Only later, after lunch, did I see the snakes. They were thick as ocean-liner hawsers, ominously speckled and striped, and coiled in a tea-colored pickling juice in 2-foot-high jars on the tall counter at a roadside eatery in rural Vietnam. My plan for a quick bite had morphed into a plastic table covered with a dozen del icious dishes, but snake apparently was reserved for a more special occasion. Wild or tame, hooved or winged, root or mammal, land-living or water-loving, almost anything living here can be pickled, boi led, steamed, or fried.
The Vietnamese take Woody Allen’s famous saying about nature—“It’s like an enormous restaurant”—to lengths unimagined by finicky Westerners like me who think it edgy to eat venison. There are dog farms here. Hanoi bistros special ize in snake blood-and-bi le cocktails. At an open-air market in a small town, women sell fly-laden water buffalo skins good for a meal, though exactly how to prepare them gets lost in translation. Nearby, a woman with scissors expertly snips open little snow-white silkworm cocoons, setting aside the wriggling electric-green worms for a customer’s stir-fry dinner. In the next row, an energetic egg vendor proudly shows off her most expensive product: fertilized duck eggs prized for their fetal crunch.
THIS IS NOT YOUR NATURE OF HENRY DAVID Thoreau or John Muir, a transcendental retreat or a sacred park behind a carefully protected border. This is nature as take out. The forest is home to what can’t grow or live on the farm—herbs, mushrooms, fresh-water crabs, and boar. The distinction between wild and domesticated is hard to maintain in a pot on the stove. In Vietnam, nature is a great larder against hunger as well as a medicine chest for what ails. Some things might be poisonous and others can heal, but nothing is disgusting.Order chicken, and you get, well, chicken. It comes sliced in a neat medallion with a circle of skin and bone encasing fat and
Like soul food or French country cooking, Vietnamese cuisine approaches nature’s heady variety with a gusto that is both refreshing and intimidating. I grew up in a world where the sound of the can opener’s metallic saw heralded dinner. Animals were neatly corralled into three kinds: the meat on our plate, those born free in the wild, and the pets we loved. We ate only the first. Our deer-hunting neighbors, with their guns and hounds and camouflage, were faintly alarming.Even now, I like my snakes far away, my dog on the rug, and my
In Vietnam, even chicken is not just chicken. Every village seems to have its own peculiar combination of varieties, each with its own name and history. At one meal I was served three distinctive breeds, identically prepared but quite different in texture and taste. One was honey-colored, another a metallic grey, and the third black—black bones, blood, and even its comb. All were, to my taste buds raised on predictable and bland KFC, oily and hard to chew. I found the darker the flesh the less palatable the meat. This was chicken that didn’t taste like chicken.
Such distinctions are sources of deep
Today, the Ho is still prized. A single egg can net $3, twenty times the price of a regular hen’s ovum, and a rooster can sell for a hefty $150. A French company, Chung said casually, is considering turning the Ho into a line of broilers. Down the street, a friend has Ho fighting cocks in wicker baskets for sale. Overall it’s a profitable business that employs many of the villagers, and people come from all over the Hanoi area to place their orders.But Chung’s thin face was radiant with old-fashioned devotion, not nouveau-riche avarice, as he
Animals in this country’s shrinking wilderness, however, lack such dedicated advocates. The last wild Java rhino in Vietnam was downed in 2011, with only its horn—rumored to cure cancer—removed by hunters. The gaur, the world’s largest species of wild cattle, is numbered only in the hundreds. And the mysterious saola, also called the Asian unicorn, hangs on in small numbers in high mountains. The World Wildlife Fund ranks Vietnam first in wildlife crime, and its huge neighbor China is the world’s largest market for wild animal parts. Combine that with Vietnam’s culinary gusto and a population that has nearly tripled in a half century—one which will soon surpass 100 million—and there’s less and less time to restock the forest larder.
Further complicating the matter is the issue of what species command attention. You won’t find, for instance, an obscure wild bird called the red
Given the environmental problems this planet faces, kvetching about the loss of the wild chicken might seem, at best, ludicrous. There are still plenty of red jungle fowl—certainly tens of thousands—in comparison with, say, Bengal tigers. And, after all, there are more chickens on Earth than any other bird: 18.5 billion, give or take a hundred million or so. They crow the dawn in Polynesia, cluck around frosty Siberian villages, and annoy neighbors in Brooklyn. They are everywhere. And they are survivors. After the apocalypse, the ragged remnants of the human race will find clucking hens pecking nonchalantly through the rubble.
So what does it matter if its wild cousin gets the axe?
There’s a sensible-shoes response: chickens are now humanity’s largest single source of protein. In the land of the hamburger, Americans today eat a third more chicken than beef. And in rapidly developing countries like Vietnam, the bird also rules the culinary roost. As people flock to cities, cheap eggs and white meat are essential staples that only grab headlines in their absence. When avian flu wiped out 22 million chickens in Mexico last summer, egg prices tripled in the capital, and angry protestors took to the streets, shaking the new government. In Iran, the price of chicken is rising out of the reach of most consumers, prompting the nation’s top police chief to recommend a ban on televising people eating chicken. He worries that such provocative images might spark dissent.
Given that the chicken is arguably our most important animal companion, preserving its wild cousin seems prudent. The red jungle fowl’s particular gene bank, only dimly understood now, could prove a
And, as I learned on my visit to Vietnam’s rugged northwest, it is easier said than done.
On a humid late November afternoon in a small town in northwestern Vietnam, I saw my first red jungle fowl. I didn’t need binoculars. It was in the back of a drab-green Russian jeep. The flame- and sea-colored bird nearly glowed in the small wire cage. Its beady black eyes, sleek body and long black tail reminded me of a
I came upon the red jungle fowl while in the company of Chinese geneticist Jianlin Han, Vietnamese biologist-cum-gourmand Le Thi Thuy, and a young driver with an eclectic mix of heartfelt socialist songs and thumping disco. After a six-hour drive from Hanoi, where every one of the 3 million inhabitants plays chicken on a motorbike, we rolled into a provincial town set among the rice fields of a wide valley bracketed by strange stony mountains.
In a crumbling French colonial building, we plotted our campaign. Marx and Lenin looked sternly from their frames as former enemies—Vietnamese, Chinese, and American—hunched over a map together.Our goal was to hike into promising and remote forest areas to spot and photograph the bird in the wild.
The fowl is notoriously skittish, and tracking it is no simple matter. To improve our chances, the leader had already procured a male red jungle fowl that now sat in the jeep: bait for his wild brethren. We drove away as schoolchildren next door sang a song of socialist paradise.
The sun already was sliding into a gauzy western haze as we hugged the edge of the wide valley, green with ripe rice, framed by fantastically pointed and domed peaks. The fields looked ancient, but are in fact carefully engineered to move water imperceptibly. The resulting product is famed across the country for its sublime flavor. At first glance, this scene seemed one of eminent sustainability. But between field and peaks, the dark thick forest that serves as prime red jungle fowl territory was pocked by ugly red gullies and marked by the pervasive light-green shade of corn plants. The slope of the fields here is breathtakingly steep:
Iowa on an impossible slant. Entire mountainsides are given over to this hand-planted cultivation. The resulting corn feeds the chickens and pigs that feed the expanding appetite of the cities. Demand for chicken is steadily destroying the red jungle fowl’s habitat.
Turning off the paved road, we forded a river, bumped through a pretty village of wooden houses on stilts full of children and chickens, and worked our way up a slippery track, past lumbering carts of rice and tall dignified Black Thay women in black headdresses with bright needlework, who swooped along on shiny motorbikes. One simultaneously clutched a handlebar and a dead chicken.
Along the way, after a flurry of cell calls, we picked up our guide, Lo Van Huong, a stocky young Black Thay villager. He was wearing camouflage and seemed nonchalant about our odd little expedition. A few minutes later, high in the foothills, we parked in
mud and walked into an unexpected paradise. Stone cliffs dotted with twisted trees loomed high above a little saucer-shaped valley discharging a rocky stream that made a tumble of a little waterfall. A lone farmer in a conical hat harvested rice in a sea of green amidst a meander of raised dirt paths. The scene had the cozy feel of an English meadow bordered with hedgerows or an Italian vineyard town—a beauty shaped slowly and methodically by innumerable generations of farmers.
While I paused to savor the moment, Huong was already heading up the mountain at a distressingly fast clip, the cage with the jungle fowl strapped to his back. I hurried after, my foolish loafers sucking into the red goo on the path. Eventually we reached mossy scree as a thorn caught the center of my forehead. The brambles closed around my legs. The other members of our party, less invested in the hunt, turned back.
Just below the mountain’s crest, we halted at a rocky stream. Mosquitoes whirred; my heart pounded. In the distance, motorbikes honked. The guide set the fowl’s cage on the ground, and we hid separately, some distance away in a thicket. But the caged bird refused to crow, the tropical night came on fast, and my urban fidgeting ensured that no sane wild creature would come within a hundred yards of our position. I felt like the bumpkin unwrapping candy in a packed theater.
After a time, Huong reappeared. Too polite to roll his eyes, he instead began walking back down the mountain. I had no choice but to follow, sensing—as I did—the disdain of Abel for Cain. The caged bird was as silent as ever.
Later, I spent a restless night in the world’s loudest hotel room: outside my window, every motorcycle and truck blew its horn as it sped down the empty town, and every cock then decided it must crow.
As the sun rose, we—Huong, the driver, and I—were already beyond the little saucer paradise, climbing again in search of our elusive red jungle fowl. Skirting rocky outcrops near the summit, Huong put down the cage, quickly built a screen of vegetation for us to hide behind, then vanished.
The driver and I crouched down. Through an opening in the cage, I could see the trapped bird standing erect but remaining still. The mosquitoes swarmed. The driver idly texted on two cell phones. Truck horns blared from the distant road. A long half hour passed. Then the caged bird suddenly shook its feathers, raised its head, and let loose a surprisingly deep noise—a slightly more sober and serious sound than a domestic cockle doodle doo. A moment later, not far above our perch, another wild cock answered. Then another on a neighboring ridge. Peculiar, this most domesticated of sounds piercing the dense forest.
But as soon as it began, our fowl slumped back into a reticence that lasted another half hour. The sun was rising fast, and our chances of actually spotting a wild bird were rapidly diminishing. Some time later, Huong reappeared without making a noise. We picked our way past boulders and clung to vines as we worked our way back down to the mud and rice fields and motorbikes. By now, seeing a red jungle fowl in the wild had lost its shine. What I really wanted was to talk with people who know the bird.
Han suggested a farm an hour’s drive to the northwest. The owner greeted him with a wide grin. Han oversees a United Nations project to help South Asian farmers breed better chickens, but he’s also fascinated by the bird’s history. Since the days of Darwin’s grandfather, biologists have argued about where and when and how the chicken was domesticated. That debate remains a hot topic in the little world of specialists.
For his part, Han is gathering genetic samples of the fowl to shed light on the remarkable transformation of a shy wild bird into our most critical animal protein.
In the farm’s main courtyard, we drank tea and ate sweet potatoes as a 3-year-old red jungle fowl watched us warily from a cage hanging in a nearby tree. Nguyen Quir Tuan, a lean Hmong worker who has cared for such fowl for more than 40 years, said the bird came from high in the mountains, beyond the reach of humans and domesticated chickens. Opening the cage and grabbing the reluctant bird by its feet so as to avoid its razor-sharp spurs, he offered us a close-up view.
“There are fewer now because the trees are being cut and they are being hunted,” he said matter of factly, looking down at the now-calm bird.
Tuan then gestured to the fields beyond. Years ago, he recalled, when tigers were still prevalent, the birds inhabited even this valley.
But now, he added, the wild places are dwindling to a few islands at high elevations.
Tuan, like many Vietnamese villagers I met, is a little awed by the bird. It is smart, he said, and avoids traps. If captured, it more often than not dies, refusing to eat the rice grains that domestic chickens adore. Or it might break its neck rushing to the other side of a cage if a human enters. It is small, but tough enough to beat a much larger domesticated rooster in a fight. And it can fly. As we chatted, a flock of hybrid birds—fowl crossed with Egyptian Fayoumi—effortlessly flapped into the top of a nearby tree and settled down for the night, as fully wild ones do in the forest.
At house after house in the area, we encountered a single red jungle fowl either tied to a string or living in a cage. Though the birds surely are kept for cockfighting or for sale, their owners all said they take particular delight in the sound of the fowl, which they described as fuller and richer than the domesticated kind that pecking away outside. The wild rooster’s crow seems to cast a particular spell on these practical Vietnamese farmers.
Perhaps because it is illegal to hunt and trap the bird—one woman explained her husband just happened to find a red jungle fowl egg while looking for mushrooms, and brought it home to hatch—people at first were reluctant to discuss its gastronomic qualities. Finally, though, one village chief confessed: “The meat is very good—dark and juicy. There is nothing that tastes so wonderful.” He admitted he eats about 20 a year.
At the small-town market, I asked the egg vendor if she carried red jungle fowl eggs. She hopped up and hovered boldly over my notebook. I gave her my pen, and she scribbled down a cell phone number. “No eggs, but call and order a fowl,” she said. I could expect to pay about $100.
Whether these birds truly are wild, however, is no longer an easy question to answer. That night, I emailed two American biologists pictures of the red jungle fowl I’d encountered, including Tuan’s bird—supposedly from a remote area. The scientists, however, saw subtle signs—invisible to me—that made them suspect the fowl are all hybrids. What’s more, they said, if any such birds are calm and eating grain, their behavior may be a tip off to their mixed nature.
Can a fowl that acts like a chicken truly still be called a red jungle fowl? There’s little doubt that in the past century, with the human population explosion, better roads, and growing demand for food, more regular contact has been established between the chicken and the red jungle fowl.
And biologists have noted that a dramatic plumage once unique to the wild rooster—feathers that showed up only briefly when it moulted annually—have vanished since the 19th century.
Ornithologists have long argued over exactly what traits define the wild variety. Genetics seemed poised to provide another less subjective line of evidence in 2004 when the chicken, as befitting its status, was the first domesticated animal to be sequenced. But nearly a decade later, scientists still don’t have a clear baseline to compare the red jungle fowl with its fellow subspecies. Untangling the genes associated with wild versus domesticate turns out to be far more difficult than anticipated. Wild nature and human nurture are deeply intertwined within today’s common chicken. It may prove impossible to determine if there are any truly wild red jungle fowl left. By then, they may well be extinct.
It is hard, of course, to compete with drowning polar bears and hornless dead rhinos. And a bird that looks and sounds so much like its
barnyard cousin must contend with familiarity breeding contempt. Chickens root around in the soil; they rush about. And while they may dream of flying, they cannot soar. They are like us: ordinary, noisy, and busy creatures tied to the ground. Humans and chickens are like the old married couple that comes to resemble one another.
That may be the very reason, the non-sensible-shoes reason, to save what we can of the red jungle fowl—or at least to acknowledge its passing. Its presence reminds us that civilization is not a sudden creation, a Genesis-like gift or a free pass for domination. Civilization rests on the complicated web of relationships that we’ve built with plants and animals, the grueling negotiated work of generations with the thing we call nature. That may be why the red jungle fowl’s crow appeals so strongly to Vietnamese villagers already surrounded by chickens. It’s the wildness that we want to keep in our homes, close to our hearts: tied or caged perhaps, but a happy reminder that our dominion has its limits.
Andrew Lawler is a freelance writer who has written more than a thousand articles for a dozen different magazines on topics ranging from asteroids to zebrafish and places ranging from Japan to Iran to Sudan. He is a contributing writer for Science Magazine, the world’s largest scientific weekly, and a contributing editor for Archaeology Magazine. He has written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, The Sun, Orion, Astronomy, Body & Soul, Yoga International, and several European newspapers.