Sunday, October 7, 2012

Guess who we are having for dinner

End-of-life issues have been troubling me lately, specifically, What do you do when a hen stops laying?

A recent egg shortage in Mexico has rekindled our plans to build a chicken coop but there are many details and ramifications that need to be explored.

Our gardener Félix is all excited. He keeps a rotating cavalcade of animals in his own yard, including turkeys, hens, roosters, two dogs and two cats, one of them blind, and at one point two young donkeys both of which one day disappeared overnight. Chicken coop, chickens, eggs, no problema, as long as you guard against foxes and coyotes, he says.

Then again, Félix is a farm boy from a family who slaughtered a cow, two pigs and God knows how many chickens just to feed the crowd at his wedding party.

That's not where Stew and I are at in our agricultural development.

Stew says he's excited, or at least politely pretends to be, though he hasn't spent more than five minutes actually considering the details and responsibilities of chicken husbandry, if there is such an avocation or endeavor. He pointed to his favorite chicken coop design--the smallest and easiest to build--from a selection offered in "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies" and that's the last I heard from him about the topic.

Our, or should I say, my, interest in a chicken coop precedes the recent egg shortage. I hate to support factory-style egg producers, like Bachoco in Mexico, which raise chickens in compartments half the size of a shoe box, then squeeze--metaphorically though it wouldn't surprise me if they did it literally--every egg they can out of each hen. After that it's off to the slaughter house for the birds which are crammed in green plastic containers piled up ten-high on a flatbed truck.

At a traffic intersection sometimes you pull up to one of those trucks and catch the pathetic sight of a frightened bird peeking at you out from behind the plastic bars on the boxes.

It's a sad scene that brings to mind Peggy Lee's mournful tune, "Is that all there is?" You wish you could approach the truck and whisper to her (to the hen, not Peggy, who's long gone to the poultry farm in the sky): "I'm afraid so, Sister Hen, at least for you."

But after than fleeting, moving scene, Stew and I might drive to a restaurant and order Pollo a la milanesa, which is the breast of a chicken pounded a quarter-inch thick, breaded and fried. Then we eat it.

Our squeamishness about the killing of animals doesn't extend to embracing a vegetarian diet, something Stew and I have repeatedly tried and failed at after only three or four days.

Sad truth is we don't mind bumping off Sister Hen, as long as someone does it for us and also plucks, decapitates, disembowels and dismembers her and puts the remains on a Styrofoam tray covered with plastic wrap. It's all a matter of degrees of separation between the deed and our plate.

A couple of years ago, we began buying eggs from Félix who collected them from chickens living in his yard. His chickens presumably led happy, fulfilling lives though really, Who the hell knows what goes through the mind of a hen or what her life aspirations are? But ultimately the eggs were not very good.

They were smallish, thin-shelled and with very fragile yolks, nothing like those mutant creations--in various designer colors no less--that Martha Stewart used to flaunt at the TV camera. The reason for the low quality of eggs from Félix, Stew surmised, was poor diet. Félix chickens just scrap along eating worms and this-and-that, and not that much of it either.

Eggs from our own well fed, fancy-pants hens, living in luxurious digs, would provide us with jumbo eggs, ready for collection in a wicker basket. These sassy, productive layers--the fifty-three percent of the chicken world so to speak--would vote Republican if they could.

I still have to get to the part in the "Dummies" book that explains how to find the eggs--do the hens just leave them around the coop, helter-skelter, or pile them neatly and then carefully sit on them?--but I'm sure we can figure that out with Félix' assistance.

But that's the easy part. It gets difficult when the hens stop laying and just spend their days peck, peck, pecking around like some retired gringo volunteers at not-for-profit organizations in San Miguel, just trying to pass the time.

I imagine these post-menopausal birds would keep producing manure which would still be very good fertilizer. But who ever heard of a coop-turned-nursing home for just cranking out manure? And if you keep bringing in young hens without getting rid of the elders, soon you'd either have to expand the coop or it will start looking like Hong Kong at rush hour.

I'm afraid that death followed by a dignified Chicken Fricassee may be the only solution. Friends have suggested we just give the aged birds to Félix--where would we be without this guy?--whose wife would dispatch and "dress" them for us.

Even then, I'm afraid we might start naming the chickens while they're still clucking, which would make them pretty unappetizing when dead. "Here's Southern Fried Chicken," we'd tell your dinner guests. "She was formerly known as Honey Boo-Boo."

This chicken coop business, I tell you, is going to take some further research.

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