickens. I put my catch on the scale and he figured it came to 26 dollars. Considering my state of mind, I handed him the money, I had to have 'some' meat, didn't I?

    To be honest, I think I got a roaster in stead of the frier I aimed for. But even so, 26 dollars for a damned chicken? Keeripes.

    In the freezer it's going to stay for another few days. I'm too scared to touch it. I mean, how the hell do you prepare a 26 dollar chicken?


  • At 10/1/07 13:10, Blogger neil said…

    There's plenty of room, but bring your own water, or just send some anyway. Congratulations on the award.

  • At 10/1/07 16:28, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well done Sam!!

    Great news!!


  • At 11/1/07 08:40, Blogger Alice Q. Foodie said…

    Congrats on the food blog award!! Just desserts for all your hard work!

  • At 27/3/07 14:45, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The crisis continues. I purchased a Heritage Chicken at Prather on Saturday (I actually never had a Hoffman chicken; we've been Heritage fans for a while) -- but it was one of the last they had (I think they only had 2 or 3 total). Turns out, Heritage is plumb out of birds at the moment. Gotta wait for the next generation to grow up, so it will be some weeks before we get another luscious clucker.


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