Confessions of a Chicken Lady

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My grandmother grew up on a farm and had to tend chickens (and sometimes pigs), and her folks let her keep any money she made selling the eggs. Long after the farm, as a stay at home mom in 1950s San Francisco, as a retired person in the Douglas fir forests of southern Oregon, she always referred to any random money she managed to salt away as her “egg money.” It was shorthand for off-the-grid cash she did not have to account for, factor into a budget, or have to confer with my grandfather on what would happen to it.

Since I got divorced there have been weeks where “egg money” has actually kept my kids fed.

I didn’t intend to be a Chicken Person. My childhood next-door neighbor kept a flock of white Leghorn hens, and when his family went on summer vacations, I was hired to tend the flock. Payment was a couple of bucks and all the eggs we wanted. I despised those birds. They bit. They kicked. They had to be chased into the coop through a redolent muck of manure and rotting lettuce. Their beady eyes and floppy red wattles freaked me out. They were monsters.

Thing is, I’m a food snob. In fact I think my parents first started calling me a “food snob” when I was nine and refused to eat at McDonald’s. Or at the dismal Old People Chow establishment where I had puked on two separate occasions. We didn’t have tons of money when I was a kid, and to my folks, who saw these affordable, accessible places as treats, it was a huge affront for me to issue a blanket refusal to say it was good enough.

It wasn’t good enough.

Look, my parents called me a lot of things that they thought were funny and actually didn’t think very hard about how they sounded to me, which is a parental oversight we all make. “Food Snob” hurt. Snob was an awful word, a word for someone who labored under the pathetic delusion that he or she was somehow better than everyone else. I don’t think it was until I was in high school, maybe college, that I realized that my “snobbery” was an instinctive horror of factory food and things that came out of cans. Being a food snob meant preferring good food, food that had a soul.

Guilty as charged.

I wanted the best of the best. And once I had kids, I wanted them to grow up on really good food. But also to comprehend at a deep level what it actually takes to get a calorie into their little mouths. I want to raise mindful eaters, aware, grateful, adventurous and in love with the pleasures of the table. Once we had a suburban place with an arable backyard, I knew that meant chickens, or I wasn’t I wasn’t living by my principles. Visions of my neighbor Gary’s hideous Leghorns rose up before me and I squirmed. But we loved eggs. And I don’t know that there is a more heinously-treated animal on earth than a large-scale commercial laying hen, so for an unreconstructed food snob who had a little bit of dirt to call her own, there was really only one answer.

My daughter has always been unusually sanguine for her age, but still, that one surprised me. “Could you do that?” I asked.

“Well, Daddy would have to help.”

“I don’t mean could you kill them yourself—I mean, could you really eat a chicken that had been like a pet in our backyard?”

Eve fixed me with a withering look and answered, “Mom, please—where do you think our food comes from?”

What do you say to that?

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Soon, the living room was full of chicks. We rigged a heat lamp over a galvanized metal tub. In the bottom, peeping and flapping, were four ridiculous fluffballs with tiny little beaks, little stumpy winglets, and tiny, four-toed feet. Look, even for an avowed bird hater, there are few things in the world more preposterously cute than a chick. But they’d grow up and turn into chickens. This was it. I was now responsible for farm animals.

“What do you think Daddy’s going to say when he gets home?” I asked Eve.

“That you’re cuckoo-bananapants,” Eve replied confidently. I agreed.

The chicks stayed in the living room until they started to smell like chickens. Then they went to the garage, where they stayed until they had all their feathers—and had figured out how to jump out of the tub and hop around the garage crapping on my husband’s guitars. At about six weeks, they moved outside. By January I was anxiously calculating eggs per week, even though we wouldn’t be seeing any until April.

There is no other way to say it: an egg is a miracle. The egg is a thing of potent symbolism; in various cultures signifying rebirth, the primordial chaos, fertility, mystery, perfection. I was not prepared for how it would feel to find one in the next box. Elation. The egg was petite, perfectly formed, with a pale turquoise shell. We called our parents. Seriously. When I saw a bunch of my neighbors shooting the breeze out front, I ran out to show the egg to them. We had a long debate over what to do with it (it ended up scrambled, and yes, it was the most ethereally perfect scrambled egg ever). I admit that not everyone cares about their ingredients to the extent that I do. Which is fine. But for those who do, I want to go on record saying that raising your own hens in the name of having the best eggs is not excessive.

It’s strangely addictive. You start researching different breeds, and it’s easy to fall in love with some weird, rare or exotic bird with an unusually beautiful tail or a cool hairdo or an eye-popping egg color. You go to the feed store and find hatchlings too cute not to take home. The modest three-bird flock you intended to have swells. It doesn’t happen to everyone. Some people are very disciplined, or very easily overwhelmed. I am neither, and I have a lot of hens. Enough that there is no way we can eat them all when they’re in season.

Enough so that I secretly sell them through a closed Facebook group. Don’t tell the
USDA.

When we separated, my ex and I tried a split custody arrangement in which the children stayed in the house and we traded off a second, also-shared apartment. Everyone said it would be better for the kids, and better for the kids was what I wanted even at the price of extra suck for the adults. They called it “nesting,” which was not lost on me, nor was the fact that one of my last-straw moments had occurred when he had “accidentally” left this self help book lying around, called Stop Walking On Eggshells. It’s about not letting bat-shit-crazy people ruin your life, and he had ticked all the boxes on the inventories and left the book where I’d have to clean it up.

Nesting didn’t work. It was debilitating. And one of the places it showed up was the garden I had designed and tended for years. It started to feel pointless. Ultimately, in an effort to get myself and the kids focused on something healthy and productive and alive, we got more chicks. We already had a larger flock than my town’s ordinances technically allowed, but it didn’t matter. We nurtured them, kept them warm, played with them.

I know something’s wrong the minute I step outside. It’s too quiet. The chicks usually call to each other incessantly as they explore the backyard. I hear nothing.

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I find Charlie, the white Ameraucana pullet I’d been particularly fond of, under a rosebush near the kitchen window. She can’t have been dead long—I’d been watching the birds hop around the patio and attempting to fly not 40 minutes earlier—but the little body is cold already, the glossy, gesso-white feathers lank, the eyes empty.

Cold? No, it’s been unseasonably warm, they’ve got their feathers, and they would have been instinctively huddled together if they were cold. Where are the others? Had they eaten something toxic? It seems the most likely, but hens get out of the run all the time, either because I let them out on purpose or they manage to escape, and I have never known one to poison herself. It’s just so strange. In a panic I scarcely understand, I wander the yard calling to the other two birds. I know it’s no use, because I’d hear distress calls and there are none. I finally, hours later, find the Rhode Island Red in a patch of lemon balm. The other Ameraucana I never find at all. I wander the yard, thinking I really can’t take another minute of failure, of death, of making an investment in keeping something alive and productive and thriving only to have it end in what’s the fucking point. It all falls together, click click, like mala beads, or a rosary, or anything that stands for repetition and ritual. I give up the search, trading it for a prayer that rats or other scavengers will take her before she’s found in an advanced state of decomposition by my seven-year-old.

Yes, eggs are miraculous. Also: the universe is shitty sometimes. You have to console your kids when a weakling chick doesn’t make it past three days. When a silver spangled Hamburg you’ve gone to great effort to acquire gets its head ripped off and its heart removed by a raccoon. When vixens, raptors, old age, random keel-over take the bird they really liked. I’ve dispatched two Rhode Islands, a Barred Plymouth Rock, a rare and costly Salmon Faverolles, two Splash and one Black Copper Marans, a Silver-laced Wyandotte, a Red Star, three Ameraucanas, a wildly hard-to-acquire Penedesenca, a Banevelder, and a Buff Orpington named Jennifer who was so laid-back and friendly that the kids could carry her around like a teddy bear. It’s always a little distressing, but as I have always told my daughters, the younger of whom was still in diapers when we started the Egg Project, they aren’t really pets. They are livestock. It’s Nature and Stuff Happens. You can’t get attached.

Why is this so different? Why do I feel like I personally killed them? Is it because today I have officially been separated for one year?

The girls and I

have a serious talk about whether it is worth going through this again. They are staunchly in favor of replacing the chicks, so we do, we start over. I don’t have my heart in it any more, but they still think yes is a better answer than no.

They are lucky.

Three of the four replacement chicks survive. The daylight hours hit a tipping point and eggs start to appear, first one, then eight a day. They are perfect and whole and permeable yet with a vehement tensile strength. They seem fragile but they are built for endurance. And they remind you that those things also exist. And that some things still stand not for failure to thrive, but for hope.

And egg money.

An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.

Hen photo by Alexandra Stevenson CC BY-ND