December 12, 2000
THIS WEEK'S most frequently asked question: "Is the chicken head story true?"
This week's most frequently given answer: Apparently so. Let's see what develops.
What's the chicken head story, you ask?
Here's the gist of it, as first reported in the Newport News, Virginia Daily Press on November 30, 2000: On the night of November 27, Mrs. Katherine Ortega bought a box of fried chicken wings (not Chicken McNuggets, contrary to some reports) at a local McDonald's restaurant and took it home to her family. While dishing it up to feed her children, Ortega noticed that one of the pieces looked, well ... funny. Examining it more closely, she saw it had eyes and a beak. She screamed. It wasn't a wing at all, she realized; it was a chicken's head, battered, fried, and fully intact.
It sounds like an urban legend, sure enough, which is why some people have expressed skepticism. The story has earned column inches in newspapers all across the United States -- even finding its way into the esteemed Washington Post -- but who trusts the media to give us the facts anymore?
Plus, parts of the story beg for further explanation. Why did Ortega go straight to a local TV station with her find, while refusing to allow the owner of the accused restaurant to examine it? How did a chicken head find its way into box of wings in the first place?
USDA inspected ... NOT???
"I've never heard of anything like it," a USDA officer told the Daily Press. He was also quick to say he's not dismissing Ortega's claims.
From a poultry processing standpoint, there are two reasons why the incident seems unlikely. One, the very first step of the process -- even before de-feathering -- is beheading. And the heads are always discarded then and there. Two, the presence of unwanted parts ought to have been detected during later steps in the processing: the evisceration, which requires the active participation of a human operator, and the bird-by-bird inspection that's supposed to be conducted by an onsite USDA employee.
If the story is true, one obvious explanation could be pranksterism, a possibility investigators have so far neither accepted nor rejected.
Grist for the rumor mill
Meanwhile, Ortega's story is undergoing another kind of processing as it grinds its way through the rumor mill on the way to becoming an urban legend. As often as not, legends are inspired by real-life events, departing gradually from the facts as the story is told and retold and takes on a life independent of the original inspiration. Once upon a time, when rumors and legends were primarily transmitted by word of mouth, this could take months or years, but in the Internet age it can happen overnight. For example, one of the texts now circulating with a photo of the chicken head found in Newport News claims the object was discovered "by a woman in her Chicken McNuggets in Portland, Oregon."
Whether it proves to be true, false, or in-between, Ortega's story has the makings of a classic urban legend in the mold of the "Kentucky Fried Rat." Folklorist Gary Alan Fine, who has probably written more about this genre than anyone else, observes that the victims in food contamination stories are always female. Why? Because one underlying theme of such tales is that modern mothers are endangering their families' well-being by forsaking the duties of their traditional role, such as preparing home-cooked meals. The discovery of a rat, chicken head or what-have-you in a container of fast food, explains Fine, is punishment, in effect, for exposing one's family to the ravages of "amoral, profit-making corporations."
This moral message was clearly not lost on Mrs. Ortega, who expressed chagrin that her five-year-old could have bitten into the chicken head had she not encountered it first. "I will probably cook at home from now on," she told reporters.
Lesson learned, and duly passed along.