Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Egg, An Egg!

It is a perfect oval (what else?), tinted the lightest pinkish beige. I brought it in the house tonight and put it reverentially in the fridge. And heaved a sigh of relief that my hens—Do, Re, Mi, and Fa—are not sterile.

It's been almost three months since we brought Do et al. home as well-grown pullets, with the expectation that they would begin to lay within a month or so. They lived in their summer quarters—a portable coop inside a movable fence—and grew tall and broad and sleek on grass and bugs and laying mash.

These hens are Buff Orpingtons, large, golden, matronly-looking birds with a calm and friendly disposition. As summer faded into fall and no eggs appeared in the nest, I moved them into their winter quarters—a room adjacent to the goat room—hoping that they would feel more snug and cozy and would begin to lay.

That was a month ago. The hens got fatter and more gorgeous in a Gibson-Girl sort of way. They made lots of hen noises, ones that sounded to me like the egg-laying kind. Still, no eggs in the nest. Maybe, I thought, they are laying under the shed. That would truly be a disaster, as there is no way I could crawl under there looking for eggs. As a test, I confined them to their room for 24 hours. But the nest remained empty.

During this three-month egg drought, I was reduced to buying eggs in the supermarket. I would stand in front of the shelves of egg cartons and despair. There were the run-of-the-mill jumbo-sized eggs that sold for a pittance...if you didn't count the price paid by the hens, confined in a cage, barely kept alive by medicated feed, and spent by 18 months of age.

There were “all natural” brown eggs in nice transparent cartons. These cost more, but offered no guarantees as to the hens' quality of life. Neither did the even more expensive organic eggs: you can feed a hen manna straight from heaven and still keep her in a cage.

I opted for “cage free ” eggs, which means that the hens—hundreds of them—are kept loose in a building. There is not much more square-foot per bird space in these arrangements than there is in cages, but at least the hens can walk around and peck each other, which they do—wouldn't you if you had to live your life in a metro station at rush hour? For all I know these birds are fed ground-up rats—but at least they're not in cages.

Every time I cracked an egg for an omelette I thought of those hundreds, those thousands of hens milling around in their buildings, and the ear-splitting noise, and the smell....We didn't eat many eggs these last few months.

But now those days are over: one of our girls has reached puberty, and the others will soon follow. And if I know young hens, they will lay like a house on fire through the coldest, darkest days of winter, thankful for our leftovers and keeping everybody's spirits up with their companionable clucking.

Come over some time, and I'll make you an omelette.

10 comments :

  1. yay for the hens! i bought a dozen eggs last week-pale blue, pale green, pale brown--from a friend whose hens are just as happy as yours. when her hen "trouble" died earlier this month, my friend wept.

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  2. Ah yes, those colored eggs. Almost too beautiful to eat! Does your friend read the NYer? A couple of weeks ago there was a long article about chickens, by one of their staff writers, who now keeps hens.

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  3. more than ever before I am so glad my CSA has eggs. And that one of the irish dance moms has 15 chickens and sometimes lets me buy a half dozen. I know those chickens are eating bugs out from under her dead leaves while they run around joyfully. Your "ground up rats" and metro station comments gave me pause.

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  4. I'll come up for an omelette if you'll come down for a longest of winter break ;-)

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  5. ah, that would be susan orlean, who is becoming just a wee bit twee, if you ask me.

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  6. Congratulations on your egg! Maybe I'll start thinking about getting eggs from the farmer's market -- although my husband will be unhappy. (he's much more interested in cheap than in the quality of life of the animals that give their lives, etc for his needs)

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  7. Everyone should know that Lali's omelettes are worth a very long journey!

    And congratulations on your egg. For future egg droughts Mach's has Uptunket farm eggs which are from real local hens running around on grass - though it is a bit of a drive from over yonder;) Elizabeth

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  8. It would be but well worth it ;)

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  9. I thought anonymous must be Elizabeth. And I was about to say the same thing: A Lali omelette is a perfect omelette. (This from a woman who never orders omelettes.)

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  10. It's a cheering sign, in these bleak times, that eggs from non-martyred hens are becoming more easily available. And Dona, I know what you mean about having to let go of the "best buy" mindset.

    Indigo and Elizabeth, thanks for the votes of confidence!

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