Easter is a time for eggs. Chocolate eggs, hollow, solid or filled with creams and other fillings or real eggs, hard boiled and dyed colors no chicken ever produced. I confess to liking eggs a great deal. I like them hard boiled, poached, in omelettes and in egg salad. I like chickens. They are useful birds and harmless creatures with a lot of personality. But chickens get a very bad deal in the modern world. Commercial chicken and egg production happens under scary conditions. Not only scary for the chickens, scary for people too.
When I was a child raw egg was often an ingredient in things from mundane mayonnaise to exotic hangover cures. Bearnaise sauce used uncooked yolks and Caesar salad dressing used mayonnaise. Starting in the late seventies eggs got a bad rap as contributing to high cholesteral and consequently heart disease. Eggs, raw or cooked, were on the “avoid these” list. I freely admit I ignored every bit of this medical theory and continued to eat eggs as often as I wanted. Then, just a few years later salmonella began to show up in eggs. This was happening all over the world. I grew up near chicken farms and farmers always told me salmonella came after the egg was cracked or was on the outside of the egg from unclean handling, so I wondered what was happening.
First of all understand salmonella is a family, like, say, the Sopranos. Scientifically it’s a genus, which comes under the family Enterobacteriaceae but I rather think of them like the Sopranos. They are trouble makers. The particular trouble maker in this case was Salmonella enteriditis. One theory, proposed by a microbiologist named Andreas J. Bäumler, at the University of California, Davis as to why this was happening was that two other strains had recently been eliminated. These other strains actually made the chickens sick, so a lot of effort was put into eradicating them. Once they were gone our opportunistic enteritidis was free to infect chickens without competition but didn’t make chickens sick, just hitched a ride through their systems into the eggs during development and came out to make people sick. Another factor contributing to the problem was the increase in mass production chicken farms where thousands of chickens are raised together in close confinement and processed in similar conditions. Like the Sopranos, the salmonellas are tough customers. Freezing doesn’t kill them. but enough UV light and heat (55 °C (131 °F) for 90 min, or to 60 °C (140 °F) for 12 min) will. So much for the famous three minute egg.
So now that the pendulum is swinging back the other way on eggs in the diet, something else is scary about them. And what about the chickens themselves? Chicken is rarely eaten raw; meeting the above temperature requirements is fairly normal and relatively easy. In my house the only regular meat eaters are the cats and they are not that interested in chicken, even when I offer them bits of organic chicken poached in organic chicken broth. Even as a kid I was never that fond of chicken myself. It was always too bland and too dry without being doused in sauce. So I don’t worry about the chickens for my sake or the cat’s. I worry about the chickens because I don’t like the trends that have been developing, trends that aren’t good for chickens or people.
Chickens deserve better and so do we. The world today is vastly different then the one in which eggs hung in Egyptian temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. The domesticated chicken can be traced back 7,000 to 10,000 years. The chicken’s main wild progenitor is the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, from Southeast Asia. according to a theory advanced by Charles Darwin and recently confirmed by DNA analysis. In its habitat, which stretches from northeastern India to the Philippines, G. gallus behaves much as do barnyard chickens anywhere. Instead of a barnyard, they browse the junngle floor for insects, seeds and dropped fruit. They nest in trees at night but this short hop is the limit of their flying. This trait is probably what enabled their original capture and domestication. They were lucky in that respect. Their flightless cousins like the dodos were simply hunted to extinction but the junglefowl survived and evolved into the chicken.
The chickens I have pictures of in this blog are just as fancy and attractive as any songbird. I did not post pictures of average chickens not because they are ugly but because their environment is. How could you see the beauty of a chicken stuffed into a cage so small they can’t flap their wings? Did you know chickens need sunlight to synthesize vitamin D on their own, just like humans? Stuck in a cage, they only can survive with artificial supplements. The buildings are even windowless, more like buildings designed for machines than living beings
Don’t give up on eggs and chicken, because of this, though. Even in some cities theres are markets where real farmers would be happy to sell you chickens that led a normal life. At my local farmers market there are always at least three different egg sellers happy to talk about their hens and rooster. The breeds have different personalities and egg sizes and colors. The person who posted Sweetie’s picture on Wikipedia made it a point to note she likes to be picked up and petted and will follow someone around, clucking, until they do. Support small farmers and back yard chicken raisers and keep all these beautiful chicken species going. They have survived for so long, giving us everything they have, they should be appreciated, enjoyed and allowed to live the best possible life. I will keep this in mind as I enjoy my cage free, antibiotic and hormone free, local eggs this Easter weekend.