Saturday, 22 March 2008

Happy Eggs-ster

Although one might have many mental associations with the word "Easter," I think that eggs is one that we can all agree on. Personally, I would feel cheated without a chocolate egg, and so would my children . . . but a more, say natural, egg still has its place in our Easter traditions.

Several people (well one, for sure) have asked for a chicken post.

So here are my chickens: Ralph and Lauren. I think that Ralph is the skinnier one grubbing in an empty flower pot.

(I'm sure it goes without saying that oldest daughter, she who worships at the Polo shrine, named the chickens.)

As you all know, because I keep banging on about it, I live in a rural idyll. Sort of. (This is a particularly fetching shot of our drain, but what you are going to do? The photographer was cheap and she only had a cell phone to work with. Also, chickens are not very cooperative subjects.)

When you are a country dweller, it is likely that you will attend an agricultural show at some point. Not only is it a major form of entertainment in rural parts, but I think that you are naturally more susceptible to the herd instinct when you live amongst so many cows. The agricultural show is kind of like the circus for the city-dweller -- only you get to take the animals home. Last September, we attended the very show described to you in the above link -- and somehow, we came home with chickens. Well, we didn't exactly load them into the Volvo, but we had definitely paid for them and they arrived (from the Cotswolds) soon after.

How could this have happened? Well, if you don't have children of your own, let me introduce you to the miraculous power of protracted pleading and whining! If only we could bottle it and put it to work for us instead of against us . . . on those annoying limescale streaks in the the shower, for example. (We were Spring Cleaning yesterday; it just came to mind.) With the concentrated force of a laser, my youngest daughter unrelentingly bore done on me. She employed that devastating form of mother-torture which cleverly combines wheedling ("You are the best Mommy in the whole world!") with begging ("Please Mommy! We are the only children in the Universe without pets!") with promising ("You will never have to lift a finger!"). The master stroke, though, was to remind me of a foolish promise that I may/may not have made the previous year when we had just landed in West Berkshire and were still suffering slightly from shell-shock. "You said that when we got settled we could have a garden and chickens . . . "

I am, shall we say, ambivalent about pets. For me, they are an entirely redundant, and thus unnecessary accoutrement because it is my deeply-held belief that if you have children, you do not need pets. Pets and children serve the same purpose in life; you feed them and clean up after them, and they give you affection when they feel like it. (I've heard that dogs are more consistent when it comes to affection, but I wouldn't know because I have a cat and two chickens.)

As with everything in life, being a chicken-owner has taught me some things that I knew already -- chiefly, that children quickly get bored of cleaning out the chicken house and will backtrack on promises to feed the chickens without nagging. This sort of parental wisdom falls under the category of "knowing exactly how the story will end." You KNOW that they will break their winsome little promises to you about happily taking care of their pets. You know it; you know all the time you will be proven correct, but your children will never acknowledge that fact -- and yet for some crazy reason you will still knuckle under, as you also know that experience is the only effective teacher. (You also know that the youngest daughter will one day realize that getting to collect the eggs is not an adequate recompense for always having to clean out the chicken hut, but then that is part of her learning process. Younger children will always be manipulated by their craftier older siblings; it has always been so.)

Here are some things about chickens that I didn't know:
Chickens are always hungry. Chickens are stupid enough to foul their drinking water, but smart enough to hang out under the kitchen window because you once threw some bread crumbs out of it. Chickens can run really fast; especially if they are hungry (mine often chase me because they know I'm their one always reliable source of sustenance), or if the cat pounces at them. Chickens love being free! They will wander and roam, pecking and grubbing at everything in their path.

Some of you may be aware of the campaign to end battery-farming. It has got a lot of play in the UK recently, partly because Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingston made TV programs about what a very horrid thing it is to keep a chicken crushed in a coop for all of its short, sad life. I am proud to say that Waitrose, my favorite grocery store, sells only free-range eggs! Having said that, I believe that our chicken house -- which is a sort of two-story penthouse -- provides enough space to allow a chicken to be technically described as free-range. I will provide a visual so you can see for yourself that it is hardly anyone's notion of being "free."

While this is considered to be quite a luxurious pad for a chicken, I can assure that what my chickens really like doing is making a break for the field in the background . . . or being allowed to wallow in our flower beds.

Having chickens has really convinced me that all of God's creatures really do want to be free. Chickens, like Bruce, are "Born to Run."

When I was a child in Temple, Texas, we ate pure white eggs that had a sickly, pale yellow yolk. You will never see a white egg in England; all eggs are brown. Furthermore, the eggs have a deeply golden yolk -- almost a tangerine color. When you get used to it, you find it more wholesome to look at and thus become convinced that it is more nutritious, too.

Every egg that I eat is bursting with Ralph or Lauren's happiness at being able to wander and grub at will.

The egg yolk really does look like the sun.

When it comes to dying Easter eggs, though, the brown shell becomes a problem. The English don't seem to have the American taste for bright eggs in lurid pastels. There is not a PAAS dye kit to be found here. When I asked an English friend how they dyed Easter eggs, she shared an interesting bit of country lore with me. Apparently, people who want dyed eggs will wrap an onion skin around their egg and then boil it for 10 minutes or so. According to my friend, the egg then becomes beautifully marbled and takes on a deeper brown hue. Well: I was so dubious about this procedure that my friend demonstrated it for me. Let's just say that aesthetics are not universal. While I did detect a slight marbling, I wasn't very impressed really -- and longed for the deep duck-egg blue and shocking pink of my own youthful experience.

Later today we will be dying eggs -- but I cannot at his point assure you that we will be successful in this attempt. I've got that sinking feeling that without the controlled system of PAAS dying, any experiments with food color could yield diabolical results. I promise to report back.

In the meantime, I offer up a simple recipe for Easter breakfast -- or any breakfast. We call it EGG IN A NEST. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, it was her favorite meal.

Egg in a Nest for one:
  1. Butter a piece of wholewheat bread -- both sides, generously. (This recipe doesn't need wholewheat, but it does need a sturdy type of bread.)
  2. Using a round cutter of some sort, cut out a hole in the middle of your bread. You may eat the leftover hole, already buttered, while proceeding through the following steps.
  3. Whisk one egg with salt and pepper to your taste.
  4. Heat a non-stick pan; probably mediumish heat is required, but you might have to adjust this down slightly.
  5. Place your bread in the pan and carefully pour enough egg mixture to fill up the hole.
  6. When you think the bottom bit is sort of cooked, and before the bread starts to char, flip your bread. This is a delicate process that gets better with practice. Do not worry if your egg doesn't stay contained in its hole; it's not going to, in my experience. It will still taste good.
  7. Serve on a warmed plate (this is a nicety which I never follow myself) and ENJOY.

Happy Easter!


heartsease said...

Ok - how long before we get a blog on "How best to cook a hen that's stopped laying"? (But only if the foxes don't get them first.)

Anne said...

I would love to have chickens some day. And yes, they really must be permitted to walk around (and, if possible, spend some of their time at pasture). One of the really sad things about modern factory farming, in addition to the animals' restricted movement, is that it separates the cows and the chickens, and neither can benefit from the presence of the other. When both animals are pastured, the chickens pick at and distribute the manure, which improves the pasture for the cows (also keeping the smell to a minimum); and in the process, the chickens get to peck around for all sorts of tasty grubs and seeds and such, which as you know, leads to more wholesome eggs.

The Suitor and I feel bad that we don't let our cats run around outside, but as we live near a busy road and intersection, we keep them inside for their safety.

Having pets is a great deal like having children (or so it seems). Our cats seem to be children stuck at the point where they're mobile and able to get into anything and everything, but also not old enough a) to sleep through the night consistently, or b) to be reasoned with.

As for feline affection v. canine affection, I think more than anything it depends on the cat (or dog). I've had cats who wanted nothing more than to be left alone and given the occasional table scrap. Dusty, however: if he's not playing or eating, he wants to be in someone's lap. His sister, Madeleine, has at least two or three fits throughout the day when she MUST have petting, preferably with a lap or belly on which to "make biscuits," and will meow most plaintively until she gets exactly that. When she does get it, she purrs like an outboard motor.

Happy Easter!

Brave Sir Robin said...

The cats don't kill the chickens?????

Bee, I wish I could write like this.

This post tells the story, it flows, it reaches its conclusion, . . . very nice.

We always had chickens when I was growing up, and fresh eggs are a completly different thing than store bought.

Anne - There is a method of ranching, that rotates cattle with pigs with chickens and then you plant certain crops, and start all over. Sustainable farming at its best.

Even though I am not a beleiver, Happy Easter guys!

Bee said...

I've said what I needed to say to you in person! We all know that you are actually a tender-hearted person.

Anne and Brave Sir,

You both know so much more about nature than I do! Without sounding daft about chickens -- and I'm not actually that sentimental about the little critters -- it is quite eye-opening to actually live with an animal.

Next time, Anne, we'll have to talk about cats. Our devilish cat is called Minstrel. He is a man-cat of many moods and odd quirks. I always wonder what goes on behind that impassive feline face.
He does love a good roam, but refuses to be pushed outside in bad weather. England is bliss for cats because they can curl up below the radiators. He also loves to lounge in my chair (of course!) or on top of the ironing board.

BSR, I'm not a believer, either; well, only in good bread! BTW, thanks for the very fine compliment. I had fun writing this and your appreciation means a lot, too.

Bee said...

I forgot to mention, BSR --
yes, Minstrel likes to "stalk" the chickens but when they flap and make an almighty squawk he loses his nerve!

Anne said...

Another non-believer here, except in the joy of great food. I mostly celebrate these holidays because they're great excuses to cook up a feast!

I, too, wonder what goes on in our cats' furry little heads. They all have such distinct personalities, too!

BSR, that does sound like a fantastic way to farm. I would love to have my own farm... maybe someday.

Off to make cupcakes!

Lucy said...

Funny post Bee!

We've done chickens. Two of them, Madeleine and Martha, who looked like rather louche Parisian ladies of a certain age with scraggy necks and fishnet stockings. For a mercifully short time we also hada dangerous, psychotic and overweight cockerel called Chickpea, who fell off a lorry at a day old and we rescued from the middle of the road.
The hens died of natural causes a couple of years ago. The eggs were nice, and went on a surprisingly long time, but frankly they're not the most endearing creatures. I sometimes think I'd quite like a pair called Esclarmonde and Etiennette, but the attraction of the names is not enough to persuade us to get any more.

Ducks are rather cute, but I think more trouble.

Anonymous said...

Hurray for chickens! Thank you for keeping them so I don't have to! Sometimes I have a yen for them but then I remember the smell of burning chicken manure near my off-campus apartment in San Antonio. I don't think that could have been legal, ugh. I admire your philosophical acceptance of the life lessons you're all learning. Who babysits the chickens if you're out of town?

English agricultural shows remind me of reading Christie, Wodehouse et al. I didn't realize they were still going strong.

At the First Methodist Easter service we went to yesterday (mother-in-law in town) there was a children's sermon. The speaker spoke about easter eggs, what they symbolize, etc. She asked leading questions to get the children to give her the answers she wanted, as is common in these rituals. Then she moved on to Jesus and the empty tomb. "And when they rolled away the stone, what did they find?" A moment of silence and then a clear childish voice asked, "An egg?" It brought the house down. So here's to eggs and the overwriting of nature worships with other worship. --Jenine

Anonymous said...

Here's another chicken-related post from Belinda, a rural Arkansas blogger who has had chickens in the past and is eagerly looking forward to getting some buff orpingtons this spring: chickens!

She also breeds standard poodles, and according to her story, std. poodles and chickens don't mix. Enjoy! --Jenine

k said...

just elaborated on my TX road trip over on my blog.
will read more of yours soon. hope your easter was lovely!

Bee said...


Love those chicken names! How about Millamant and Mirabell? We'd have to get a "frilly" breed of chicken to match their high-falutin' names, though.


That is a great "egg" story -- you know that will become legend in the little one's family.
So I read about your Arkansas chicken farmer -- and was impressed that even though she already has owned chickens she is still excited about them. (see Lucy above for an idea of my true feelings about chickens)
I wonder who's going to be wringing the chicken's necks?
I didn't want to lower the tone, but another thing that I learned about chickens is that they produce a lot of chicken shit. Hopefully, it will eventually fertilize the garden -- but at the moment, it mostly sits there in unappetizing clumps.

BTW, how many blogs do you keep up with? You seem to have a broad range of blogging interest!

K, have read TX road trip story! That sounds pretty scary! I had a similar trip in Spain once.

k said...

loved this! you're such a good writer! will try the recipe soon.
how did the egg dyeing process go?

k said...

ps/ lili's class has chicks now. they'll go to another school before their full grown though. i'll put pics on my blog soon.