When we got our first chicks, Alan and I squealed like toddlers at Christmas. Our voices reached a pitch not heard in our adult lives. We couldn’t help ourselves – the cuteness was overwhelming.
We bought them at our local feed store, picking them out like pastries: one butter yellow, one apricot, a golden brown, one mixed, and two dark chocolate, please. The tiny fluffballs were sorted by breed and housed in giant plastic tubs, each bobbing with kinetic energy and warmed by a fat red heat lamp.
Our selections were scooped up and put into a small cardboard box that in hindsight looked a little too much like a takeout container. I huddled my arms around it to keep them warm and we dashed out to the car before they could catch a chill.
Once we got home we readied our makeshift brooder, a large wooden box we’d made from scraps of 2×4’s and plywood with a hinged wire lid. We scattered pine shavings thickly across the bottom and put in the feed dish first, then the water container – an upside-down mason jar with a special lid that allowed the water to flow into a small round trough. As the lid of the brooder slid down, we realized our first mistake: the chicken wire stretched over the end of the mason jar, barely making it closed. We hadn’t thought to measure anything; we’d set the height based on the chicks, not their luggage. We gave the wire an extra stretch and shrugged.
We put the chicks in one at a time, scooping them from their small cardboard box and guiding them to the water, giving their beak a quick dip so they knew what was where. The first few were easy to catch because the odds were in your favor – no matter where you blindly grabbed, you were bound to get at least one. The last couple were a bit more difficult. By then the panic had set in, and the puffy little lumps were prepared to vault out of the box at the first sign of light, and you had to be quick and somewhat prescient. Knowing where they would run when they saw your giant hand descending from the sky was key. After a few failed attempts, we flipped the box over and let the last one tumble gently to its new home.
We’d bought the chickens sexed, which meant that they were hypothetically all egg-laying girls. That hypothetical ended some months later when we caught one of them practicing their crowing inside the chicken coop. In hindsight, we should have suspected something was amiss when one of the fluffy little gray and cream puffballs came to greet me every morning with a sideways glance. I thought she was overly friendly. Turns out she was sizing me up.
On subsequent batches of chicks, Alan and I would take turns predicting which one would turn out to be the boy. There was always one, we learned. By day five, we could usually tell. The only time we were ever wrong was when one of our hens got broody and hatched a half dozen chicks herself. They all looked exactly the same, and were all learning the side eye from each other, like children picking up bad behavior from a sibling. Turns out they were all boys, beating every statistical coin toss we would have imagined. Tails it was, every last one. Half a dozen roosters in our small flock was just asking for trouble, so we ate a lot of chicken that year.
We also learned – the hard way, naturally – that any time someone gives you a bird for free it is a boy. Sometimes an extra arrives in the box you just bought, sometimes a neighbor has “too many”, but the result is always the same – some weeks later after the cute phase has worn off, we would discover why this particular bird had been so gifted.
I’m not a huge fan of chicken, at least not the “farm to table” variety. As hypocritical as it sounds, I like not knowing where my food comes from. I like having a small bit of distance between my plate and the process. I mean, I know – but I don’t want to know. I see it the same as reading the news – I want to keep track of what is going on in the world, but I don’t need the gory details. Give me just enough information to be an informed citizen but not so much as to fill my sheltered world with despair. I’ll take a chicken dinner now and then, but I’d rather not know precisely who is on my plate.
Alan takes a different view. If you are going to eat meat, he feels, you should have to take down an animal at least once. You should truly appreciate the process from start to finish. It’s sort of the farming equivalent of the old cold war idea of embedding the nuclear codes inside a volunteer’s chest. You might still push the button, but you’ll operate from a different perspective when you do. It makes the abstract concrete. He once went out to lunch with a physician who had a small backyard flock of his own. The doctor ordered a basket of chicken wings, then looked down at them wistfully. I would have had to butcher my whole flock for this meal, he admitted. But you’d better believe he didn’t waste a drop.
I helped Alan when he butchered our roosters that year. You sure? he asked. I nodded. It only seemed right. I told him I was all in when we moved out to the farm, and this was as deep as I could get. I didn’t do the hard parts, just the holding of what needed to be held and mostly trying to not look, but I think it still counted toward making an honest eater of me. You understand truly the balance between food and life when you hold a small body fighting for his as you make your future dinner. It’s not glamorous, but then again it never was. It was just hidden from view.
We got a new batch of chicks the following spring, and every year thereafter. Each year the process got a little smoother. We’d clean out the old brooder, then ready ourselves for phase two. We’d still squeal with delight, but softer now, from a place of confidence and routine. We knew the drill. We’d watch the young chicks get their sea legs, see their colors slowly deepen and their personalities evolve. As they feathered out, we’d watch them transform from cute to curious, pecking out Morse code on the brooder walls and eyeing the air bubbles as they floated up through the water in the mason jar. We’d see them become aware of the wider world around them, our world, as they listened intently to the sounds outside their walls. They’d peek up when we walked by and tilt their heads to the sounds of our voices.
A fortnight in, we’d move them into an old rabbit hutch so they could spread their wings. As their feathers filled in, they’d do this ballet move where they’d slowly stretch one side of their body, one wing and one leg in unison, to the tips of their feathers and the ends of their toes, then quickly fold them all back in. Then their tiny tail feathers would emerge, like tiny thin pins sticking out of a fluffy backside cushion. As they entered their teenage years, their feathers would fill in the spaces between, leaving them all manner of disheveled. They’d sport crew cuts one day and mohawks the next, then slowly transform into a full grown bird, confident and composed.
Then one magic day, after they were settled into their outdoor coop, Alan would rush inside grinning holding a small golf ball-sized egg. The first from a new bird. It meant that one of our baby chicks was now laying. The first eggs are sometimes called fairy eggs because they don’t always have a yolk. A day or two later you might find an extra wobbly one with two. It takes a few days to work out the timing. We’d fry them sunny side up, or no sun at all, and eat them in teeny tiny celebratory bites.
We never set out to butcher anything, all we ever wanted was to raise our own eggs. And raise them we did. By the summer, we’d gather handfuls of fresh eggs and place them in baskets on our dining room table. We’d stuff them into jacket pockets when we couldn’t carry them all, and on more than one occasion would reach our hands into a yolk-filled pocket some hours or days later and realize a moment too late that we’d taken out one less than we’d put in.
I never thought much about eggs before raising them – they were mostly a cheap filler food that were a staple in my fridge but pretty much stayed under the radar. I’d have one for breakfast every now and again, but mostly they were used in baking: one for a batch of cookies, two for zucchini bread. I don’t know what they really added to the recipe, but they were on the index card so in they went.
It wasn’t until I had our first farm fresh eggs that my entire sensory experience around them changed. Everything was different about these eggs – the color, the texture, the taste, and even how and where we stored them. Fresh eggs need no refrigeration. They sit in a bowl adorning the table like a basket of fresh fruit. The shells were all shades of cream and brown and pink and green, and even a dark chocolate color as we added more heritage breeds. Some colors were distinct and rare enough that we could connect them with a particular bird and thank her appropriately.
When you cracked one open, the yolk was the color of a tangerine, not the pale pasty yellow I’d been accustomed to. And the taste, something different entirely. It was rich and vibrant and full of flavor. Wonderful on its own, but if you are after something truly decadent, whisked into warmed pasta with a bit of salty parmesan for a creamy carbonara delight.
I learned the sound of eggs, too. And the season. Two things I never knew eggs even had. The sound is a sort of startled squawk, halfway between pain and surprise. A sort of chicken OMG! as they are laid. Hens use this squawk for any number of things as they are rather jumpy birds. But a careful ear can discern the difference. Alan’s better at this than I am, and knows just when to walk into the coop to collect the newly laid treasure. If the hen isn’t quite ready to move along, she’ll give him a good peck on the back of the hand as he reaches in. But if she is polite, she will stand up as if to curtsey as he comes near.
I’ve always heard the term “seasonal eating” and associated it with things like June strawberries and August peaches, summer tomatoes and fall squash. But eggs? As year ’round as bread and butter, milk and tea. Or so I thought. Until we raised our own, and I quickly learned that they were plentiful in the summer and on every nice day, but barren in the cold dreary depths of winter. The flock would slow down from almost a dozen a day to one or two here and there. On bitter cold days we’d get none at all, and the drought would sometimes last for a week or more at a stretch. We’d patiently wait for better days.
One particularly cold February we broke down and bought eggs for the first time in several years. Alan hated to do it, I could tell. He took it as a sort of farmer admission of defeat. But the winter had been long and the days overcast, and he couldn’t hold out any longer. He bought them at the bulk store where they were resold from a local farm, one that augmented their coops with heat lamps and false daylight – a sort of greenhouse for eggs. The hens were fooled by faux sunshine and warmth, and repaid their farmer accordingly. We don’t use artificial light with our birds – aside from the cost of it all, I suppose we believe that if the fields deserve to rest, then so do the hens. But we pay the price, one way or another.
It always seemed that no matter the year, just as we’d hit the lowest point in the valley of seasonal depression, a miracle would happen: chick days would arrive. The feed store would once again be filled with giant tubs bobbing with fluffy kinetic energy. We’d pick out our new chicks like pastries, two of these and one of those, some old favorites and oh, maybe we’d try something new this time. We’d squeal with delight and shelter them like new parents, watching them gain their equilibrium and then their feathers. And we’d hope that this year there’d be endless omelets, but no chicken dinners in sight.