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Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Egg and I

My flock when I still had a nasty rooster on the left.
Chickens are one of the most common and widespread domestic animals in the world. There are more than 100 breeds in the world and 30 to 60 breeds common in the United States. Some breeds are raised for eggs and others for meat.

In the 1800s into the early 1900s chickens were raised by most households. They not only supplied eggs and the occasional Sunday dinner, but were easy to keep because chickens can fend for themselves foraging with only a little extra grain added.

The only chickens we had growing up were the Easter peeps we got which almost always turned into roosters. I can remember my dad eventually chopping off their heads and how fascinated we were watching the chickens flopping around for a long time without heads. However gruesome that was, I don’t remember it keeping us from enjoying a good chicken dinner from these Easter peeps. Maybe it was because when they got older, the roosters often attacked us. Roosters are nasty critters.

Grandma Jones on a Canada Vacation
My mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Jones, kept chickens. I remember helping Grandma gather eggs and doing what her grandkids called “The Teaberry Shuffle” from some TV ad as she made her way to the chicken yard flicking chicken droppings off the sidewalk with a little sideways kick as she went along. She complained often about Grandpa not fixing the fence from which they escaped.

My father grew up in a coal mining town in PA where his mother kept a sizable garden and chickens. When Grandpa quit his job as foreman of the mine stables because the superintendent wanted to cut back on feed for the mine ponies and increase their hours, they moved to Ohio where Grandpa got a job in a factory. This was during the Depression when jobs were hard to find, but my grandfather had a winning personality. To help feed his large family, he raised a large flock of chickens and each Saturday he’d butcher and clean them then take them into town to sell. He had many repeat customers because he was an honest man, who didn’t leave the gizzards and stuff inside to make them weigh more like many chicken venders did.

When I got over wanting a ranch with hundreds of horses, I decided when I grew up I wanted to live on a farm. That sort of happened when my husband and I bought four acres of land and I got the horse I always wanted. My husband and young teenage sons built a large barn with five stalls and turned one into a chicken stall with a run off the back. I’d order small chicks of different breeds. One breed that fascinated me was Polish chickens with their feathered topknots.

A polish hen like one of mine I once had.
Once in a poetry class I was taking with Professor Elizabeth Hoobler. Half way through the semester, she wanted each of us to bring in our favorite poem with enough copies for each student. That was a hard assignment. How can one pick a favorite poem out of so many I’ve read and loved. However, Robert Frost being one of my favorite poets, I browsed through a large book of his poetry and was delighted to find “A Blue Ribbon at Amesbury” about a hen that won that award. Robert Frost had been a chicken farmer at one time.  That poem gave me an idea.

So I caught one of my Polish hens, put her in a cloth book bag and covered her with a towel. For those of you who don’t know much about birds, if they’re in the dark they go still. It also makes them very vulnerable to predators. Off to class I went and took a seat in an outside row and put my book bag with the hen down beside me. She moved a little now and then, but was quiet.

Then it was my turn. I went to the front of the room and handed my copies to those in the front rows to pass back, and took my black and white hen from the bag and set her down on the floor and started to read the poem. However, no one could hear me because not only was she clucking and depositing her little markings on the floor, but the class was totally roaring with laughter, even Professor Hoobler.

What turned into a real serendipity moment was that shortly after everyone had finished reading their favorite poem, another professor, who is an awesome poet, came to share some of her poetry with us. The first or second poem she read was about a pet rooster she loved that had been given to her uncle and kept in his basement until he chopped off its head. Who would have believed she’d share a chicken poem the same day I shared my chicken poem.

Yes, I still keep a small flock of what are currently six rather old hens. They’re messy critters, but I’ve never butchered a hen nor will I. They either die of old age or some critter manages to get in and kill one. Even though I don’t eat a lot of eggs and give almost all my eggs away to family or friends, the eggs taste much better than those bought in a store. Is it worth the expense of feed and the work involved feeding them and cleaning their coop? Probably not, but I always wanted to be a farmer and even just six hens and two ponies pleases me.

For those of you who read my last week’s blog about hoarding books, the title of this blog  is the title of a book that was on my parents’ book shelves for years and years. The Egg and I was written by Betty MacDonald published in 1945 and based on MacDonald’s experiences as a newlywed trying to operate a chicken farm with her husband. It was on the best seller list and eventually made into a movie with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in the lead and Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle.  I vaguely remember reading it, but couldn’t find it on my shelves. I may have given it away some time ago, or maybe it’s in a box of books in my garage.

Do you have any chicken stories? A favorite chicken recipe, maybe?


Paula Gail Benson said...

Great photos, Gloria. I, too, have memories of a rooster who pecked my legs and ended up on the dinner table. I usually avoid chicken these days, but I don't think it's because of that rooster!

Gloria Alden said...

Paula, a few years ago I had a rooster that I'd raised from a chick. I'd bought some small chicks that were all supposed to be pullets, but one wasn't. Gradually he turned mean and attacked every time I went into gather eggs. So I always carried a broom. Because kids who came to visit liked to gather eggs, I asked my son to take care of him the evening before Mother's Day. The next morning it was gone. I found out later that day that he'd killed it, put it in a bag with a card from him and his wife that said "Happy Mother's Day". I found the plastic bag with what remained of the rooster near the woods. Some wild critter, probably a raccoon had dragged it away.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria, I’ve met your chickens and ponies, so I can attest they are real, not fictional. I remember being at a neighbor to my grandparents’ farm when they harvested a chicken for dinner. I didn’t have a need to see another, but it never put me off eating chickens, either.

~ Jim

Warren Bull said...

In central America the phrase that is the equivalent of caught "red handed" is caught "with his hands on a chicken.

KB Inglee said...

I'd love to have chickens in my yard. I did raise 26 chicks in my basement til they were big enough to move to the farm museum where I work. We ate a bunch but neighborhood dogs ate most of them. Now I have to borrow chickens when I need them.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, it is rather gruesome, isn't it. Fortunately, I never had to clean a chicken. I would have hated that. My dad won several Thanksgiving turkeys - live ones at bingo games, and after a short stint in our basement he killed and cleaned them for our Thanksgiving Day dinner.

Warren, I didn't know that. I imagine they would be a temptation for a hungry or larcenous person.

KB, my parents got rid of the first dog my brother and I had when we were little because it started killing our neighbor's chickens. Later we found out it hadn't been killing the hens, but digging up the hens that had been killed by some predator, but by then our dog had been given away.

Kara Cerise said...

I would have enjoyed being in your poetry class during the unveiling of the hen! You brought Robert Frost's poem to life.

I've watched The Egg and I, but haven't read the book. I think Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride starred in nine more Ma and Pa Kettle movies.

Gloria Alden said...

Kara, I wish you could have been there. It was great fun. The hardest part was reading the poem with a straight face as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on while the whole class was in hysterics. Jim sent me the Wikipedia link to the author of the book, and yes, they did appear in more Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Also, Margie Maine got an Oscar nomination for her role in that movie. Someday when I get time, I'm going through the boxes of books in my garage and see if I still have that book so I can add it to my TBR pile.

Sarah Henning said...

I love the photos, Gloria! I have to say, I don't really have any chicken stories, as I haven't eaten chicken in about 20 years and have only seen them on farm visits as an adult. However, I will say, one of my son's very favorite games is to go to the farmers' market and try to find the tray of a dozen eggs with the most variation in color. He loves getting ones beyond brown and white. He loves buying ones with a bluish or pink tint to the shell and if he can find a farmer with quite a variety in that dozen, he's a very happy camper!

Gloria Alden said...

Sarah, I don't eat a lot of eggs, but my sister-in-law, my son-in-law, and one of my good friends love it when I give them eggs. Mine are a mixture of brown and a blue/green. Do you buy the eggs for him to eat, or don't you eat eggs, either? The good thing about mine is they're so fresh they last for a long time and those who eat them like how the yolks stand up large and proud.

Judy Hogan said...

I also keep hens, have been now for 11 years. I didn't want to kill them, but the first year I had 16 roosters, so I got my neighbors to help me. It was shocking, but after a week, I did eat the meat. Back in 2012, I even killed three of my hens because they were eating eggs, and I didn't want that to spread. I love having them, they putter around me when I'm in the orchard, and talk to me a lot. The eggs are amazing, so different. Judy Hogan

Gloria Alden said...

Welcome, Judy, from one chicken farmer to another, although my six hens are nothing like your large flock. I don't let mine out often because of the damage they do to my gardens, however my old guinea fowl wanders around loose and often follows me around making little chirping sounds at me. He also hangs out be my sun room because he sees himself in the sliding glass doors and apparently thinks it's another guinea fowl - hopefully a female that will escape and join him.

E. B. Davis said...

One of my favorite cartoons was Foghorn Leghorn--stories that didn't have much to do with chickens except that the baby chicken hawk trusted Foghorn. Unfortunately, we have a friend who reminds me of Foghorn.

I love eggs for the qualities they lend to bake goods. No custard without eggs. But eating them alone isn't my favorite food. I admire the beauty of some chickens like Rhode Island Reds.

Gloria Alden said...

E.B. I don't remember that cartoon so it was probably after the time when I watched cartoons. I do love reading the cartoons in the newspaper.

I used to have Rhode Island Reds, too. In fact the nastiest rooster I had was a Rhode Island Red.

Norma Huss said...

I'm late to the party, but I have a couple of chicken stories. I grew up on a farm, we had chickens, so did many of the other kids at high school.

Our Home Economics teacher obviously was a city girl. If the book said something, it was true. The hint was how to choose a fresh egg at the grocery store. If the shell was rough, it was fresh, if it was smooth, it was old. (Maybe she never bought eggs either.)

Being the independent thinker I was, I informed her that was wrong. I had gathered eggs so fresh from the chicken they were moist from her insides. Most shells were smooth as they came out of the chicken. All the kids knew that. However, I was the only one who was marked wrong on the test because the others just shrugged and decided to go with a falsehood rather than get a "wrong" answer.

My other story might not be for the faint of heart. Not surprising that most of your peeps were roosters. At a hatchery there is and employee who sits and grabs each peep as it exits the egg, turns its little bottom inside out so it can tell which sex it is (don't know how, they see the inner workings, I guess), then tosses them into the box for hens or roosters. Hens are more desirable as they produce eggs.

Now, aren't you glad you know that? (tee hee)

Gloria Alden said...

Norma, thanks for your stories. In my opinion, Easter peeps were probably more male because they wouldn't last as long being handled by kids so no big loss. However, they do sex the chicks for sale to farmers who want hens, but there are always those male chicks who get through.

KM Rockwood said...

My kids brought home chicks from the egg-hatching project at school (how did we get to be the lucky ones?) and of course most of them turned out to be roosters.When they started to chase the mail carrier, the garbage collectors and the school bus, they had to go.

We found homes for them--a couple of our neighbors had free-range flocks