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A Chicken in Every Cul-de-Sac
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
There's a quiet revolution going on in America....
Let me start over.
There's a noisy revolution going on in America, and the noise primarily involves roosters crowing and hens clucking.  The desire to 'eat local' and connect to our food has spurred an interest in homegrown eggs, and all over our country people are constructing chicken coops in their backyards.  What started as a trickle a few years ago is now a torrent; a full-blown social phenomenon where chickens are being introduced to suburban lands that, decades ago, were once farms.  Like an agricultural tide that can only be delayed but never ultimately denied, farm practices are being re-established on residential lots that were once the exclusive domain of sterile McMansions.
The desire  --and for many, the obsession-- to own chickens has created new classes of revolutionaries and outlaws.  There is a movement to change local ordinances that ban chickens in urban areas, and the most sophisticated Gucci-shod lobbyists would be hard-pressed to match the tactics of these neighborhood activists.  In city after city, from Los Angeles to New York, ordinances are being debated and changed to allow small backyard flocks.  (Rooster bans are a common compromise that allow passage.)  But, even where bans exist, outlaws are using clever tactics to keep contraband chickens.  In fact, one commercially available chicken coop is designed to look like a nondescript trash can and recycling bin in order to conceal its ulterior purpose.
Why all this effort, this flouting of the law by otherwise law-abiding citizens?  Because there's something about chickens that is inherently beautiful and fascinating.  Chickens can be arresting in their appearance; all sizes and shapes and colors, they look like kinetic art moving in search of food.  Chickens have complex social structures and behaviors.  You can be entertained for hours simply watching chickens interact with one another and their world.
Take the glamour of the bright-hued chickens, the intellectual challenges of keeping them hidden, and the ever-present threat of Code Enforcement and you have an intoxicating mix that carries with it the thrill of sticking it to The Man.  You know who you are, and you chicken outlaws unknowingly carry forward a long tradition of subverting goverment rule by secretly keeping your own livestock.  Anthropologists now believe that the Pharoahs of Egypt denied their Jewish slaves the right to keep pigs because the Pharoahs wanted the slaves to rely on their rulers for their food.  Some of the slaves may have secretly kept the omnivorous pigs  (no mean feat hiding a pig in your hut) to gain a small sort of personal freedom in this oppressive arrangement.  This ancient pig ban was eventually written into the law of the Torah, which is why pork is not considered kosher today.
But even if you don't seek the outlaw's thrill, there is one more reason to keep chickens: the eggs themselves....
If you compare a homegrown egg to the standard supermarket egg, the contrast is striking.  Frequently the homegrown egg is from an exotic variety of fowl that produces eggs of rare colors; blues, greens, or chocolate browns.  The homegrown eggs have a thicker shell and inner membrane.  It takes double the striking force to crack a homegrown egg.  The yolks of homegrown eggs are larger, more colorful, and have more 'muscle tone' that makes them stand up in the circle of egg white.  And the flavor...well, the flavor reminds you that you haven't tasted a real egg for many years; maybe never in your life.  A homegrown egg just tastes...eggier; a multiple of the flavor you experience from the supermarket egg.  You don't need cheese or condiments to tart up the egg to make it palatable.  The single best egg-eating experience you can have is to poach a homegrown egg with just a drop or two of olive oil in the poaching cup.  The flavor of the egg will come through, and the first bite you take will result in wide-eyed recognition that finally --perhaps for the first time in your life-- you're eating a real egg; eating something the way it was meant to be.
And, when you're done with your eggs, you can grab your coffee, the flavor of the egg still lingering in your mouth, go into the backyard, and marvel at the spectacular source of your breakfast.  Try doing that in front of the refrigerated shelves in your supermarket.