Posts Tagged ‘white meat’

White meat or Dark? (Part II)

February 10, 2010

I hope no one told our chickens that I am blogging about white meat and dark meat this week. They seemed a little slow out of the gate when I opened the chicken coop this morning; leery and suspicious, I thought.

Each morning I talk to the chickens as though we were all in the Royal Navy. “Good morning and I hope I find you well. Some eggs, if you please.” Then, in the evening when putting them to bed, I give them some Shakespeare, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and out little life is rounded with a sleep.” Although, come to think of it, last night I gave them something different. “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Perhaps that disturbed them and made them wonder.

Or maybe it was the Border Collie puppy, who seems to me to take an unhealthy interest in the chickens. As I said last time, the chickens are in no danger from the humans around here, but they worry some about the dogs. Dogs don’t discriminate between dark and white meat.

No dark meat here

Unlike chickens and turkeys, most birds can’t afford the luxury of white meat.

What we call “meat” is, in fact, muscle tissue. To be precise, skeletal muscle tissue. Composed of cells that contract when they receive an electrical impulse, these are “voluntary” muscles and are the prime movers of birds and mammals. Attached to bones, they literally move the animal world by contracting and relaxing.

Two types of voluntary muscle tissue do all this work, “slow-twitch” and “fast-twitch.” Dark meat, actually red meat, is slow-twitch muscle tissue, full of red blood cells and mitochondria which ensure a rich supply of blood and oxygen. These are the muscles that contract more slowly and less often, but are responsible for all sustained muscular effort, such as flying.

Birds that fly a lot haven’t got room for much fast-twitch (white) muscle tissue. Hummingbirds, for instance, have no white meat at all. Only ground dwelling birds (Mostly ratites) and birds like chickens, turkeys, and grouse which fly rarely and only for short distances have the luxury of a lot of white meat, because fast-twitch muscle tissue has many fewer red blood cells and cannot provide the oxygen necessary for sustained effort.

That is why ducks and geese have little white meat; even their breast meat (the pectoralis muscle) is dark. Ducks and geese have to fly for long distances and need slow-twitch, endurance muscles. Besides, it kept them safe from my parents who, like I said last time, didn’t care for dark meat and lied to me about it.

Wild Turkey

One thing that fast twitch (white) muscles are good at is sudden movement. Gallinaceous birds (turkeys, grouse) are capable of sudden bursts of flight. (What birder hasn’t been startled by a grouse exploding into flight in front of her?) Birds that don’t do sustained flying don’t need as much of the heavier, redder muscle tissue which is why the pectoralis muscle tissue(breast meat)of chickens and turkeys is white.

In wild turkeys, about one-fifth of the muscle tissue is white. And we humans fool with the genes of domesticated birds just to increase the amount of white meat. But even domesticated chickens and turkeys use their legs and thighs for sustained muscular effort and that is the reason their legs and thighs contain dark muscle tissue.


For more, see Evans and Heiser “What’s Inside:Anatomy and Physiology,” Chapter 4 of The Home Study Course of Bird Biology, 2nd ed., Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

For more on my childhood, see my autobiography, Bleak House, which I self-published under a pseudonym.

Dark Meat or White?

February 8, 2010

Psst! Don’t tell our chickens about this post. We don’t want them to know that the people who bring them food and water are chicken cannibals. We are, but not of our own chickens. We find them much too humorous and endearing to actually kill and eat one. Besides, we want the eggs.

The Araucana Chicken

And speaking of the chickens’ eggs, a week ago the Araucanas began laying again which is a sure sign that spring is on its way again. The Araucanas quit laying entirely, usually in late October and don’t start again until the end of January or early February. That wouldn’t be true if we artificially controlled the length of the photoperiod in which they live, as do commercial egg operations. Even the chickens which continue to lay in the winter do so at a slower rate than the rest of the year, because of the extended hours of darkness.

But our purpose today is to discuss the age-old question among humans who eat chickens and turkeys, “White meat or dark meat?”

Your author grew up believing that he preferred dark meat, the result of lies told him by his parents. When I was a young boy they told me that the dark meat was the best and, because they loved me so much, they would let me eat the legs and thighs. It wasn’t until adulthood that I discovered that they told me about the dark meat so they could have the white meat to themselves. And the gizzards. I never got a gizzard. Not until I was a grown man did I get a gizzard.

The Araucana Egg

Back to red meat versus white meat. You didn’t come to hear about my parents or my childhood. Which wasn’t bad, you understand; just full of parental lies about white meat. Oh, and that time my mother promised to buy be a new package of M&Ms after she spilled a bag on the kitchen floor, but never did. And one of my parents threw away my Mickey Mantle rookie baseball trading card which, if I still had, could sell for enough money to retire on.

I’ve forgiven them for all that though, so let’s get back to white meat and dark meat. I do wonder though,from time to time, what happened to my first model train . . . And my favorite childhood pillow. . . .

As you know, when someone serves you turkey or chicken at a dinner party, they will politely ask you whether you prefer dark meat or white meat. Or at least they will if they are not my parents who will lie to you about the whole thing but, like I said, I’ve forgiven them for that and so won’t say anything more about it. Whether you choose white meat or dark meat is largely a matter of personal taste, at least assuming you were raised by honest people, who didn’t warp your childish perceptions by deliberately misleading you and depriving you of the joy of white meat smothered in gravy on your plate.

Most birds don’t have any white meat so it wouldn’t have been an issue if my parents served duck, for instance. Ducks don’t have white meat. But I never got duck growing up. No. All I got was the thighs and legs of chickens and turkeys. But let that go.

Geese too. They don’t have any white meat either, but do you think my parents ever served geese? Not when I was around, they didn’t. They didn’t like dark meat.

Wild Turkey in Golden Gate Park - NPS Photo

One time, I remember, my father went turkey hunting with some friends and he came back with a wild turkey. That turkey had fed on Prickly Pear cactus and it had lovely streaks of light purple running through the breast meat. Or at least that is how that turkey remains in memory. I wonder how it tasted. All I got was a leg. Not that it matters now. I don’t hold a grudge.

So, besides taste, what is the difference between white meat and dark meat? All of it is muscle tissue, after all. The answer lies in what the bird uses the muscles for and how often it uses them.

By the way, I only learned this as an adult, after getting interested in birds. My parents certainly didn’t tell me. And I am going to tell you all about it, but it is going to take longer than I have room in this post to tell you. Somebody, probably one of my parents, told me that blog posts shouldn’t be longer than about 800 words or people won’t finish reading them and I just exceeded that limit for today, so you’ll have to wait for the next post to find out why some meat is white, some dark.

I know you are disappointed, but it’s not my fault. Blame my parents.


For more, see Evans and Heiser “What’s Inside:Anatomy and Physiology,” Chapter 4 of The Home Study Course of Bird Biology, 2nd ed., Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

For more on my childhood, see my autobiography, Bleak House, which I self-published under a pseudonym.

Pardon out fonts today. We’re not sure what happened, but we don’t know how to fix it. Probably my parents’ fault.

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