Monday, March 22, 2010
With Barbara and Camille's Kingsolver's rhapsodies about eating foods grown locally by independent small farmers still resonating in my head, I decided to try an experiment involving eggs. Stew had been complaining about supermarket-bought eggs having too-fragile shells and yolks. A friend who raises his own chickens theorizes that's because hens at nearby American-style factory farms are somehow made to lay more eggs, before the shells are properly formed.
I don't know if that's exactly true but we have seen the huge chicken factory farms near San Miguel: hangar-size metal warehouses with huge exhaust fans in place of windows. If they are anything like their American counterparts, those facilities are the chicken version of the seventh circle of hell. The poor animals spend their brief, miserable lives crammed in cages so small they are not even able to turn around, let alone walk or flap their wings.
The locavore alternative to this horror are free-range birds that get to go outside, peck the ground and cheep, crow, cluck or chirp merrily depending on their age, sex or vocal gifts. Presumably this more natural environment creates healthier, tastier animals and eggs.
My source for locavore eggs was our gardener Félix, an unflappable 20-something who also takes care of our dogs and cats when we are away, and lives in sad little town called Sosnavar, about two miles from here. He told me his grandmother raises chickens and eggs for the entire family at a small ranch nearby.
Grandma's techniques sound like the very antithesis of factory farming. Her chickens run around in a fenced-in corner of the yard, he said, pecking at early-morning handfuls of cracked corn, supplemented by worms, insects or whatever they can find in the ground during the rest of the day. When someone needs eggs, they go looking for them somewhere in the chicken enclosure. When someone gets a hankering for a chicken dinner, that'd be the place to go too.
Today Félix brought me a dozen eggs in a small plastic bucket, carefully nestled in cracked corn to keep them from breaking. They were brown and a bit smaller than the plastic-packaged white eggs we get from the supermarket.
So Stew set out to do an almost-scientific experiment (he couldn't do a blind test because he had to keep an eye on the frying pan.) Two locavore eggs in one skillet, two factory farm eggs in the other. The shells felt equally thick. The yolks were the same size, despite Grandma's smaller eggs. The whites in Grandma's eggs turned out slightly darker and the yolks maybe just a bit brighter yellow.
The taste, I'm disappointed to report, was the same, though more rigorous testing may be in order. Grandma's eggs might contain more vitamins and nutrients than the factory-produced models, though on the other hand her eggs and chickens, given their laissez-faire lifestyle, also may be more likely to carry pathogens that are not particularly good for you. I don't know.
But just on the basis of taste alone, I wouldn't run out and build my own chicken coop as a few American friends have done here.
Apart from the hassle of taking on more animals--we already have three cats and two dogs--I can foresee other complications, like what do you do when the hens stop laying.
Writing about her turkeys, Kingsolver talks about "harvesting" them, a term that sounds a hell of a lot more felicitous than "killing," "summary decapitation" or "turkeycide." Indeed Kingsolver goes on--and on and on--about how killing the animals you raise reflects the Natural Order of Things. She and her family get together in the shed in the fall to dispatch several turkeys at a time, and crack jokes while heads fall and feathers fly.
Stew and I eat meat. The best you can say about us in that regard is that we're "aspirational vegetarians." Or "practicing hypocrites" depending how cruel you want to be. We stick to pastas with meatless sauces, rice-and-beans casseroles and other such staples for a few days, until the image of a pork chop inevitably enters our heads and refuses to leave.
But raising chickens and then having to eat them would be too much, no matter how deliriously tasteful or nutritious. For one thing, Stew would promptly name the hens--Matilda, Felicia, Genevieve or some such--and then what? Grab Matilda and shove her in the Weber kettle?
Eggs from Félix's grandmother may be as far as we want to go in this locavore trend for now. They taste pretty much the same but there's the mental satisfaction of knowing the hens that laid those eggs led relatively happy lives pecking around mindlessly, with plenty of room to flap their wings when the urge came upon them.
There's also the feel-good factor of helping a desperately poor family with a weekly order of eggs, instead of sending our Social Security pesos to a huge factory-farm operator, probably owned by an American corporation.