As soon as I started reading Janice Cole’s chicken raising memoir / chicken-and-egg cookbook Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes ($24.95, 256 pg., Chronicle Books), one of our four hens went broody… which means she’s trying to hatch an unfertilized egg.
I did not know this before we got chickens of our own, but hens usually lay an egg once every 25 hours, rooster or no rooster. Without the rooster, the eggs aren’t fertilized and won’t grow into baby chicks. Apparently no one told our broody hen there wasn’t a rooster around — and broody hens can die from trying to incubate unhatchable eggs. So on top of feeding, watering, and collecting eggs, I had to shake things up a bit and take the broody hen out of the nest box and sequester her from the rest of the flock. Chickens can be a lot of work.
And that’s one of the take-home points of Cole’s book. Part memoir, part DIY instruction manual, part cookbook, part chicken almanac, each section is cut up and spread across chapters in equal measures.
The memoir portion details Cole’s experience of getting chicks, raising them to pullets (chicken teenagers) and then to full-fledged hens. Along the way, she has to overcome obstacles like a husband who doesn’t want to help out with chores, and finding a way to save the plants in her yard from hungry, foraging chickens. Cole is a chef, and the book has a number of interesting passages on her relationship with live chickens versus the hundreds she’s prepared many different ways in the kitchen.
It’s an endearing book, but if you don’t find the personal side charming, there are plenty of other reasons to pick it up. I learned a thing or two from the almanac-like “Did you know?” sections. Even if you don’t have chickens, they can be good dinner party conversation material.
Back to my chickens… because, like children and dogs, those who have them really just want to talk about them (those with cats start blogs). Our broody hen was no longer broody, but something else was up. The other hens would chase her around, pecking at her until she cowered in the corner. Then we noticed sores on her comb. After referencing chicken manuals and online forums, we diagnosed it as fowl pox — chicken pox for chickens.
At the same time, I read the part of Cole’s book where her hens stop laying eggs for reasons unknown. I’m reading about Cole worrying about what might be wrong with her hen, while I’m trying to figure out what to do with a fowl-pocked hen. Do we eat the eggs? Do we quarantine her? Do we take her in to a vet? Why is this so much work? I just wanted eggs!
And that might be the central issue of owning chickens. Every bump in the road becomes a First World take on a Third World problem. In countries (and in rural America) where these creatures are truly livestock, these problem chickens would be killed and cooked. But we didn’t get chickens for meat, and neither did Cole (although she goes back and forth about that).
And we spent all that time and money rearing the bird from a day-old chick, it’d be a shame for it to die now, right? Or would it? At some point, the chicken crossed the line from livestock to pet. And we didn’t even name our chickens (my votes: Luke, Wedge, Red Leader, Porkins; my wife’s votes: Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, Sofia). The fact of the matter is that they’re pets. It’s a luxury to have chickens in the urban / suburban backyard. But the novelty also makes it important that the chickens don’t die. Too bad chickens have a knack for dying. And as I came to this conclusion, a second hen showed signs of fowl pox.
On to the 125 recipes. The book contributes some fresh recipes to the chicken-and-egg conversation: Scrambled Eggs over Crisp Polenta with Maple-Balsamic Drizzle, Cheddar-Dill Chicken Cobbler, and Hong Kong Sweet Egg Tarts, along with plenty of favorites. Eggs are such utilitarian things, but once you’re aware of how your eggs taste, you start to notice things like how the yolks taste blended into the filling of the Miniature Almond-Filled Cream Puffs. Who doesn’t like discovering a taste they like in the middle of a great dessert (especially if it means you get to eat dessert to find it)? The deviled eggs in the Creamy Deviled Egg-Stuffed Chicken Breasts kept the chicken juicy, and gave the whole dish an edge that’s as lavish and decadent as it sounds. And the Bacon and Egg Breakfast Tarts were just hearty and salty enough to be fulfilling without becoming overly filling.
If you’re thinking about getting chickens, Chicken and Egg is a good litmus test for how much worrying you want to do. This book takes small scale chicken-keeping to a deeper level, and adds some new recipes to try out. So if you find you’re not the urban farming type, there are plenty of chicken and egg ideas to keep you busy in the kitchen.
P.S. The fowl pox ran its course, and all of our chickens are once again healthy and laying.
On Sunday, August 14, author Janice Cole will talk about raising chickens in urban or suburban backyards: what you need for a coop, how to keep the chickens warm in the winter, the best breeds, and more. Cole will have samples and hens with her. The event takes place from 4-7pm at Minnehaha Park, Wabun Picnic Area, Minneapolis.