You gotta crack a few eggs
Posted on: May 3, 2005 2:24 PM
While grocery shopping today I pulled a carton of "Cage Free Vegetarian" eggs off the shelf at my local Marsh Supermarket and put them in my cart. The ovoid brown shapes each cradled in their individual clear double-topped biodegradable plastic cells looking so much like tiny radio-controlled space-craft at rest. So far from the mounds of warm fresh-from-the-hen eggs I gathered in a willow basket when I was a child.
When I was a child we raised chickens to provide us with eggs for the table. My grandmother loved to tell stories of how raising chickens had saved my father's family during the Great Depression when she had sold dressed hens - which means they were butchered, cleaned, and ready to cook, not that they were wearing costumes - and dozens of eggs to folks in town, delivering twice a week in the old 1926 Model T Coupe. The chickens I cared for were descended from the poultry of that time.
My grandmother believed that caring for animals helped a child learn responsibility and while there is no doubt in my mind she was right I still hated taking care of the chickens. The hen house was a long dark sloop-roofed building with windows on the south. Rows of nesting boxes lined the east wall. In front of the north wall were roosts, think bleachers with very narrow "seats" and wide open spaces between each rank. Roosts are where the chickens sleep at night heads tucked neatly under a wing. While sleeping most of our chickens facing south, toward the windows, with a rare creature bucking the trend and facing in an alternate direction. They looked like a chorus of decapitated fowl that had escaped from a Tim Burton movie. Finally the west side housed the feed room where ground corn and oyster shell were stored and a smaller rank of nesting boxes were attached to the short wall.
Some of the nesting boxes were easy for a child to reach but most required that I stand on an old wooden soap box so I could see into the nest before putting in my hand. Sight and hearing were as important as touch in this process. First I would kick or hit the side of the metal box frames to warn any intruders, who may be lurking in the straw, that something much bigger then them was near...or maybe this just made me feel safer. Then I listened closely to try to hear if any non-chicken sounds were present. You see behind or under the straw a mouse or a rat or a weasel (seen in the picture on the left) or a snake might be hiding waiting for their chance to sample the same eggs I were gathering for our breakfast. Then I watched the back of the box closely as I quickly grabbed the eggs, using as few digits as possible in the process - better to save some for another day, and moved on to the next box to repeat the process.
Then there were always the stray eggs to be gathered from under the roost or along the window ledges. Misguided hens, thinking that difficulty of access would mean their eggs were less likely to be removed, would lay them anywhere they could find enough footing to squat. These places required the types of bodily manipulations that are unique to children and circus performers - left arm stretched out, waist twisted to the right 45 degrees and bending forward hanging over the side rail, right leg braced against the roost at a 90 degree angle, left foot firmly planted under the stand to keep me from falling, all the while wiggling to get just one inch more length so I could grab the egg in front of me. In these places we had the usual fur-bearing critters and snakes to worry about but without an easy way to either scare them off or to see them before they struck. Now in truth none of the kids in my family were ever bitten, but it was often a very near thing.
Beyond the constant concern about what we might find in the nesting boxes there were other issues we faced when entering the hen house. The primary one having to do with unhappy poultry mothers who didn't want to see their children, or potential children as it were, taken away. Trust me you haven't lived until a pissed off hen lands on your head and tries to force you to drop her off-spring by pecking at the top of your noggin...of course the hen didn't realize that dropping an egg is not conducive to hatching a chick. We won't even get into the fact that there was no rooster in our flock so fertilization was pretty much impossible. In the summer there was the added issue of the ubiquitous feel of chicken crap oozing between your toes if you dared to try doing chores barefooted, and I lived barefooted when I was a child so I felt the ooze often.
I hated taking care of the chickens and gathering the eggs, but oh did I love eating the fruits of my labors. There is nothing like the taste of an egg from a farm-raised cage free hen, the store bought versions don't come close. When cracked the ones I remember had sticky clear whites with just the palest tint of yellow that cling into a rounded mound surrounding the creamy lemon colored planetoid that is the yoke. Chill them for a day or two in the produce refrigerator, then hard boil till the yokes are perfectly set.
Hard boiled eggs were the snack of choice when my brother and sister and I set off for our adventures into the Wild's, a tangled overgrown marshy area of the farm. We kids could play for hours getting completely dirty and generally wearing ourselves out in the Wild's. We took breaks from our play to settle onto tree stumps and crack our hard boiled eggs trying to peel them in one continuous piece, something that I'm sure is totally impossible to actually do, then leaving the shells scattered around the ground - scratches to mark our passage.
The Rhode Island Reds laid brown eggs - the best tasting by far in my opinion, while the Leghorns gave us the more common creamy white-shelled eggs - which were easier to peel after boiling. My frugal German Lutheran Grandmother would not have understood the call of fancy eggs like Martha Stewart's favorite Araucana with their blue-shells and contents that taste the same as their more humble white-shelled cousins but cost three times as much. Why do you need expensive when the cheaper varieties will do?
Well I think I'll make a frittata for dinner tonight. Maybe the Mediterranean version - Kalmata olives, feta, zucchini, red pepper - which is about as far away from my frugal German roots as these plastic encased spheroids are from the eggs of my childhood.
Maybe it's time for hubby and I to get a few chickens of our own so we can have fresh eggs. How about some Rhode Inland Reds and a few exotic Araucana for variety, those blue-shells are so pretty and they don't cost more if you raise your own. I wonder if you can peel a hard boiled Araucana egg in one piece?