On one hand, there is arguably the best-tasting chicken you can find in these parts.
“People in their 80s tell us they haven’t had chicken this good in 50 years,” as they can remember the days before chicken became industrially produced cheap protein. Kristy Lynn Levings and Brian Douglass offered this testimonial as we sat at a dining table on their Woodland farm, enjoying one of their old-style chickens, roasted with paprika.
On the other hand, you have that mass-produced chicken at a low price. The breeding, feeding, antibiotics and distribution channels bring large birds to market as fast as possible.
We should also acknowledge chicken that is promoted as cage-free, or without the antibiotics, or with organic feed, but raised using semi-industrial protocols. It’s mid-priced in the supermarkets.
So my first question to Kristy and Brian, farming partners in the Cache Creek Meat Company, was the obvious one. Who are the customers at the Davis Farmers Market opting for your birds?
Kristy explained that some buy for the intense flavor. The chickens are raised in the pasture, with a supplement from a locally milled feed containing grains, nuts and seeds. The birds aren’t rushed to size, and they discourage water retention in the meat.
Other customers are prompted by nutrition and health. They use the whole bird, over the course of several meals. After all the meat has been used in one dish or another, it’s still not over. The carcass, simmered in a gallon of water with celery, carrot, onion — and touch of vinegar or lemon to bring more flavor out of the bones — creates a delicious broth.
And then there are customers for whom the following sentence would resonate, says Kristy. “It allows them to eat the change they wish they could see in the world.” Everything on a smaller, slower, more personal scale, sustainable and healthy.
After research in 2009, Kristy and Brian concluded there is a need, and a market niche, for chicken raised with such old-time care. “We felt we should do something about it,” he said.
They were marketplace pioneers in this region. Today, they can identify half a dozen competitors. They have tested various retail and wholesale outlets, and find that the Davis market and the Sacramento Farmers Market are the best for their business model.
Both have credentials for what they’re doing.
Kristy is a third-generation Californian. She grew up on a farm in Guinda in the Capay Valley, and has been raising livestock since childhood. A graduate of San Francisco State, she has an MBA as well, and worked for seven years in social services in the Bay Area.
Brian is fifth-generation Yolo County, raised in Woodland. He went to UC Santa Cruz, next to the California Culinary Academy. He cooked in San Francisco and later at Mask, an ill-fated, remarkable, high-end restaurant in El Dorado County.
They met at the Woodland Farmers Market in 2008, when both were judges. “I made sure we sat next to each other,” Kristy injected with a laugh.
Their seven-acre farm in Woodland is rudimentary, a place that had been in Brian’s family. Together they’ve purchased 25 acres near Esparto, where they raise sheep, and will have chickens soon, with thoughts of agritourism some day.
While chickens are their main business, lamb, duck, quail, guinea fowl and eggs show up at their stand once a month or so. Their customers get notification through their email newsletter, [email protected]
Recipes for roasting chicken are widely available. Kristy likes to rub the raw bird with paprika and salt, and rub butter under the skin onto the meat before they go into the oven.
For leftovers, she favors a romaine salad with sliced peaches, a blue cheese dressing, and shredded cooked chicken.
Another favorite is a version of mac and cheese. Instead of small macaroni, she prefers one of the slightly larger, curved, pasta varieties, with openings that will welcome a white sauce with sharp cheddar cheese worked in … and smaller bits of shredded chicken. She pops bite-size fragments of fresh asparagus into the cooking pasta two minutes before it’s ready to drain.
And finally there’s a soup du jour that can be built around the chicken broth from the carcass for yet another meal.
“Part of our job,” Kristy says, “is educating people about using the whole chicken.” That harkens back to a century ago, when chicken filled a different role at the kitchen table.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]