I’ve been traveling a long food road for most of my life, and that road was at first a circling, curving, hilly one, filled with daily routines like eating watermelon slices on Grandma’s kitchen stoop after supper at the end of a long hot farm day, with all the tired men and women and kids there in the dusk, sitting on the well platform; talking and slurping. I am bent over the glistening black-speckled, salt sprinkled crimson crescent I hold in both hands between my rolled-up overall-covered knees, my bare-feet plunked in the sand below, toes slightly curved inward, spitting seeds that will sprout between the stones, those sprouts surely trampled on our everyday tromping. And things like the milk pail slung inside the kitchen door after each evening’s milking, and long hot strawberry days.
Then that road straightens out into a highway, and alongside it are big barns filled with dairy cattle day and night. You see those barns in Vermont, too, and they look almost idyllic set in those green fields. But where are the cows? Not a sign of one. They’re never outside – their entire lives are spent in that barn, being fed hay and grain and antibiotics and hormones. That’s the reality of BIG for you – these farms milking from 225 to a whopping 1400 cows, with not a ray of sunshine or blade of green grass to satisfy their four stomachs.
Is BIG a bad word when it comes to food? Umm, well, half a billion eggs from TWO Iowa farms were recently recalled in the salmonella incident.
Yep... Half a billion eggs from just two farms!
Those eggs came from chickens raised in chicken ghettos – slave chickens raised in tiny cages, their beaks cut off, their bodies managed impersonally like lifeless little cogs in a machine. Those were 99¢ a dozen supermarket eggs or even $2.50 – who knows what they cost. In the long run they cost way too much.
But I don’t worry about salmonella or anything else when I break an egg into a frying pan, because my eggs come from chickens that peck here and there, into cow pies even, under the sun and trees, in the fresh air. They live like chickens should, according to the wisdom of old Mother Nature. And you know what? There’s really no reason to be eating supermarket eggs if you live in Vermont. I can’t drive a mile in any direction from Wallingford without seeing an Eggs for Sale sign plunked in someone’s yard, and I pay anywhere from $2.50 to $4.00 a dozen for them. The thought of 99¢ eggs makes me gag.
I could grow my own layers and meat birds, but I have a shameful secret, and that is I don’t particularly like chickens. I grew up with them, you see – Grandma raised them for eggs and flesh, and I found them dirty excitable things who invariably pecked me when I slipped a small hand under them to steal their eggs. They didn’t peck Grandma – Oh no! – they bent over backwards for her to steal their eggs. Maybe it had something to do with her calm, musing air as she scattered grain and seeds for them in the chickenyard, clucking along with them; or the way she would bend over and capture one and stand up smoothing its rindy feathers against her bosom.
About as far as you can get from my attitude toward chickens (and much closer to Grandma’s) is that of Farmer Bill, who stopped by last Saturday to drop off a dozen eggs from his own chickens, and while he was at it also brought me a pint of hard-won raspberries from the earlybird vendor at the Farmers’ Market, and a copy of his Chicken Things newsletter that he puts out a couple of times a year. I opened the egg carton and the eggs within left me in no doubt that they were fresh as the dawn, still stippled with grass and who knows what. He apologized: “I almost forgot them, and didn’t have time to clean them.” They were heavenly, the palest of pale yellow, pink, and green – or was that blue? – and giving off that ineffable scent of grass and chicken.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not one of the lucky people who regularly eat Farmer Bill’s eggs (though I am one of the lucky people who regularly eat eggs from Sunset Farm and other vendors at the Rutland Farmers’ Market), and the reason I was receiving these was an email I received from Ms. Bill a few days ago in which she told me about the flock of chickens that resides on their almost-off-the-grid farm in Danby, with which I was immediately fascinated.
She wrote, “We've been keeping the same chicken flock going since 1987. Our original chickens came from a farmer friend who had been interbreeding for years on his farm in Little Compton, Rhode Island, so we started with a mix of Araucana, Rhode Island Reds and who knows what else. Early in the 1990s we brought in some Buff Orpingtons and Silver Spangled Hamburgs to add to the gene pool, and along with them came a free chick which turned out to be an Araucana rooster, so that strain got boosted. A few years later I got some fertile Rhode Island Red hens from a friend. Ever since, the flock has proliferated by hens going broody and hatching out their own chicks. Half of the chicks are roosters, and we butcher them on the farm and eat the meat.”
Of the chickens’ present life, Farmer Bill writes, “This farm is an ultimate fantasy destination – if chickens elsewhere knew about this place they’d want to vacation here. Green grass... begins right outside their doors; they have barnyard, meadow, forest, and front yard and orchard, and each has what I now view as ‘that special place’ that makes all the difference, a contentment spot, a ‘mini jungle’, a spot of close trees, bushes with open shade underneath. They spend hours a day as a flock just sitting in their jungle rest retreat...”
He goes on, “I see the farm as a place where the chickens have the opportunity to express their ‘chicken-ness’ to the maximum. They can make choices (they like that) and go from one mini-environment to another and they like the trip, I can tell.” Bill particularly likes being able to afford his chickens the cow-shelter, “an open-sided shed of sunshine and shade mix, usually containing a couple dozen chickens, a cow, and a goose – the perfect pastoral scene.”
I’ve seen these chickens and the farm and I can attest that these are happy chickens. And now I’ve eaten the eggs, too. I ate a pale green one and my Breakfast Partner got a pale pink one. I called my egg Mariah. BP’s egg went unnamed and right down the gullet. The yolks were bright yellowy-orange, the whites stood right up, not spreading around, so the finished fried egg looked like a golden patty, not an insipid pancake. Yes, they were delicious.
Ms. Bill told me, “About 10 years ago, scientists recognized that eggs that come from chicks hatched out by mother hens contain a bacteria that is a natural protection against salmonella.” Factory chicken farms do not leave the chicks with their mother/breeders long enough to acquire that bacteria.
And then she said this, stating my own thought:
“It strikes me as perverse that our society has ruined something so beautiful as the production of an egg. Chickens are amazingly smart creatures, with far more personality than most people give them credit for. Locking them up in cages where they barely have room to turn around, keeping them indoors all the time, feeding them who knows what (well actually I do know and it involves taking the hens that die at the factory and shipping them to a production facility where they're processed into chicken feed...), is so inhumane, and most people don't seem to know or care.”Farmer Bill teaches a select few some tricks, such as climbing upon his shoulder and eating treats out of his hand. He thinks that, “what makes a chicken a pet is getting a name.” For instance, the rooster pictured on Bill’s shoulder is named Speckles, for his speckled breast.
Farmer Bill and Speckles, photo by John Geery
You will probably not be eating Farmer Bill’s eggs – they are very difficult to get ahold of, being in very high demand – but you certainly have many other sources for excellent eggs. Hie thyself to the Farmers’ Market, for instance...
You might want to get off the food highway, if you’re on it, and get on a small macadam road that curves and climbs into more interesting, and delicious, food terrain.