This year, after 10 years of being a vegan, I embarked on the Great Egg Experiment. The factors leading up to this were two-fold. First, I had grown extremely skinny. The kind of skinny that isn’t attractive on most women. I felt gaunt, bordering on holocaust victim in appearance. This comes, perhaps, from a combination of nursing on a constant basis for the last five years, chasing after two kids, and my natural propensity for leanness. It’s not for lack of good food, I assure you. I’m a great cook and make nearly everything from scratch. However, a vegan diet is not calorie dense. It takes fairly large quantities of food to even get close to 2000 calories a day. Second, this spring, after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and a handful of other books about eating locally and raising your own, I was inspired to research the possiblity of keeping our own hens for eggs.
I picked out possible names: Midred, Bessy, Turtle. I searched the Web for sites on backyard chicken-keeping. I talked to neighbors about the prospect of adding a few hens to our yard. I checked out ever book from the library on chickens that I could find. I made plans for the perfect coop. I dreamed of all of the recipes I could now make that simply cannot be adapted to vegan – brioche, popovers, eclaires. I envisioned quick fried-egg sandwiches for lunch and hard-boiled eggs for snacks. I would gain a few healthy pounds. I would join the ranks of true urban homesteaders. If my husband hadn’t put the kabosh on the project, there would likely be three hens happily pecking around in my back yard right now.
We decided to take baby steps. Just to test whether I could become an egg eater after nearly 10 years as a vegan, we found a local source on Craigslist for humanely raised, organic, truly free-range eggs. I talked to the lady on the phone and she understood my dilemma and welcomed me to bring my family to see her hens and decide for myself. She had started with what was supposed to be 25 chicks from a mail-order hatchery (something I don’t really support), but instead, 50 chicks had arrived. Now, she had about 100 because she let a few of the hens raise chicks each year. She had one rooster who mostly lived apart from the hens. She said she never killed the hens and that even after they were retired from egg-laying, they lived out their natural lives with her. She took them to the vet when they were sick and she found homes for any cockerels that she hatched out, though she couldn’t say honestly what their ultimate fate was.
It sounded like the most ethically sound operation I could possibly hope for, other than raising my own hens who had been “adopted” from a farmer who no longer wanted them. The kids, to say the least, were excited to see so many chickens. One faithfully followed Cedar, my four year old, around the back yard step-for-step. The “yard” appeared to be several acres, including a wooded ravine area where most of the chickens were milling about. Despite the number of chickens, there was no odor and the yard and hen houses were immaculate. Just a few smatterings of chicken poo here and there, which would be expected. The chickens all looked healthy and happy and we even went into the hen houses and observed a few hens laying. The lady picked up one of the hens who had been purring at her for attention and stroked it while we made the tour. We left with six eggs (her refrigerator was overflowing with them!) for $1.50.
I talked with my sons about how beautiful the eggs were – some white, some brown. On the car ride home, they held them carefully as if they were jewels.
I should tell you that I have a “thing” for chickens. They are cute in a obsurd, exotic way. Reptilian feet to match reptilian eyes, jerky head tilts, poufs of feathers. I have chicken stationery and chicken stickers to match. I get books from the library about exotic breeds of chickens. I am predisposed to imagining myself as one who keeps hens. I do not, as it turns out, particularly enjoy eating eggs.
We tried them in pancakes. We sampled them scrambled. My husband and kids weren’t thrilled. In fact, I think the kids maybe had one bite each. My husband, to humor me, ate them, but without any enjoyment. We then bought a dozen more to dye for Easter – something we’ve never done as a vegan family. The kids loved that. Then, mommy ate a few of the hard boiled eggs. Surprisingly, this was how I liked them best.
In the end, I think we had about three raw eggs that sat in the refrigerator for two months until I finally threw them in the compost pile. The reality is that I wanted the hens more than I wanted the eggs. I still do. I guess I’m just “too far gone” to undo being vegan on a permanent basis. I’m sure many vegans, if there are any reading this, are appalled. But I wanted to test whether there was such a thing as an ethical egg – there is (see below). And, whether it’s possible to be an imperfect vegan and still be able to live with myself. I find, I can.
Perhaps, one of these days, I’ll attempt the grand experiment again…maybe next Easter. But mostly, I just want a few hens to keep me company in the garden.
- adopt unwanted hens from a local farmer (thus saving them from slaughter?)
- provide hens with all of the henly amenities (good food, forage, free range to stretch wings and legs and be chickenly, warm coop for safety and cold weather, love)
- keep hens for their natural life span
- if the chickens produce eggs, either eat them, feed them to cats, or compost them
- use manure in garden