Wednesday, May 16, 2012

That's Where They Come From

As you can see, I've been baking up a semi-storm. This leads to being out of basic baking supplies;  flour, sugar, spices, milk and eggs. I have one lonely egg in the fridge. But, it's no matter. Oberweis delivers tomorrow and I ordered more eggs.

At the Lincoln Park Zoo, they have what's called "Farm in the Zoo". It's a museum farm designed to show city kids that milk doesn't come from a plastic jug in a chiller at Dominicks. It's an okay concept but nothing near what it could be, although I think the rarefied air surrounding the zoo would object to the smells of a more traditional working farm.

I never really helped dad milk the cows. He quit milking when I was in 6th grade. It was just more work than he wanted to deal with. But, he loved the idea of raising something. We had hogs for awhile but mostly, dad went with chickens. And with chickens come eggs.

I don't remember how many nesting boxes he set up. I think this particular row had 10. Every day, someone (usually me) had to go check the boxes for eggs. I think we must have had close to 2 dozen hens and hens were always laying. There was one rooster and he had a nasty temper. I had to walk across the barn to get to the other boxes and dad kept a broken broom by the barn door. He told me to grab that and keep it with me, plus never wear shorts. When, not if, the rooster charged, you could whack at him with the broom which would startle him and send him scurrying away. By wearing pants if you weren't quick enough with the broom, he couldn't poke you with his beak through the fabric.

I remember being terrified of that bird. I know on a couple of occasions, with a basket full of eggs from the first row of boxes, I decided those other boxes could wait for dad to check because I just didn't like how the rooster looked at me. It seems to me, dad got tired of dealing with him too, got another rooster and we had chicken for dinner one weekend.

The chickens were allowed to roam free although they usually came into the barn at night. We would lose the occasional one to something but, for the most part, they didn't wander and were fairly secure. With this roaming, you'd occasionally go into the hay mow and find a nest with 3 dozen eggs in it. SCORE! But mom, with her sagacity, wouldn't take any of them for cooking. "You can throw those against the barn." For those of you wondering why we'd do that? Who knows how long the original eggs have been sitting. Yes, you could do a water or candle test, but with this many chickens, you're guaranteed a steady source of fresh eggs. We would muss up the nest we found and then have a field day hurling the eggs against the barn. They made such a great sound when they hit. You always knew when you'd get one that had "turned".

The industrial chicken farms have hens in cages where all they do is lay an egg. It rolls down a chute and into a container to be sorted, graded, packed and shipped. Oberweis doesn't buy eggs from industrial farms. Their egg suppliers allow their chickens some measure of mobility. I think it makes for happier chickens and better eggs and yes, the eggs are more expensive.

My egg gathering consisted of looking into the boxes to see whether anything was there, adding fresh straw to the empty boxes and getting the evil eye from a chicken occupying a box and unwilling to leave so I could get her eggs. When that happened, "just stick your hand under her and grab them. She'll be upset and may poke at you, but you'll be fine", dad said. Um...yeah. I can remember standing in the barn talking to a chicken. "Look, I have to do this. Would you just get up and leave so I can see if you're sitting on anything?" Right. That worked about as well as asking my girls if they would come let me cuddle them. My sister could do it but I rarely could. Sorry mom. Many of those times I came back to the house and said, "That's all that was down there", there was a hen or two in a box and I just couldn't bring myself to stick my hand under her.

When I pull an egg or two out of the fridge to be added to the next batch of whatever I'm baking, I reflect that I know where this comes from and what it's like to raise chickens and gather eggs. Could I stick my hand under a hen to see if she's sitting on something? I don't know. Couldn't we come to an understanding where she leaves when I walk in the door? And where's that rooster? He's giving me the evil eye again.

Beverage:  English Breakfast tea


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