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When Chickens Come Home to Roost

Poultry becomes a staple of pop culture through books, crockery--and the real thing

October 07, 2002|PATRICIA DANE ROGERS | WASHINGTON POST

In a moment of perfect bucolic clarity, Pam Percy gazed out upon the Wisconsin farmscape beyond her house and beheld a mist-shaded pond, the late-summer garden aglow with ruby tomatoes and golden sunflowers and a clutch of contented chickens bustling around her yard.

It was what one might call her chicken epiphany.

"They were doing typical chicken things--strutting, running, pecking and taking their dirt baths. They had a timeless quality about them," Percy recalled. "They created such a peaceful feeling and gentle pace, I thought to myself, 'All's right with the world.' "

Five years later, Percy, a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, is author of a book that tells you more than you ever knew there was to know about poultry: "The Complete Chicken: An Entertaining History of Chickens" (Voyageur Press).

A monument to chicken trivia, the book catalogs exotic breeds--for those who don't know an Australorp from a Frizzle or Wyandotte--includes tips for distinguishing one cockscomb from another or saying cock-a-doodle-doo in 21 languages; and presents a lineup of chicks in art, literature, music and popular culture, including politics and flicks. (The book has its own Web site: www.thecompletechicken.com).

Who knew there was a chicken icon in King Tut's tomb? That Stephen Foster wrote a chicken song? Or that chickens aren't dumb clucks? They can be taught to play poker, baseball and tick-tack-toe.

The book is also a testament to a design motif that's been around for 5,000 years. The regal image of the rooster has adorned Greek vases, Roman coins, medieval church spires and the flag of the French Revolution. Today, decorative chickens rule the roost in many home-furnishing stores, especially those with Gallic inclinations.

"We've got the eagle, the French have the rooster. It's practically their national symbol," says Bringier McConnell, head of French Country Living, a Great Falls, Va.-based emporium and catalog operation. "We've sold them on potholders, throw rugs, tapestry pillows. We've got rooster light fixtures, wood and ceramic rooster effigies," at www.frenchcountry.com.

Sur La Table, a Seattle-based kitchenware chain that has stores in Newport Beach, Pasadena, Santa Monica and at the Los Angeles Farmers Market, offers a crowing cockerel pie bird, rooster pitchers, rooster dishes and a life-size, hand-painted porcelain rooster figurine for $364. Renee Behnke, company president, thinks she knows why they're selling like hotcakes. "Everyone wants a French country kitchen, and chickens and roosters epitomize the French-country look" (www.surlatable.com).

On her own picturesque spread near Milwaukee, Percy has been selling free-range chicks and eggs since 1986. But her cache of decorative "chickenalia"--defined as "anything shaped like a chicken or with a chicken on it"--has eclipsed her real-life flock. The enthusiasm led to her book, which she researched for a decade.

"I wanted to elevate the image of the chicken. They have a fascinating history."

"Extraordinary Chickens," a lavishly illustrated picture book from Harry N. Abrams came out in 2000 and is in its sixth printing. Another new book, "Counting My Chickens" by the Duchess of Devonshire, a memoir of her English country life, is due out next week. And a PBS chick-u-mentary, "The Natural History of the Chicken," just won two Emmys.

Chickens are also hitting fashion runways. Check out the sultry model in a silver rooster-feather headdress from Christian Dior Haute Couture in the October Vogue.

"They're beautiful creatures," says Percy, speculating on the bird's timeless appeal. "They're fun to watch and a link to the past. I see them out of my window, and I feel removed from the 21st century. Chickens, I think, fill some kind of need."

Certainly that can be said of live chickens. "Ever since Martha Stewart started crowing the praises of pedigreed poultry, folks who knew chickens only as hot wings and McNuggets have started raising them," said reporter Bill Geist in a recent spot on "CBS Sunday Morning."

(Stewart's prized Araucana hens lay eggs in shades of pastel blues and greens.)

On the CBS feature, New York decorator Bunny Williams welcomed cameras to her Connecticut estate and the sight of her fancy flock frolicking in their $2,500 designer aviary.

This chicken thing has spread from coast to coast. In Seattle, a July "house tour" showcased 25 urban chicken coops, but Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, ships mail-order chicks to plenty of chic ZIP codes too. McMurray, which bills itself as the oldest breeder of rare chickens in the country, also sells turkeys, game birds, rabbits, tchotchkes, books and professional poultry-raising equipment (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com). Clubs for chicken breeders also are popping up.

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