The trials and tribulations of chicken husbandry


I’ve raised a lot of chickens. Probably hundreds. For eggs, not meat. I give them the best lives I can, including a generous retirement plan when they reach a certain age, with free room and board, yet they rarely arrive at those emerald pastures. Precious few have lived long enough to die in their sleep. I blame myself.

If you aspire to keep hens, don’t let me discourage you. The eggs are of incomparable quality, and the byproduct is rich manure that will produce plenty of weeds and garden waste that your chickens can turn into more eggs and byproduct. But keep in mind that hen husbandry is a full-contact sport. While there are many upsides to the flockster life, the eggs aren’t free, and they aren’t always sunny side up.

You can order baby chicks in the mail. The post office will call you to get them immediately, day or night. The box is full of cute little fuzzballs huddling together for warmth, perhaps standing on the bodies of their trampled comrades. If one develops a wound, the others will peck at the wound until there’s nothing left to peck. Darwin would be truly impressed by baby chickens. Older hens, if given a chance, would quickly dispatch all the chicks, neutralizing future competition like the plumed dinosaurs they are. Hens can also develop a taste for eggs, causing obvious problems. And those are just some of the threats from within the flock.

Chickens will cower below the shadow of a passing hawk, but an owl strikes with more stealth. Some people think raccoons are cute, but not when they’re pulling a chicken through a small hole piece by piece. I’ve often run outside to smack their shiny-eyed heads with a shovel. When it’s a skunk, I keep my distance and throw the shovel, followed by any other throwable objects within reach. One night at dusk, I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake that was hunting eggs. Its hiss sent me running. I returned with my shovel.

Even the sun can kill chickens. One summer morning in New Mexico, I forgot to let the chickens out of their highly fortified coop. When I got home that night, all but one were cooked. A few years later, while I was on vacation, a lightbulb exploded in the cold and burned down the coop. The fire department came. The house sitters were traumatized. Amazingly, the chickens all survived, but that was the exception. I returned to the task of building a coop in the middle of winter.

The other morning, I was on the couch with a cup of tea and saw a fox in my backyard. It had a huge, bushy tail, and it casually left the yard without appearing to notice the chickens — or so I thought. That was my cue to inspect the fence and coop for weaknesses, but its bushy tail must have hypnotized me. A few days later, four hens were dead.

At the winter farmers market, I saw the farmer who sells me my chickens. I told her what happened, and she agreed to set aside a new flock. I prefer buying 6-week-old chickens from willing local farmers to buying baby chicks in the mail. Adolescents are tougher and less likely to get trampled, pecked or picked off by the house cat. Until then, my remaining three chickens will have extra space in the avian equivalent of Fort Knox. In April, my farmer friend will bring a box of teenage chickens to the market for me, and the cycle continues.

Scrambled eggs

One of my favorite scenes in any food film comes from “Big Night.” After preparing a very important meal, capped with a magnificent timpano, the cooks finally have a chance to feed themselves. It’s the simplest of meals: eggs scrambled in olive oil, seasoned with salt and served with a hunk of bread. It hammers home the idea that eggs are as satisfying as the fanciest of foods.

I thought I knew everything about scrambling an egg, but I learned a lot from that scene. So, as best as I can tell, here’s the scrambled eggs recipe as prepared by Secondo in “Big Night.”

Serves one

  • 2 eggs, cracked in a mixing bowl
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • A pinch or two of salt to taste
  • A section of baguette

Secondo sets the pan on high heat and gives it a generous pour of olive oil. He then beats the eggs furiously for about 20 seconds while slowly rotating the bowl with his other hand, letting go and regripping as he turns the bowl into the circular motion of the fork. He adds a pinch of salt and gives it a final stir.

I know those who believe you can’t fry in olive oil will be skeptical, as will adherents to the “low and slow” school of scrambled eggs. With this technique, the high heat allows for a taut yet supple skin surrounding a perfect fluffy interior, thanks to the trapped steam.

Secondo pours the eggs into the pan, and they spread out with a hiss. With a wooden spatula, he begins gently teasing the edges of the egg mixture toward the middle to detach it from the pan, allowing him to move it around freely. After about 30 seconds, he gives it a casual flip and slides the finished eggs onto a plate. Your flip need not be perfect. It’s easier than you think. If the eggs land in a crumpled pile, that’s fine. Secondo slides the eggs onto plates next to torn hunks of baguette. They eat in silence.

At the risk of breaking character, I garnish mine with a few parsley leaves for color and flavor. And hot sauce, which I require on my savory egg dishes.


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