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Fowl Play?

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The last thing anyone would think politicians would say they are is chicken.

But there is Chris Coons, the Democratic U.S. senator, declaring himself a charter member of the Chicken Caucus.

Actually, he has no choice. It was an early lesson Coons learned when he joined up last year with Johnny Isakson, a Republican senator from Georgia, to set up the Senate Chicken Caucus, a little band of senators from fowl-growing states, so they could flock together like birds of a feather.

“I had thought we’d call it ‘poultry,’ but the turkey guys didn’t want to be included,” Coons says.

It seems there is a National Chicken Council and there is a National Turkey Federation, and sometimes their interests separate, cluck from gobble. Who knew?

Strange stuff can happen when chickens intertwine with politics, like senators calling themselves chicken, and Delaware has a lot of experience with it.

The State That Started the Nation is also the State That Started the Modern Chicken Industry.

It goes back to 1923, when a Sussex County housewife named Cecile Steele ordered 50 chicks to earn some egg money and had 500 of them shipped to her by mistake. She kept them and raised them to sell for chicken dinners and bring in about $240 for herself.

This was much more than egg money. When her neighbors saw her success at the market, they started to raise chickens, too, and an industry was hatched, as Carol Hoffecker, the Delaware historian, recounted in “Honest John Williams,” her biography of the Republican senator who was a feed dealer and chicken farmer himself.

Sussex County today is ranked first among all of the counties in the country for broilers, which are chickens raised for eating, as opposed to chickens raised for egg laying.

“The Delmarva Peninsula would be very different without chickens,” Coons says.

It is the reason Coons co-founded the Chicken Caucus. Tom Carper, the Democratic senior senator, is in the Chicken Caucus, too.

Of all the states, Delaware is probably the one most likely to take it in stride when its senators pronounce themselves chicken. Considering that the most famous sports teams here go by the name “Blue Hens,” it is practically a way of life.

Delaware chickens have even made their way into presidential politics. This was back when Pete du Pont, the governor from 1977 to 1985, was running for the Republican nomination in 1988.

As du Pont was well aware, his candidacy was always a long shot, as it proved to be, with the company his family founded much more famous than he was. He used to poke fun at himself at campaign stops by calling himself “the governor from a small Eastern state with a funny French name.”

Naturally du Pont was spending a lot of time in Iowa, where the first presidential caucuses are held, and he would bring up chickens as a way to relate to the voters in a state that is an agriculture powerhouse with its corn and pigs and amber waves of grain.

He would note that Delaware has a lot more chickens than people. (The current ratio, as estimated by state agricultural officials, is a couple hundred chickens for each Delawarean.)

“If you don’t keep eating them,” du Pont would quip, “we’re going to be overrun!”

Even the court system has been confounded by Delaware chickens, or at least a judge was.

An upstate judge was once substituting in a criminal case in Sussex County. The judge asked the defendant what he did for a living, and the defendant said he was a chicken catcher.

This was true. Chicken catchers go into the chicken houses and snatch up the chickens by the feet, handfuls at a time, to load them for transport, but the upstate judge, unfamiliar with the workings of chicken growers, did not know this. The judge thought the defendant was sassing him and sternly asked again what he did for a living.

When the defendant repeated he was a chicken catcher, the judge became angry and warned he was going to give the defendant just one more chance to answer, when the judge noticed one of the court clerks trying to get his attention.

She was emphatically nodding her head up and down and up and down in a desperate attempt to let the judge know the defendant was telling the truth. Yes, he is a chicken catcher! Yes, he is a chicken catcher!

At last, the judge figured it out and spared himself from endless embarrassment in Sussex County.

Still, not even Sussex County always gets chickens right.

There is a story that has come down in chicken lore about a fire hall that was accustomed to testing its siren every day at noon. It did so without incident, until one day a new siren was installed. The siren was so loud, it was scaring chickens nearby, and the panicked birds were all rushing into a huddle, as frightened chickens will, in a corner of the chicken house and smothering themselves.

Something had to be done until the siren could be readjusted. Like chicken kickin’.

It was the firefighters to the rescue. They put on their heavy boots, stationed themselves in the corner and set off the siren. When the chickens stampeded, the firefighters commenced kicking chickens, until even a birdbrain could figure out it was better just to let the siren wail than get kicked around.

It would work for a while. Since the chickens really were not very bright, the firefighters would have to return every so often for another round of chicken kickin’. That took care of it for as long as it had to.

Some states have Big Oil. Some states have Big Tobacco. Delaware has Big Chickens. As opposed to Chicken Little.   

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