Although the US and Brazil lie in different time zones and different hemispheres, for both countries November and December are holiday months. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s festivities bring families together, and when families are celebrating, there’s always cooking to be done.
The holidays are a time for large family meals, and while both countries often choose turkey for the main selection, there is a certain poultry in Brazil that is not served in the US – Chester. In the US, turkey is served for Thanksgiving and often again at Christmas, and a large ham (tender) might also be offered. In Brazil, turkey, pork, or ham for the holidays is common, but certainly someone will be eating Chester.
Bigger than most chickens but not quite as large as a full-size turkey, Chester has a crucial advantage over turkey: It fits into the smaller refrigerators and ovens that are common in Brazilian kitchens compared to the US. Likewise, it’s rare to see a 15-kilo turkey in Brazil, while it’s common in the US.
A mystery surrounds the Brazilian meat known as Chester. First, why doesn’t it exist in the US? Additionally, even Brazilians will draw a blank when asked about this poultry dish: What exactly is Chester?
While the food is obviously a bird, it’s too big to be a chicken yet smaller than a turkey. Is Chester a bird that gorges on hormone-filled feed? Is it a rare bird that migrates each year from the South Pole? Some people believe the bird was created through the cross-breeding of turkeys with ostriches. Perhaps they only exist in a laboratory?
What fuels all this speculation of Chester’s genealogy is the fact that photos or videos of living Chesters are nowhere to be found. In Brazil, only one company produces Chester, supplying it to the entire country. The company is BRF, also known as Brazil Foods. Chester first appeared through the company Perdigão. Recently, Perdigão merged with Sadia Foods to form BRF.
According to sources at Perdigão, the company sent researchers to the US in 1979 to find a bird large and meaty enough to compete with the turkey at Christmastime. They returned to Brazil with the breeding stock ancestors of the Chester.
Working at a secret location to prevent genetic mixing with other birds, the Perdigão team developed a “super-chicken” that was about 70 percent breast and thigh by weight, compared with 45 percent for typical chickens. They named it the Chester, a pseudo-English word meant to evoke the large chest of the new bird.
When representatives at BRF were asked to name the origins of the Chester, they described their creation more like a mythical animal. It’s akin to “the majestic phoenix and the mysterious Bigfoot.”
To put it another way: “The Chester is just a chicken,” BRF says, “in the same way that Pelé is just a soccer player.”
When asked why there are no photos of living Chesters, Roberto Tenório, a BRF spokesman, said it was because of legal complications. This fits perfectly with the air of mystery the company maintains around the bird. Despite the secrecy BRF enjoys surrounding their creation, Mr. Tenório insists that Chesters are not fed antibiotics or hormones to increase their size.
While everyone may be perplexed by the Chester’s origins, it remains a popular holiday dish. Popular recipes include serving the bird with Portuguese chestnuts or wrapping it in bacon. Sommeliers recommend pairing it with a chardonnay or a brut sparkling wine.
In a country that thrives on romance and mystery, it’s not surprising that a holiday meal remains a poultry enigma.
[Research for this article comes from The New York Times.]