Celebrating Every Egg:
Backyard flock earns its keep in many ways
By Amy Maltzan
Back when I was a city dweller I dreamed of owning a small flock of backyard chickens, cooking with eggs freshly collected right outside my door. This was before urban chicken keeping caught on, and most of my friends looked at me like I had two heads when I waxed poetic about raising my own chickens. But after moving to the Finger Lakes and settling into our several acres of land—and encouraged by the curiosity of my husband and 2-year-old daughter—I began living the dream: raising our very own backyard flock.
Lacking a background in raising livestock of any sort, I pored over books and websites, devouring all the information I could. I posed endless questions to a few local farmers who are more versed in chicken raising than I am: What breeds do well in our long, cold winters? How many chickens should I get? How many eggs will they lay daily? Can I just … let them roam around during the day? What about predators?
We decided on seven female chicks from cold-hardy, docile breeds, which we hoped would give us about 4–5 eggs per day. One early spring morning at our local post office, a box of tiny, fluffy and unbearably cute day-old chicks arrived from the hatchery. After rushing them home and nestling them into their makeshift brooder—a large cardboard box in our basement topped with a heat lamp—we spent the following six weeks watching them grow at a frankly shocking rate into fully feathered-out chicks, after which we moved them into their outdoor coop.
Our hens are curious and surprisingly gregarious. My daughter loves to feed them scratch as an occasional treat, and squeals in delight as they follow her when she runs in circles. (I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s because they’re looking for more treats.) After their move outside, we watched them explore our property and discover the joys of scratching in our mulched flowerbeds and compost pile for bugs, crickets and grubs. I realized I was hooked when my heart swelled with pride as my Partridge Rock hen triumphantly caught her first grasshopper. This was a new kind of parenting for me.
I’m struck by the beauty of the interconnectedness I witness in keeping these chickens. Foraging in the compost, they essentially turn our pile for us. Their bedding (full of nitrogen-rich manure) gets worked into our compost to use in our garden next year, and the insects, greenery and vegetable scraps we feed them from this year’s garden go towards producing the most amazing eggs for us to eat.
So, let’s talk about those glorious eggs. Anyone who has purchased eggs from their local farmer knows what a thing of beauty a pasture-raised chicken egg is: large with lovely thick whites and the most glorious yellow-orange yolk you’ll ever see. What I was unprepared for was the hilariously loud, raucous, proud crowing and cackling that accompanies each egg-laying event; it’s as if the hen is saying, “Look! I did it!! I laid an EGG!” We cheer along with her and run out to the nest box to collect the treasure, a ritual that never grows old.
With four or more new eggs to store a day, I’ve had to become quite versed in all manner of egg cookery. I hard-boil a batch of eggs each week; we tuck fried eggs into sandwiches and top salads and pasta with them. Frittatas, scrambled eggs or omelets grace our table any time of day, often with seasonal vegetables from our garden or CSA folded inside. I scour my recipe files for desserts that use up lots of eggs, and crepes have become a new favorite breakfast or dessert, especially topped with jam and local butter. I’ve even taken to stirring an egg into my oatmeal for extra protein; the residual heat from the oats cooks the egg, which in turn gives the oatmeal a custardy texture.
Checking the nest boxes daily, my daughter is giddy with excitement to see which of “her chickens” laid eggs. She’s especially fond of the blue-green eggs that our Easter Egger hen lays, and loves helping me make scrambled eggs with the eggs she just collected. And beyond the great taste of those eggs, that is perhaps the best part of having chickens right in our backyard: witnessing firsthand the delicious connection between the animals we raise, the plants we grow and the food we enjoy in return.Amy Maltzan is an avid cook, gardener and farmers’ market shopper. She blogs about her adventures in cooking seasonally at eggsonsunday.wordpress.com. This piece originally appeared in our Spring 2012 issue.