Mock chicken

Years had passed, since I had seen “mock chicken” offered in a grocery cooler, in any form, let alone the tight-wrapped thin-sliced “baloney” packaging of my childhood. (See here.) But there it was in the No Thrills supermarket, and I seized a package, noting with pleasure that the price was half that of other “luncheon meats,” by weight. And sure enough, on return to the High Doganate, and after devising a strategy to break into the package, I discovered it was the “real deal” — as bland in taste and texture after all these years. Truly, a madeleine moment out of Proust.

I had always assumed that mock chicken was an industrial by-product, containing traces of poultry for flavouring, in a crumbly rind probably coloured with orange textile dye. I supposed that live chickens had been harmed somewhere in the manufacturing process, which had included the mocking operation. I guessed the managers at the industrial abattoir hired underemployed professional comedians to mock the chickens, prior to slaughter — doing satirical imitations of the way they walk, try to fly, express enmity towards those who steal their eggs — while taunting them with demeaning imprecations such as, “You’re not a real chicken,” &c — ideally in dactylic hexameters.

It turns out I was wrong. Unless the ingredient list on the package is fake news (I have just retrieved it), our contemporary mock chicken contains miscellaneous “and/or” meats, possibly but not necessarily including winged animals; plus potassium lactate and soy protein; sodium phosphates, erythorbates, diacetates, and nitrates; glucose solids; maltodextrin; “spices”; and of course my favourite, monosodium glutamate. The mouth waters even while trying to descry the five-point, all-cap, extra-light sans-serif, in white against the shimmering transparent plastic background. (You can do it with a spy-glass once you get the lighting angle right.)

Imagine my surprise, upon deeper research, to discover that the traditional product was constituted of finely ground pork, and veal, in a slurry of mushroom goop and secular cornmeal, with turmeric, paprika, and that sublime umami, isolated by German chemists in the nineteenth century and affectionately abbreviated, “MSG.” Urban squab might be the homemaker’s alternative or perhaps, leftover swan from the park.

For you see, in the depths of the Great Depression, or through the various great depressions, recessions, and financial panics that preceded it, chicken had been unobtainably expensive. Pork and veal were much cheaper. And in the days before “mechanical separation,” the little woman of the household would chop the less favoured scraps of those meats, marinate them in I don’t know what, then moosh them into a bun by way of anticipating the invention of hot dogs. This, I gather, is how mock chicken started, though at first it was called spiedie.

Gentle reader will remember that before the Great War, Americans liked their food much spicier than they have since, and indeed, it was in the interests of the big capitalist syndicates to tone down their enthusiasms, in view of their own cost/benefit analyses while developing economies of scale. They also found a way to make chickens not only tasteless, but very very cheap.

For sake of completeness I should mention Chinatown, where one finds another conception of mock chicken, that comes in a tin along the same shelf with mocked ducks, pigs, abalones, and other unlucky creatures. So far as I can see from those labels, all are made from tofu and dragonflies. The tins also mention “vegetarians,” but I think even in Red China there must be laws against using them as a food ingredient.