The Magnificent Chicken: An Interview With Tamara Staples

Picture of Tamara Staples with the title, Magnificent Chicken, on a red background.
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We’ve enjoyed our time with photographer and author, Tamara Staples. In the second half of our interview, she answers some questions about photography and her future projects.  We’ve talked about her book, The Magnificent Chicken, as well as how she pays homage to these beautiful birds through her photography.  She talks about the process from behind the scenes to when she sees the final result in its published form. Don’t miss the first half of our interview about cock photography.

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Tamara Staples round image

Tamara Staples’ work has appeared in such publications as Harper’s MagazineThe New York TimesNew York Magazine, Town and Country, National Geographic and was featured on NPR’s This American Life and CNN.  She’s a fellow of the Rauschenberg Residency (2015) and a two-time recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Grant.

Her in-depth investigation of Pure-Bred Poultry led to the publication of The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens  and The Magnificent Chicken: Portraits of the Fairest Fowl 

How The Fairest Fowl and The Magnificent Chicken Compare and What They Bring to the Reader

AH: Tell me the difference; like why people would choose one of your books over the other, Fairest Fowl versus The Magnificent Chicken. What do they bring to the viewer?

TS: Well, the Fairest Fowl is my first book that came out in…1999, no?

AH: 2001.

TS: Thank you, 2001…

AH: I remember that. 

TS: It’s hard to think back. The second one came out in 2013, but, yes, 2001. That was the first one that I did which was really exciting. Oddly enough, another chicken book came out three weeks before mine and it stole my thunder. I was not happy about that, but it’s one of those things. No one has ever heard of this topic and then all of a sudden there are two books, which was great. 

Then after the first one came out, I was having a lot of shows. I do a lot of chicken things; selling prints for magazines and I’m sort of an authority on pure-bred poultry. Then I moved to New York during that time and had a child. I was a commercial photographer so I was doing a lot of commercial work, but I really wanted to do another topic and I really missed going to the poultry shows. In the first book I was living in Chicago so my poultry shows were in Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. I really enjoyed going to these poultry shows and meeting those people and just seeing what kind of birds the Midwest was really into.

Then after I had the baby I decided that I really wanted to do more. I felt I really wanted to do more with the chickens. I’ve grown immensely as a photographer. When I started doing The Fairest Fowl I really did not know how to shoot on location. It took forever, I would bring the wrong equipment or I’d borrow a car and I’d break down. This was when I was really trying to figure out how to go on location. 

Then by the second book I was shooting digitally. That was the other thing; in the first book I was shooting with film so I would shoot with one roll. I shot everything with my Hasselblad, which is square and there’s only twelve images on each roll of film. So I shot twelve images of each bird. That’s it. 

AH: Wow. Yeah.

TS: And in the second book I had a digital Hasselblad, so you could just shoot and shoot and shoot. Which I didn’t get that many more, I felt good about that. That was really exciting because now I’m living in New York and I was going to shows in New Jersey and Connecticut and then Boston. 

Just a different group of people and a different group of birds to be able to compare and contrast, and that was just cool. With that, I started taking two assistants with me and I took a van full of equipment, and like twenty different backdrop choices that were different every single time. I went a little bit more to the extreme and I had a really great time. I just loved so much so The Magnificent Chicken is a few of the images from the first book. It’s a more expanded version and it’s a hard cover. That is the difference. 

I wanted to do something entirely different but it’s not quite where we got. In fact, one of the things that I did was I wanted to include portraits of the people, of the breeders, because it was so fascinating what these people did in terms of living their lives for these shows, and they were just such interesting people.

I spent some time travelling around and going to people’s farms and photographing them. Then when I got the book deal for the second book, they were not interested in the people. I was so disappointed so I ended up reaching out to a magazine called Backyard Poultry and for about two years I would write. This was really an interesting challenge. I would write articles about the people and they would feature a section with the portraits that I took, and portraits that I did of their birds, along with the story of how they got into breeding chickens. I would also give tips on their breed or special ways of dealing with problem that bumble foot or whatever it was, like leaky gut or whatever. Leaky gut… I don’t know. That was really fun for me and I got even further into understanding the world of poultry. 

The Magnificent Chicken Book Cover

What Went Through Tamara’s Mind When She Attended Her First Poultry Show With Her Uncle

AH: Right. I find it fascinating because like so many things we take it for granted, right? I’m sure that when you first went to that poultry show with your uncle, that you were probably thinking what the heck? 

TS: Yup.

AH: To so many us, especially we’re about the same age, right? You know once upon a time; an apple was an apple. Right? There were maybe two kinds. 

TS: Right. 

AH: An orange was orange. And a chicken was a chicken. It was just one thing. And to find out that there’s hundreds and hundreds of varieties, I can totally see how somebody, anybody, can get into something like this. Just to illustrate; before I became a nutritionist, I was kind of loosely, just like most people, kind of interested in food. I’m from New York and I would go to China Town for a lot of my shopping. 

Sometimes I would have a friend with me and usually somebody who didn’t give a hoot of what they ate, but they would walk through the Chinese markets with me and they’d be like, is that you know, whatever looks like? Is that what that fish looks like? Is that what that…I didn’t know there were seventeen different types of starch you could use in cooking or whatever, and it really does.

Every time we would go to the Chinese market it was opening up this big world. I mean for myself all the time, but for some of my friends who really had no clue, the variety of food that was available right within their own city, no less, it really opened it up. It became almost like a Sunday afternoon activity like going to the zoo or an aquarium or something to just walk through China Town and identify things. 

I could see where this would be very similar where you take this, what most us think of kind of beknow experience of chicken, right. I’ll just have the chicken. But to realize that it expands to its own culture unto Fascinating paint colors… named after chickens!

Fascinating Paint Colors… Named After Chickens!

TS: I think most people think of your white chicken, right, that you put in the pot. But there’s been a couple of ways that, well for instance, Martha Stewart made chickens very popular through her magazine because she had her own variety of chickens that were pure-bred, of course. 

Then she named some of her paint colors after some of the names of the chickens, which is one my favorite things about the poultry shows. I’m going to read to you a couple of the names because these are so awesome. Like I was telling you about, one of my favorite birds, the Modern Game, here’s one that the color is Lemon Blue Modern Game Bantam Pullet. 

AH: Wow. 

TS: Isn’t that a great name? 

AH: Sure is. 

TS: Old English Creole Bantam Cockerel. Now, the pullet is under a year and the cockerel is under a year as well. 

AH: Right. 

TS: Blue Wheaten Old English Bantam Cock; Golden Sebright Bantam Cockerel; Belgian Bearded D’uccle Milfer Bantam Cock. I mean the names are…Golden Campon Large Fowl Cockerel; Blue Cochen Bantam Pullet; Salmon Feverolle; The Dark Corners; The Silver Dutch; The Partridge Wyandotte; The Silver Duckwing Araucana; Black Wyandotte Dominique. It’s just so fascinating, I just love the names.

AH: The names are almost romantic. 

TS: It really is. 

AH: Yeah. 

TS: But they all have a specific meaning. Like, for instance, the White Lace Red Cornish Large Fowl Cock. I will break it down for you. White Lace, obviously, the lacing is white but it’s a red Cornish, the color of the body is red. And then the Cornish is the breed. And then there’s two types of chickens, or birds, in the poultry show. There’s the large fowl and then there’s the bantam.

AH: Right. 

TS: That is a difference in weight. And then cock, so it gives you the color, the breed, the size, and the sex, and the age of the sex. If it’s a cockerel it’s younger and if it’s a cock it’s an older bird. It’s in a certain order which helps you to identify; there’s a name for that kind of that thing but I can’t think of what it is when you, when there’s specific names…

image of 2 Chickens in a barn yard

The Cock, More Than Just a Bird; Symbolism and Rituals

AH: That’s not nomenclature, is it?

TS: I know, that was the word that I was thinking, too, but maybe that’s not it, I’m not sure, but I think what is really interesting is that the French, and you probably know about this, they’re known for their chicken. That’s their, isn’t it the country bird or something, the cock?

AH: It’s actually the country bird for a lot of countries. 

TS: Oh, I did not know that.

AH: Portugal, I want to say Japan uses it for some stuff, I know the crest of French royalty often had the cock on it. 

TS: I thought it was the national bird. 

AH: It could be, it entirely could be, but I know when I went to Portugal there were cocks everywhere. 

TS: Yes, I’ve seen that, too. 

AH: There you go. 

TS: It’s all over the world. I mean the usage and the different ways in which every culture has incorporated chickens goes back thousands and thousands of years for trade and ritual. But what I was going to say about French cooking is that, and you probably know this, they can even be as specific as using a certain age of a chicken and a certain breed of a chicken for a specific dish. 

AH: Yes, there are definitely, and you get into the castrated cocks. Why am I drawing a blank? 

TS: Capon. 

AH: Capon. But yes, there are some, like the breast chicken is one that’s going to cost you to get a breast chicken. But yeah, they really do get into that and they’re almost mythical after a while. Some of the dishes, how do I try, especially if you don’t live in France, how do I track one of those down?

TS: Even mythical, I mean even beyond food some people use it in ritual, like religious rituals. There’s one ritual and I cannot, I guess it might Israeli, I don’t know, but they are over a newly married couple’s bed, like to wave a chicken over the bed; it brings fertility. I actually read a book called The History of the Chicken, that I did the cover for. Anyway, I’m drawing a blank on eight million different ways, but in truth, through trade and food, and religion, so many uses of the chicken. But I think I found most fascinating about where we are culturally now with the birds. 

AH: It’s so universal. It’s almost like if we wanted to really break human history down, like if you talk about the dog, of course we can also talk about the chicken because the chicken’s been there. It’s so symbolic throughout so many cultures from Ancient Greece to Modern China and Japan, France and all of these different cultures. Yes, there are so many things that you could go back to with that. It’s a very humble animal but I think maybe it’s coming up on getting its due and getting its day in the limelight. We are finally acknowledging the chicken has been with us pretty much forever. 

Picture of Tamara Staples with title on her side on a red background in Pinterest size

Chicken Consumption Versus Other Meats in the USA and Abroad

TS: They really have, and we eat more chicken than any other meat by a long, long stretch. 

AH: I think that’s more particular to the US though, right?

TS: Is that really? 

AH: I do believe so. I do believe it’s the number one meat in America for sure. 

TS: And what do other people eat?

AH: Beef. It depends where it is. Like Europe, I’m going to say probably beef is more common in many countries in Europe. Then again, it kind of depends on where you are, beef, pork. I would say the Germans probably eat more pork. The Italians definitely, well maybe…and again this can’t be universal. I’m also gauging a little bit by looking at cookbooks, especially older cookbooks from around these cultures. 

TS: That makes sense. 

AH: You don’t see a lot of variation on chicken, necessarily, but you see a ton of beef in Italy. A lot of Italian cookbooks, they’ll have pages of beef and rabbit and all these other meats and maybe four chicken recipes. I was like you don’t do anything beyond cacciatore? Really, that’s all you have?

But then you go to Greece and you might start seeing more lamb or fish. I think it does vary depending on where you are. I would say probably with North Africa through Southern Europe. When I say Southern Europe, I’m thinking specifically about places like Greece. You’ll probably see more of the lamb and maybe goat. Then going to the Vulcans, you might see more of the mutton-type stuff. I know the Brits love mutton. But I think, yes, I think the chicken phenomenon, as far as the food that we eat is…I think that’s a little bit…maybe even a lot heavier in the US than it is in other parts of the world. 

The consumption of chicken, it’s not that the other ones don’t eat it, I just think that we eat disproportionally more than other people. It’s probably because…you and I before we got on here…we talked about a little bit of cholesterol. Or I talked a lot, you listened. 

TS: I learned a lot. 

AH: In the 1970s was when they made the big chicken push for everybody to switch over to chicken from beef. That was a big turning point, I think, for our diet in the US. It was in the ’70s when they really started pushing chicken and then they were like that’s not good enough, now it’s got to be boneless, skinless. 

TS: Oh good grief. 

AH: Yes. 

TS: I live for the chicken skin. I do. Nice and crispy.

AH: I know right. Oh my God, it’s so good. But I need to tell you though, when you eat a cock the skin is really, really thin and it reaps very easily. And I’m sure there are many people out there who would agree with me; you don’t want to beat up the cock skin. 

TS: But for flavor, you can’t beat it. 

AH: Oh, it’s true, it’s true. I was joking about Jamaicans, that’s one of the reasons because it’s a flavorful bird; it’s more flavorful than a hen. 

TS: Yes. 

Is Tamara Working on More Chicken Books?

AH: Are you working on any other chicken books?

TS: Not another book. I just did a series of cameo portraits that National Geographic just put up on their website in March and that was really exciting and that was a whole series. I’m up to doing other bodies of work; there will be definitely be chickens in my future. I don’t know how yet, but I do love the people; they’re good people. It’s a truly an American experience to go to the poultry shows. 

AH: Ok, now I want to go to a poultry show. I never thought of doing that. 

TS: You really should. They have them in Hawai’i, I’m sure of it. It’s really something special; it’s an American experience, it really is. I enjoyed the people; I still have life-long friends from that experience. I’ve spent probably fifteen years going to poultry shows, photographing them and being in touch with people and dealing with that. I still show the chickens and they are published everywhere. More importantly, I dream of the day that I’m in a situation where I could own my own chickens. 

AH: Well, that’s going to be kind of tough in New York City. You know who does have chickens? You might even know her; maybe you met her at a show? Isabella Rossellini, out on Long Island. 

TS: Oh, I did not know that. 

AH: I just recently, around the same time that I ran into you, I ran into an article about her, and she has backyard chickens. She talks all about how she loves that. I guess she grew up partially in Europe with some birds. Now in between her Lancôme shoots, or whatever she’s doing, she’s digging in the dirt and getting down and dirty with the chickens. 

What’s in Store for Tamara’s Future

TS: I love that. I feel like my future will definitely be out of the city. I foresee moving to the country and having, I’ve never had a garden. I dream of that with chickens and maybe even some goats. 

AH: Ooh, you’re in for a treat. But you know that’s the thing about modern life, and maybe this is, maybe we’ll bring it to a close so I can let you out of here, but modern life I think for a lot of people, because many of my recent interviews we’ve talked about the increases in suicides recently and anxiety and depression and all of the factors. Because you and I before this interview, we talked about how cholesterol plays a role in those kinds of things and other nutritional deficiencies that could play into that. But when it comes down to it, I think what’s happening also socially is not many of us are not finding a lot of meaning in whatever jobs we’re told we should do because they make good money, because…whatever the excuse is. 

Through an extension of that, through an extension of mistrust of doctors and mistrust of food system, more and more people seem to be turning towards the homestead. Having that little garden, having a couple of chickens, having a goat or a cow, really connecting with something. I don’t want to sound, this is going to sound a little trite but awe-inspiring, really see the action of nature. Maybe start to make sense of some of the things that are going around us. Really add another dimension of things being meaningful again in your life. 

As a mom, I don’t know if this happened to you, but when I first had my daughter I was like, wow this is what it means. Everything went from just me and my husband, and yes, we were having a good time, but there wasn’t a lot of meaning to things, in a way, and when we had our daughter it was like your perception of things totally changes. 

TS: Yes, it does. 

AH: I think that communing with animals and plants; I’m actually a little bit more in awe of plants than I am of animals because that’s another really fascinating experience. When you really understand how plants work and how they respond and how closely their nutrition mirrors human nutrition. I’m not saying because plants are a good source of nutrition, I’m saying when you feed a plant sour things it’s very similar to feeding a pregnant woman something sour, is what I’m talking about. It really has you thinking on another level. 

I do believe that in the future farmers are going to be our big money earners, and rightfully so. I’m talking about small farmers. As people move away, I think people will go back to bartering systems. 

TS: That would be lovely. 

AH: You know; I raise chickens you raise beef, let’s do a trade. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future. I think that we’re going to be forced to be more civilized in that sense. More sharing and caring and really getting down and getting our hands dirty. 

TS: I want to live in that world, please. 

AH: Come to Hawai’i; I got a job for you. 

TS: Wow. That sounds dreamy. 

Paying Homage to the Humble Chicken

AH: Tamara, is there anything that you would like to leave people with to contemplate the next time they’re looking at a plate of chicken? 

TS: Well, just know that a being gave its life for your meal, and that that being had a personality and was quite beautiful, when you eat your chicken. I love the idea of, I think it’s the Chinese who leave part of the animal with the dish so that they can remember. I think we’re so far removed from it, we get our chicken and it’s a lump of white meat. Maybe pluck a chicken or try to take its guts out or just get a whole one and put the foot on the plate just to remember. I don’t know. 

AH: That’s actually the reason when my friend invited me to slaughter fifty cocks I said okay, because I needed to understand from the ground up what the experience was. What the sacrifice was going into that food. 

The other way that I pay homage to these animals, any of them because I eat a lot of protein, I eat a lot of meat; I’ve never been shy about that because my body requires it. Some people can get by with less and I seem to require a heck of a lot more, but I don’t waste any of it. We’re a very, very wasteful society; about thirty percent of our food gets wasted and often people are more willing to sacrifice the meat on the plate and toss that in the trash versus any of the other foods or non-foods that on the plate. Right? 

TS: Right, right. 

AH: So I save all of my bones; I make bone broth out of those and I’ve done this for thirty years now. Before bone broth was a thing, I was like “Oh, this just makes things taste better.” And at the end I was broke but we used as much as we can. Now with my little farmstead it’s like nothing goes to waste because I can turn bones into, for the lack of a better term I’m just going to say fertilizer. It’s not really a fertilizer but I can use it in my garden for various things. 

The charred bones of animals are actually extremely good for toughening the skin of fruit. Thinking of the calcium and giving it that inoculation so that bees won’t sting it, or makes it harder for them to sting it at least. These are things, like I said; all of this stuff comes full circle so you know you can always find a way. 

And by the way, you know that chickens are cannibals. A lot of times I make stock, and now those bones go out and the chickens will pick everything off the bones and then I can use them for my gardening. We’re pretty much zero waste, now if only I could find a way to get stuff without plastic. 

TS: I know right. 

AH: But everything else just goes back into the earth, one way or another. 

TS: Wonderful. 

AH: I wish you luck in finding your happy space and being able to find your garden, whether it’s a community garden or you go out to visit Isabella Rossellini. Tell her that you’re there for a photo shoot that she forgot to put on her calendar. 

I wish you luck and thank you so much for bringing us these beautiful chickens because I’ve seen some of the photographs, it’s phenomenal. It’s more than just a coffee table book, it’s a real education. It’s art, what you do is art and there’s no mistaking that. Thank you so much for your contribution. 

TS: Thank you so much for having me, I really enjoyed our time. 

AH: Same here. Bye. 

You may also enjoy 20 Perfect Gifts For Chickens.

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