Rotisserie Chicken: The Best and Worst of America

Things are awful, people are awful, the world is a terrible place and I want to cry: these are my general reactions to my daily doses of the news. The United States, like a complicated new baking recipe, is a fabulous idea but in the early stages of its development, a hot mess. Which brings me to rotisserie chicken.

Look. I know the food systems in our country are a tangled web of special interests, subsidies gone wrong, the degradation of most of our arable land, and animal cruelty on an unspeakable scale. I don’t eat a ton of meat and I try to find sustainably (or at least humanely) raised meat when I do buy it.

Yet there are days–long hours of hard work at the barn, or hours spent trying to write with nothing to show–when I realize I should probably feed myself, and that my husband would appreciate me including him in the effort so I shouldn’t just eat popcorn, and it’s really irresponsible and expensive to order out, and I’m exhausted, and I want something that tastes like Real Food but I absolutely do not want to cook it, that I remember rotisserie chickens exist.

What a soothing product. What a shining beacon of American-ness. Sometimes they just make everything right with the world: they are available everywhere, they are consistently good and sometimes delicious, and they are appallingly cheap (often 30, and as much as 50, percent less than the cost of a similarly sized raw chicken where both are sold).

America! How did we invent this miraculous product? Of course, the food item itself is probably one of the oldest known to humanity, but why and how has this become a ubiquitous quick dinner solution across our nation?

(I should note that the quintessentially American rotisserie chicken does, as do most of the best food traditions in the western world, owe a debt to France. Apparently, the notoriously food-fickle Napoleon was kind of an addict. For instance: “When he rode out of Cairo on Christmas Eve to survey the Suez isthmus, the only provisions he took were three roasted chickens wrapped in paper.”)

But I digress. ‘Murica! The Washington Post wrote a piece a couple years back claiming that our national trend began with with the expansion of the Boston Market food chain in the 1980s. A grocery store economics site says the store chickens are so cheap because many markets are just getting rid of food that wouldn’t otherwise sell (i.e., reaching sell-by dates). Some stores do have dedicated rotisserie chicken programs in order to churn out as many as possible. I assume stores discovered that folks would come in for that one low- or no-margin product and leave with many other more profitable ones. I know that’s what happens to me whenever I cave and stop in at Costco or Whole Foods on the way home.

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The 1980s timeline makes sense to me. The ’80s were when women–overwhelmingly the ones doing the food shopping and cooking–entered the work force full time in droves. There was suddenly demand for fast food that tasted like you might imagine home-cooked food would taste if you’d never had it. Plus, that’s when a lot of chains were making the jump from regional to national.

So this is a foodstuff that grew in popularity as America became steadily more connected coast to coast and as our food systems deepened into the painfully contorted knots first tied by ag policies dating to the Great Depression. Rotisserie chickens simultaneously reflect one of the great goods of America (affordable abundance) and one of the great evils (refusal to address the true environmental and health costs of underpriced goods).

After the initial still-hot dinner meal, I have my leftover guilty pleasure chicken on top of salads or grains, mixed into pasta, or nibbled cold out of the container because I’m a monster. I knew a woman who bought a Market Basket rotisserie chicken every single week, got two meals out of it, then made stock. What do you do with yours?

If this post has left you craving some, don’t worry, you can watch a full length movie of one roasting thanks to Netflix. Or, you know, visit the Costco Rotisserie Chicken official Facebook page. Like you do.

4 thoughts on “Rotisserie Chicken: The Best and Worst of America”

  1. All your pieces are good–you really are a terrific writer–but this is a stellar one: you should send it to the NY Times, I could easily see it in the Sunday magazine. Funny, true, and delightfully personal.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Before I contemplate the NYT I think I at least need to be getting weekly posts up here…been tough for me lately, though as cooler weather returns, the kitchen is looking a lot more appealing.

  2. I think my first rotisserie chicken was actually made at home, in the early eightees, on the gas grill, with one of those electric spits that fits in the holes in the grill lid. I remember loving it…but then again I remember being regularly scolded for eating more than my fair share of whatever type of chicken we were having, so it was probably no surprise to anyone that I would love this paticularly delicious self-basting variation.

    And now I want to go buy a rotisserie for my gas grill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.