Once upon a time, a chicken was a chicken, and an egg was an egg, and the answer to which came first simply depended on whether you believed in evolution. Ah, the good old days. Nowadays, the chicken-and-egg business is awash in adjectives and hyphens; something as basic as an egg carton teems with descriptions pointing the unwitting consumer in all sorts of labyrinthine directions. When did everything get so complicated?
I suspect that at some point in the not-too-distant past, the word “natural” actually had a meaning shared by most of the population. In the new millennium, “natural” is a throwaway—you have to add “all-“ to wring any value at all from it, and it’s still pretty parched. As our choices have expanded, and sustainability in agriculture has begun to enter the popular consciousness, we are barraged by the marketing of “natural” foods, nowhere more apparent than in the egg aisle. But as more and more people want foods produced by humane and earth-friendly methods, the supply doesn’t seem to meet the demand. Those truly all-natural hens can’t lay fast enough. Enter the funhouse of the modifier.
There was always large, extra-large, and jumbo, the egg-producers having beat Starbucks in the race to label everything as superlative by several generations. And white or brown. That used to be the extent of it, two simple decisions, size and aesthetic preference. Now there are moral decisions to be hashed out as you choose between free-range, cage-free, Omega three, family-farmed, no-gmo, veggie-fed, hormone-free, organic, locally-owned, antibiotic-free, artisan-made, sweatshop-free…(oops, I think I got out of the egg cooler just there at the end). What with the large and fine print cluttering the egg cartons, it’s no wonder there’s usually a bottleneck right at the egg section of my local grocer, as my fellow bewildered customers try to figure out if Susie’s Family Farm or Paradise Organics is the right choice. Does Susie treat her workers well, we wonder? Has Paradise been bought out by some major evil corporation? Are ANY chickens ever given hormones, or are the egg folks just borrowing a bit of anxiety-calming rhetoric from the red-meat folks? And does any of it really make a difference to the chickens?
From an aesthetic and ethical standpoint, I want to buy eggs and meat from chickens that were raised the way I picture chickens in my mind, strolling about the farmyard magically unmolested by attentive herding dogs. These chickens populate my toddler’s cardboard books in plenty, pecking at the green tufts of grass with their chicks trailing behind. These chickens look happy, expressing their inner “chicken-ness” by partaking of the activities dictated by their natures: scratching, catching bugs, and whatever else a self-realized chicken does. In a real world, these enlightened chickens would even lay eggs with naturally high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and would be resistant to disease because they are healthy and unconfined, living out the picture that “free-range” produces in my mind.
I found some of these storybook chickens last summer at the farmer’s market set up in the parking lot of our town plaza. The fairytale farmer was youthfully handsome and idealistic, flaunting a notebook filled with photos of the hens wandering his acreage, basking in the sunshine and freedom of sustainable farming methods. I gushed with excitement: finally, food I could feel unreservedly good about feeding my children! I happily handed over an exorbitant $5 for a dozen guilt-free eggs and started to walk away, but was lured back by the perfect poultry in the pictures. “Do you happen to have any broilers?” I ventured. “Just one left,” he grinned. He hoisted the sole remaining chicken out of his freezer and looked at the label on it: “Four pounds, okay with you?” I returned his wide-open smile as I handed him a twenty, taking the chicken and dropping it into an old plastic bag as I joked, “Can’t you find a bigger one in there?” pointing to the now-empty freezer. There is an awkward pause after he pocketed the bill I had just given him and said, “Thanks. Hope to see you again.” I was still smiling politely, waiting for the change he did not seem to be getting for me. In my unsureness about how to handle the situation, my eyes scanned the booth, and only then did I actually read the little chalkboard which gave the prices of his various vegetables, listing at the end: chicken, $5/lb. Four pounds at five bucks a pound, shit, that’s TWENTY DOLLARS! I had just bought a twenty dollar chicken, and I was way too embarrassed to hand it back after I had been falling all over myself telling him about how great it was that he’s doing all the right things, how I wished more people were doing it like him. I grinned one last time to cover my confusion and regret, and turned away, swinging the bag with the $20 chicken from one hand.
Now bereft of cash, I wandered away from the produce stalls over toward the lawn where several families were picnicking. My own kids were clamoring around in the general mélange of children, and I stopped by to check on them and say hi to the other parents. At each blanket I held up the paltry-seeming bag and flatly announced, “I just bought a $20 chicken,” my shock temporarily trumping the embarrassment I would start to feel shortly.
The sheer indulgence of having spent twenty dollars on one scrawny chicken weighed on my stereotypically middle-class scale of guilt, but it was balanced by the fact that I realized it probably represents the true amount of money a chicken is worth in the world that I, with my liberal ideals, would wish into existence if I had the requisite power to do so. In a world where all workers are paid fair wages to ensure a decent standard of living, in a world where the chickens are outside of their efficient “cage-free” warehouses actually eating wild insects and acres of grass instead of processed chicken feed with its list of suspect ingredients, in a world where the farmer values sustaining the earth over profits, a chicken would cost at least $20. My $20 chicken would probably be in the bargain basement of such a world.
I had to admit, to my untrained palate, fed for years on plump “free-range” roasters that probably never saw sunlight, my $20 chicken tasted pretty bargain basement: rangy and a little tough. Probably, just as with grass-fed beef, truly free-range chicken requires we adjust our cooking methods as well as our taste buds. I’d be happy to make the adjustments, I’m just not sure I can afford it. The “right” solution here would probably be to do some math: figure out how much I spend on chicken and use the same amount to buy only this truly sustainable version. Which would mean less chicken, but less guilt. Or I could raise my own free-ranging fowl in my back yard, an option I considered only until I mentioned it to my city-bred partner, who laid down a clear line in the chicken scratch: if we got chickens, we could eat their eggs but not them. No neck-wringing chez nous. I made a half-hearted attempt to woo my partner into the possibility of setting up our own slaughter house. “Coq au vin,” I murmured seductively. “Poulet provencal.” No go. She usually swoons when I speak French to her, but somehow my murderous plot wasn’t having the same effect as romantic renderings of lines from Jules et Jim.
I loved that she gave me this out, since although chicken is my kids’ favorite meal, and I do want us to eat in the most sustainable way possible, I was already developing a sense of dread about the moment of killing itself. Wring or chop? Of course, my pint-sized barbarians would probably love the literal sight of the proverbial headless chicken. In one of my most vivid memories of my semi-agrarian childhood, the seeming impossibility of that flapping, running bird-sans-head provoked my older brother to a hurricane of laughter. I recall inching backwards, fascinated but afraid, even though the bird’s main weapon was lying still attached to the tiny head near our chopping block. So I’m not in denial that the meat we eat comes from creatures that once lived and breathed, it’s just that I’d rather outsource the slaughter function. Back to the butcher counter for me, where I’ll have to grapple with my conscience and my wallet both.
While I’ve been trying to figure out the chicken conundrum, we’re eating a lot of eggs, without reading a lot of fine print. I’ve recently discovered that I can buy eggs from a neighbor, cheaper than the market eggs, packaged in battered recycled cartons festooned with adjectives no longer tied to the particular eggs within. These eggs, with their irregular sizes, muted palette of blues, greens and tans, and bits of straw still stuck underneath, feel somehow more real than the grocery store version, those homogeneous soldiers lined up ready to march through USDA inspections. With the homegrown version, I don’t need a barrage of modifiers to soothe my maternal health concerns, my environmental anxiety, and my animal welfare fears--the chicken herself was underfoot as I climbed up the neighbor’s porch steps to see how many extras they had today, and she looked plenty happy and healthy to me.
I guess the only thing that could be better would be that family-run, collaboratively-built, no-slaughter, egg-only, recycled-materials, beyond-organic, fully guilt-free henhouse I haven’t given up planning. I’ve got some old boards behind the garage. But until I find the time for a construction project, you’ll find me and the kids walking down the road to the neighbor’s, bringing our empty egg cartons for a refill. And as we walk past fennel and blackberry, Queen Anne’s lace and wild mustard flowers, for a while, life seems simple again.