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Hail The Conquering Chicken! A Story Of Dinner Plate Domination

Why did the chicken cross the road? That's just about the only bit of chicken-related trivia not answered by the cover story in Smithsonian magazine's new food issue this month.

The story takes readers on a sweeping journey through poultry history that happens to open with a chicken-and-road related tale: Apparently, when the ancient Greeks were marching off to face invading Persians in the 5th century B.C., the sight of two cocks fighting by the side of the road revved up their own instinctive aggressiveness. Voila! The Greeks were victorious, and Western civilization was saved.

That natural pugnaciousness may have been the chicken's making (or unmaking, depending on your point of view). First domesticated as fighting birds, chickens are believed to be descended from the Southeast Asian jungle fowl. The ancient Egyptians pioneered the art of egg incubation around 1,000 B.C., while ancient Romans bequeathed the world the omelet — and discovered that castrated roosters made for fatter birds.

Chickens appeared to go out of culinary fashion with the fall of the Roman Empire — "it all goes downhill," Kevin MacDonald, a professor of archeology at University College in London tells Smithsonian.

Chickens got smaller, edged off medieval European tables by plumper poultry like geese and partridges. It wasn't until the rise of factory farming in the early 20th century, the authors tell us, that chickens became a major part of the American diet.

Mass production came hand in hand with increased demand, allowing chicken to bump off beef as America's most popular meat. In the U.S., we now eat about 80 pounds of chicken per capita per year. Globally, we gobbled up an estimated 93 million tons of poultry in 2008, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

These days, the backlash against factory farming has helped feed a renewed cultural romance with the chicken. Bloggers regularly brag about the hen houses in their urban backyards, while poets pen odes to chickens on the chandeliers. Heritage breeds have become a coveted commodity — as Smithsonian reports, a single day-old chick can fetch as much as $399.

That's quite the odyssey for an animal that can ultimately trace its ancestry to dinosaurs. But if you don't have time to read an article that spans thousands of years of history, just browse the visual Cliff Notes: An accompanying photo essay features absurdist portraits of raw birds styled to look like famous figures in history — complete with custom-made costumes. You'll never look at your Chicken Ceasar salad the same way again.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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