From the way the Cornish game hen is named and marketed, you might be forgiven for jumping to a few conclusions. You might see the word “game” and assume this is a game bird, like a pheasant or a guinea hen. This would be wrong. You might see the word “hen” and assume this is a female bird. This has a 50 percent chance of being wrong. In fact the only part of the bird’s name that isn’t a complete lie is the word “Cornish,” which is merely a partial lie. So what the hell is this thing?
The Cornish game hen was first bred, according to legend, by Tea Makowsky, who fled the Nazis and settled in Connecticut. (An SF Gate obituary provides some more biographical information about her.) After a fire destroyed her farm in 1949, Makowsky began cross-breeding chickens to try to come up with a bird that matures quickly, with a special eye towards the breast meat.
What she came up with was a combination of the Cornish chicken – at the time the most popular breed in the world for broiler (read: regular) chickens – as well as a couple of other breeds like the White Plymouth Rock hen and the Malayn fighting cock. (Sometimes a bird like this is called a “Rock Cornish game hen.”) These combinations gave her a chicken that grew gigantic breasts extremely quickly. In less than five weeks, the chicken was ready to be slaughtered, and, exotically, served one bird per diner. By the 1950s, the Cornish game hen was fabulously popular.
The USDA currently has a very minimal definition of the Cornish game hen; any chicken between one and two pounds in weight, slaughtered at fewer than five weeks of age, and of either sex can be labeled as a Cornish game hen. Because of the murky breeding history of the Cornish chicken breed, the USDA threw out any requirements that a chicken labeled “Cornish game hen” actually have Cornish chicken heritage. That said, because the Cornish chicken remains such a popular breed, and because it’s likely that most chickens in this country have some Cornish heritage, it is also likely that the Cornish game hen is, at least a little bit, Cornish.
The Cornish game hen still commands a higher price per pound than regular broiler or fryer chickens, partly due no doubt to its decades-old reputation as an exotic new fowl.
It is not exotic or new. The Cornish game hen is a lie.
It is a small chicken.