I’ve raised a lot of chickens. Probably hundreds. For eggs, not meat. I give them the best lives I can, including a generous retirement plan when they reach a certain age, with free room and board, yet they rarely arrive at those emerald pastures. Precious few have lived long enough to die in their sleep. I blame myself.
If you aspire to keep hens, don’t let me discourage you. The eggs are of incomparable quality, and the byproduct is rich manure that’s like steroids for your garden, which will produce plenty of weeds and garden waste that your chickens can turn into more eggs and byproduct. It’s a nutritious, virtuous circle, without the bother of a compost pile. But just know that hen husbandry is a full-contact sport. And while there are many upsides to flockster life, the eggs aren’t free, and they aren’t always sunny side up.
You can order baby chicks in the mail. The little box is labeled “LIVE ANIMALS.” The post office will call you to come get them immediately, day or night. The box is full of cute little fuzz balls huddling together for warmth, perhaps standing on the bodies of their trampled comrades. If one develops a wound the others will peck at the wound until there’s nothing left to peck. Darwin would be truly impressed with baby chickens. Older hens, if given the chance, would quickly dispatch all the chicks, neutralizing future competition like the plumed dinosaurs they are. Hens can also get a taste for eggs, causing obvious problems. And those are just some of the threats from within the flock.
They will cower below the shadow of a passing hawk, but an owl strikes with more stealth. Some people think raccoons are cute, but not when they are pulling a chicken through a small hole, piece by piece. Many times I’ve run outside to smack their shiny-eyed heads with a shovel. When it’s a skunk, I keep my distance and throw the shovel, followed by any other throwable objects within reach. One night at dusk I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake, hunting eggs. Its hiss sent me running. I returned with my shovel.
One might suggest that my choice of chicken farming locations has played a role in the dangers they have suffered. But chickens are never safe. If you raise hens in New York City you probably have to fend off the rats. Huskies are chicken-killing machines. And they like to wander. Once, a husky wandered into my backyard when the hens were grazing and quickly killed them all before I could chase it off.
Even the sun can kill chickens. In New Mexico one summer morning, I forgot to let the chickens out of their extremely fortified coop. When I got home that night, all but one were cooked. A few years later while I was on vacation, a lightbulb exploded in the cold and burned down the coop. The fire department came. The house sitters were traumatized. Amazingly the chickens all survived, but that was the exception. I returned to the task of building a coop in the middle of winter.
The other morning I was on the couch with a cup of tea, and saw a fox in my backyard. A real actual fox. As in the kind of animal that you are not supposed to let guard the hen house. And presumably nowhere near the hen house. It had a huge bushy tail, and casually left the yard without appearing to notice the chickens, or so I thought. That was my cue to inspect the fence and coop for weaknesses, but its bushy tail must have hypnotized me. A few days later, four hens were dead.
At the winter farmers market, I saw the farmer that sells me my chickens. I told her what happened, and she agreed to set aside a new flock. I prefer buying six-week old chickens from willing, local farmers to baby chicks in the mail. Adolescents are tougher and less likely to get trampled, pecked, or picked off by the house cat. Until then, my remaining three chickens will have extra space in the avian equivalent of Fort Knoxx. In April my farmer friend will bring a box of teenage chickens to market for me, and the cycle continues.
One of my favorite scenes in any food film comes from Big Night. After preparing a very important meal, capped with a magnificent timpano, the cooks finally had a chance to feed themselves. It was the simplest of meals. Eggs, scrambled in olive oil, seasoned with salt, and served with a hunk of bread. It hammers home the idea that eggs are as satisfying as the fanciest of foods.
I thought I knew everything about how to scramble an egg, but I learned a lot from that scene. So here it is, the scrambled egg recipe, as best as I can tell, as prepared by Secondo in Big Night.
2 eggs, cracked in a mixing bowl
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
A pinch or two of salt, to taste
A section of baguette
Secondo turned the pan onto high and gave it a generous pour of olive oil. He then beat the eggs furiously for about 20 seconds, while the other hand slowly rotated the bowl, letting go and re-gripping as he turned the bowl into the circular motion of the fork. He added a pinch of salt and gave it a final stir.
I know that those who believe you can’t fry in olive oil will be skeptical, as will adherents to the “low and slow” school of scrambled eggs. With this technique the high heat allows for a taut yet supple skin surrounding a perfect fluffy interior, thanks to the trapped steam.
He poured the eggs into the pan and they spread out with a hiss. With a wooden spatula, Secondo began gently teasing the edges of the egg toward the middle, detaching the yellow disc and allowing him to shake it around the pan. After about 30 seconds, he gave it a casual flip, and slid the finished eggs onto a plate. Your flip need not be perfect. It’s easier than you think. If the eggs land in a crumpled pile that’s fine. Secondo slid the eggs onto plates next to torn hunks of baguette. They ate in silence.
At the risk of breaking character I garnish mine with a few leaves of parsley for color and flavor. And hot sauce, which I require on my savory egg dishes.