After moving to Nowhere, Michigan (my 20 year old son once said “If we go in decreasing circles we should find the middle of it”), I started looking for farm fresh, free range, no hormone eggs. I am not too much of a country girl, so I figured it’d be no problem finding fresh eggs around since there seemed to be every other type of farmish something. There are signs for hay, blueberry pie, and firewood among the houses and tiny farm markets. The equipment tossed about on yards or fields range from darling little green and yellow tractors to huge maniacal things with nine thousand samurai swords. There are brown cows and black and white cows and all numbers of odd looking goats. So where are the free range eggs?
It takes me 35 minutes to drive to the nearest town with anything more than a few thousand people. On the way I pass a nice outdoor market. I bought peppers and tomatoes and fruit and flowers and saw some eggs. “Are these free-range and local?” I asked.
“Well, it says no hormones. They’re from Hudsonville.”
“Is that close?”
“Oh, yeah. Just up the road.”
I was feeling pretty good about my Sunrise Acres eggs in their cute recyclable cardboard box until I drove up to my job using back roads, which are the only roads available to me, actually. I saw a sign for Hudsonville, turned left toward my job, and there ahead of me were several silver silos each the size of a small planet. On the opposite side of the road was a long, windowless, pristine white barn that resembled an astrodome. Then there was another, and another and another… At the stop sign on the corner was a little sign out front, “Sunrise Acres Egg Farm.” I let out a cry that reached out of my sunroof and into the air and probably shook the poor little beaks of all of the thousands of chickens stuffed into their cages, if they still have beaks. I found out Sunrise Acres has around “1.4 million birds in lay.” I said a non-denominational prayer for the miserable birds, went to work, and vowed to resume the egg search.
A few weeks later I was goin’ to town to the big grocery store, (that’s what we country folk call it, “goin’ to town”); I again searched for farm fresh eggs. The store was advertising locally grown produce so I thought it might have done the same with eggs. The produce/egg guy was about 12 ½ and looked at me like I was nuts when I asked him the standard questions. “Local, no hormones, cage-free?” No luck. The closest I got was brown eggs from another huge farm somewhere south.
I just wanted eggs from a chicken that is living like a chicken. In Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” he mentions this, and I agree. It is about the suffering. It isn’t about the meat-eating so much as it is about the animal. Did it live a cow-like life? Were the sheep and lambs allowed to frolic and romp and graze freely? Are the animals people eat allowed to be animals or are they simply products for us to manufacture, grow, hurt, and use up?
I used to hate hunting and hunters. I still don’t understand wanting to kill something so beautiful, but a deer lives as a deer and is, ideally, killed quickly and humanely. Everyone around here eats what they hunt. That seems to be better than a calf sitting forlornly in a tiny plastic house for several weeks until someone feels like veal. I get teased because I don’t eat meat. I do eat fish if I am relatively sure it is fresh. I used to tease back about the cruel nature of hunting but I don’t anymore. Now I point out to the relatives and new friends around here that most of their food never sees the sun. That appalls men and women who love the outdoors.
And for my egg quest, I don’t mind if the chicken isn’t vegetarian fed. Chickens living as themselves eat bugs and worms and stones and dirt, as well as seeds and grains. I just don’t want eggs from poor hapless birds that are pumped full of antibiotics and growth junk and feed that is made from things I can’t pronounce or their own sickly relations. I just want pretty colored eggs from pretty colored birds that have been allowed to run and scratch and be their own dumb selves. Isn’t that what any living thing wants? To be its own dumb self?
My family and friends started helping out. I think they were sick of my tirades and slightly obsessive search. I looked in the paper through the classifieds. They advertised garage sales with household items and an “unused size 12 wedding dress,” so why not eggs? Nothing. I would take long drives, even at $3.00 a gallon for gas, looking for farm eggs. Someone told me about a sign they saw a different way into town that said, “Fresh Eggs.” I made a special trip. There was a little farm market with nice chilies and potatoes. A woman wearing a stained black sweatshirt with a big pink rose on it went into a barn and brought back a cooler. She pulled out a carton of eggs and I asked about them. I feel kind of silly and pretentious asking hard-working farmers about their stuff, but I can’t stand the thought of chickens not being able to be chickens. “Sally down the road has the chickens.”
“Are they free range, do you know?
“Well, she doesn’t use hormones or drugs or anything, but she does have ‘em in cages.” I went home with just the produce. I gave up. After farm markets and regular markets and miles and miles of looking about on back roads, I gave up. I bought organic, cage free, brown eggs at the grocery store for $3.56 a dozen but I don’t trust what they say. I’ll bet cage free means they only have six hundred birds in a shoebox instead of nine.
My oldest son came from New York City for a visit. When he got here he marveled at the lack of traffic and the size of our house. He walked down to the lake and startled the heron. We love huevos rancheros so he made them for us in my kitchen that is just about the size of his entire apartment. He used the eggs from the grocery store.
The next day he wanted to go golfing. I had seen a sign less than a mile from my house for a public course. The sign is at the crossroad that has on its corners a farmhouse, a church that says “Come on in,” and dueling bait shops across from each other. My son and I followed the sign and turned left. After buzzing around on the golf course with me driving the cart and he yelling at balls and both of us having way too much country fun, we got in the car to come back to my house in the woods. Right before we pulled up to the flasher at the crossroad, the only sort of traffic signal for many miles, I saw it. At the end of a driveway, right before the blinking light, there was a white sign with big black letters that said, “Eggs.” We didn’t have time to stop but I went back a few days later. This time, on top of the white “Eggs” sign there was a red one that said “NO.”
The next time I tried, the red sign was still there. The time after that the red sign was gone. The man I live with, (we’ll call him Bill, mainly because that’s his name), was driving. The driveway is winding and tree-lined with funny signs that say “Beep 4 Eggs” “$1.00” or “I might be out back.” The rickety barn and two story house could have been charming and sweet or maybe forlorn and scary. I wasn’t sure, so Bill beeped and when nothing happened, he went out back and I stayed in the car. While he was gone a clean, silver Jeep pulled up. Bill came and talked to the egg man. The man said he and his wife had been at the vet’s. “Doc said the cat had its mouth torn off by something big, cougar, maybe.” Cougars? The woman dashed in to the house and came back with two dozen eggs. Bill gave her two bucks.
I talked with the woman about pets and she couldn’t believe they’d spent “$197.00, but the cat was eight years old and never cost us a thing. It’s used it all up, now, I guess.” I dared ask her about the chickens and hormones. “No, none of that stuff,” she said. There was a little coop-like thing in a fenced enclosure with a few chickens tucked nicely inside. They had at least an acre or so to run around in. The fenced area was situated next to the not-so rickety barn. Bill said there were more chickens pecking around out back and two billy goats in with them. He said it looked like they nested up in the bigger barn.
“How do you know they’re billy goats and not nanny goats?” I asked him.
“They have horns.”
“Oh,” I said.
“They probably help protect the chickens.”
I was nervous about the eggs. Now that I had them I imagined feathers or half-formed baby chickens plopping into my hot pan. I opened the carton and saw different sized brown eggs. Some were a smooth dark beige with lovely spots. Some were darker brown, kind of elongated. I plucked up the courage and decided to have breakfast for dinner; I couldn’t wait. I made some sautéed spinach with basil, onions and red peppers, whole wheat toast and fried eggs. The eggs cracked nicely, flipped nicely. The yolks were a little darker and set up high in the pan. The whites didn’t run all over the skillet, but what about the taste? Ah, the taste; the quintessence of an egg. The yolk tasted clean, rich and deep, the white wasn’t rubbery. Bill ate three.
I’ve found my eggs. I was simply searching for a way to eat that I could feel good about. I really like to cook and when I am happy and content, I swear the food I create tastes better. Maybe chickens are the same.
About the Author:
Eileen L. Hodges teaches writing at Grand Valley State University. She lives in the wilds of rural Michigan and survives by taking trips to see her kids in New York City. Ms. Hodges writes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, cookbooks and is currently working on a screenplay. She needs choices.