Farmers Market Chicken: Alas a Dirty Bird

A new study suggests poultry sold at farmers markets may carry more pathogens than meat from the supermarket.

farmers' market chicken pathogens

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, chicken lovers. (Photo: Carl Mydans/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

For all of the chicken recipes featured in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, there’s no mention of target internal temperatures. Whether roasted, fricasseed, steamed or braised, chicken is simply done when it’s done.

Toklas, the partner of American writer Gertrude Stein, writes about cooking in France, where the couple lived for decades, in both flush times and, far more frugally, during both World Wars. And while there’s plenty of conversation about the kind of bird to cook in any given recipe—“the very best quality of chicken was used for steaming, as we use the best steel for gadgets, which is a very smart thing to do”—the recipes assume a certain prerequisite knowledge on the cook’s part when it comes to the issue of done-ness.

So we have to turn to Stein—who wrote wonderfully and, at times, somewhat weirdly, about food in her essays and poems—for any tips on chicken and food safety. One of her short poems from the collection Tender Buttons, “Chicken,” reads, in full, “Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.”

We all know about Salmonella, and Campylobacter is a concern in chicken too—a dirty bird indeed. But when eating “the very best quality of chicken”—the hen that ate worms and grass and pecked away in peace on a small farm before you bought it for a not inexpensive sum at the farmers market—surely there’s less risk? Well, you might not want to be so cavalier about eating that bit of pink meat right by the bone, because a new study conducted by Pennsylvania State University suggests that raw chicken purchased from farmers markets may carry more pathogens than supermarket birds.

According to Food Safety News, “Out of 100 chicken purchased from farmers markets, the Penn State scientists found that 90 percent tested positive for Campylobacter and 28 percent tested positive for Salmonella.” Maybe all of those chlorine baths and other safety precautions scattered along the industrial poultry supply chain shouldn’t be dismissed outright?

In death, separating Toklas from Stein is a complex undertaking—Stein is the author of the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, after all—but when it comes to cooking, and the evocatively written recipes of the more literarily demure woman (and any chicken recipe, for that matter), it’s wise to keep Stein’s Tender Buttons in mind. No matter where you buy it from, chicken is alas a dirty bird.

“Some people believe that local food is safer, but we want to caution that’s not always the case,” Catherine Cutter, one of the authors of the study, told Penn State News. That may be the case, but if you’re still compelled to shell out the big bucks for the farmers market bird, you probably won’t be deterred by the few extra dollars it would cost you to buy a meat thermometer. Neither Stein nor Toklas shied away from a properly cooked hen—unless, perhaps, it was served with mean-spirited watercress, per yet another poem titled "Chicken" from Tender Buttons:

“Alas a doubt in case of more go to say what it is cress. What is it. Mean. Why. Potato. Loaves.”

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