What Is A Capon?
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Posted on 16 Mar 2015 21:35

Capon is a poultry ingredient you will find in may old European cooking texts from the Middle Ages. It would seem to be some type of bird popular in Europe at the time. Many sources do tend to misidentify it as such. In fact, it is a male chicken — a rooster — that has been "caponized," for lack of a better term. You may see the word capon used, especially in Britain, to mean simply a large chicken, but historically it is much more specific than this.

The capon was invented by the Romans. At times when there were grain shortages, it was forbidden to fatten chickens. However, the Romans realized that when a young rooster was castrated, he would gain copious amounts of weight without being fed a large amount of valuable grain.

Young roosters "unsexed" in this way would often grow to twice the size they normally would. Not only would the resulting "capon" be a larger bird, but the meat was thought to be juicier, sweeter, and more tender. Thus, this innovation born out of shortages, became a luxury item that eventually became somewhat of a status ingredient, selling for more per pound than other birds. To understand this, think of a rooster that would be worth 50 cents becoming a capon that is not worth $5, but without requiring copious feeding.

capons in a yard

Capons in a yard. Notice that these capon roosters
have smaller heads, combs, and wattles.

capons in a yard

Capons in a yard. Notice that these capon roosters
have smaller heads, combs, and wattles.

How are Capons Produced?

It may seem reasonable to think that anyone with chickens should simply keep and castrate as many roosters as possible, but to castrate a rooster is nowhere near as simple as to castrate, say, a cat or dog. The rooster keeps his testosterone producing parts on the inside! They are under the backbone, just above the kidneys and to remove them requires a delicate operation using the proper tools.

When this operation was carried out incorrectly, as "slip" would develop, instead of a capon. Not everybody possessed the right tools, and when the wrong tools were combined with lack of practice, some of the articulate tissue may be left behind, resulting in a bird that was not quite a rooster, but not quite a capon either, and much less valuable. In other words, they were not as common and easy to produce in quantity as it may seem, and a person who had both the skill and the proper equipment could make quite a business, demanding a good profit for his capons. Of course, as you could guess, capons are a lot less aggressive than non-castrated roosters.

Why Aren't Capons Popular Today?

A farmer named George Beuoy wrote a pamphlet in 1913 called "What's a Capon and Why." I've drawn some of the description here from his work. He was convinced that the capon would revolutionize the poultry industry and offered mail-order capons as well as home-castrating kits. He even called himself the Capon King.

Beuoy's dream never became a reality. You might find capon on a menu or at a specialty butcher or high-end grocery store, but it is rare. Most of us would assume it's just some exotic bird, and, there is a good chance that this "capon" is not exotic at all, being not even a true capon, but just a large chicken.

It would be disturbing to most people to find they were eating a rooster who had been castrated at an early age, for the sole purpose of human enjoyment. But there is more to it than this. There is a good chance of killing the rooster, by nicking arteries, or damaging the kidneys, both of which are nearby. The bird must be immobilized with weights tied to his wings. And, no anesthetics are used. Before you get too shocked, anesthetics are not normally used to castrate pigs are cattle, which is routine and done outdoors in a quick and dirty fashion. It ain't pretty.

In the United States, it is fairly tough to sell capons. The FDA standards for what constitutes a true capon are very strict, and what is required goes way beyond simple castration, including the need for extra space and slow, careful feeding. If the FDA decides not to certify a bird as true capon, the producer is left with a big rooster that took 17 weeks to raise, requiring special care. They lose money on such a bird.

Capons are still produced in some parts of France, Italy, and other countries.

Read more at Modern Farmer.

Video of The Capon Process

The video below shows how a farmer "caponizes" roosters to produce capons. The tools are shown and named and the entire operation is shown and no topical anesthesia is used to numb the incision site. This video is included for information purposes, to illuminate that which is given above. You may find this disturbing and disagreeable, so watch at your own discretion.

You will no doubt notice the comment "birds have different nerve ending" and since I know you will wonder about the veracity of this statement, yes, it is meaningless. We cannot know subjectively how birds experience pain, since they cannot tell us or give us a rating on a pain scale. However, many of the same physiological and behavioral responses to pain as are observed in mammals are observed in birds, and although not all of these are consistently good pain indicators (they may indicate other things as well), it is clear that birds, including chickens, experience and react to pain, and suffer from it. Although we cannot know if the emotional experience is the same as it is for mammals, let alone for us, the close similarities in behavioral responses and physiological responses would argue for a similarity in how both birds and mammals experience pain.

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