Origins & Information - "Tastes Like Chicken"

I went to see The Lion King, the Broadway musical, tonight and heard a common phrase during it that I had forgotten was in the script - "tastes like chicken." Pumba says this to Timon when he eats a grub, and I couldn't help but wonder how these animals in the African savannah could know what a chicken was. Then it got me wondering about the phrase itself since I am a bit of a lexophile as well. So to research I did!

The origin of the phrase itself is a bit hard to trace. It could go as far back as 1877 when a reviewer of rat meat compared it to chicken in the magazine Intelligencer ("Rat flesh is not bad dining at least so say those who have tried it, our knowledge in the matter being limited. It is delicate, white, firm tastes like chicken, and in China the soup made from it is considered to be equal to our well known ox tail." April 25, 1877). The Register in West Virginia likened alligator meat to chicken in 1891 ("In exile, in Mexico and Florida, the Spaniard eats alligators, which could scarcely be called a game bird; but the flesh of young alligators’ tails is very fair, and tastes like chicken if the tail is cut off immediately after death and stewed." July 19, 1891). Several books and songs have had such a phrase appear in their titles over the years. It was most likely popularized with the "tastes like chicken" skit/routine that comedian Robert Klein did in 1988; he would claim that everything exotic on a menu tasted like chicken no matter where he went in America and what he tried. Of course the internet helped with spreading this phrase (as it does today with memes) in the 1990s when it became more and more commonly used.

So why do things "taste like chicken?" There are several theories about this. Perhaps it's easier on one's mind when he/she tries out an exotic meat to think of it as something familiar and ordinary to eat rather than munching on rat or chewing on some frog. Another reason may be that chicken is bland! Fat helps flavor meat (as you probably know when you get a juicy, fatty steak), and chicken's quite lean. It's even leaner when raised commercially with a diet of non-fat-producing foods. Chicken specifically has lower levels of glutamate, which produces the savoriness in tastes for us humans, than other meats. This makes it blander than other meats and thus, a tad more universal when being likened to something else. Another take on why things taste like chicken is evolutionary. An evolutionary biologist named Joe Staton from South Carolina conducted a study on why certain animals taste the way they do - he links it all back to evolution. Similar ancestors = similar tastes. I especially liked his line about how "Crabs taste like lobsters because they both evolved from the same group of crabby-lobstery-tasting crustaceans." You can read his article here on what he theorized from his study's results.

There you have it! It may be an annoyingly common phrase nowadays, but there is a real reason for why people say it. I try not to ever use it when I try out new meats because I don't really think they taste like chicken but sometimes I have to use chicken as a measure to convey my thoughts. For example, when explaining alligator, I had to say that it tasted like chicken but tougher and richer in flavor in order to help the inquirer understand. Hopefully you don't use it all too much though because every meat has its own uniqueness (I surmise).