A chicken farmer learns to eat like a bird

Barbara Damrosch for The Washington Post/BARBARA DAMROSCH FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Peckish in the greenhouse: City folk might be surprised what the birds eat.

The baby chicks arrive by mail in spring, 50 to a box, no bigger than the eggs they will later lay. We gently lift them out, one by one, let them take a sip of water from a paper cup to make sure they know how, then put them under a heat lamp in their mobile field house. Waiting for them is a tray of freshly chopped dandelion greens, their first hit of calcium, chlorophyll and Vitamin C. That’s the first step in an often strange food partnership in which they get the best fare we can conjure up, and we eat the best eggs that ever graced our table.

Our chickens are fed organic grain, but they need more than that. They forage on fresh pasture (even in winter, thanks to a large, movable chicken greenhouse) where they find carefully selected grasses, clover, weeds and insects. That’s supplemented with crab wastes, seaweed, hull-less seeded pumpkins, vegetable scraps from our farm and more varied scraps from our kitchen. A special chicken compost bucket is brought out each day, and a hundred birds come running as I dole the mixture out in little piles.

Because we are all omnivores, the chickens and I, our tastes are often aligned. Much as they love veggies, the meat, fish and dairy scraps are hot items. A piece of leftover liver is a prize to fight over. Yes, they are birds, and I don’t share their passion for worms and beetles, but watching them tuck into the remains of a lobster dinner is like reliving the meal. Lobsters are, technically speaking, closely related to insects. In Maine, after a catch, they’ll talk about “boiling up a mess of bugs.”

Not everything I’ve learned about food I’ve learned from my chickens, but an interesting conversation does take place. One day I went out to the pasture with a crate of sweet potatoes that had seen better days and scattered them on the grass. Two hundred avian eyes glared at me as if to say, “You have got to be kidding. Where’s our treat?” The tubers lay untouched until peck marks signaled interest and, finally, acceptance. And it’s a two-way street. I’d assumed that they would like our favorite brassica green, Tuscan kale, and they did. But they devoured that nowhere near as avidly as they did broccoli foliage. Not the heads but the leaves! So our apprentice Paula tried sauteing them with garlic and sesame oil, and they were a big hit with all of us. We now harvest the leaves after head production slows down.

Guess what they like better than anything? It’s kohlrabi. Last winter we fed them a giant variety called Kossak that produces turniplike orbs almost the size of a soccer ball. They pecked the hard flesh until there was nothing left but the skins, scattered about like candy wrappers. We delight in smaller, more tender ones such as Kongo or Kilibri. Try those steamed and pureed with lots of parsley and a little cream. Your family will love that. Just don’t tell them you got the idea from a chicken.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

 
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