“Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs,” Mark Twain wrote in “Roughing It.”
I’m not eating much ham anymore, but almost 150 years after Twain’s observation I couldn’t agree with him more about the eggs. From where I sit, writing these words on the third floor of my sister’s and brother-in-law’s house in southern Maine, I can see the chicken coop just past the beehives. And, as on most afternoons, I can’t help but wonder whether there might be some eggs waiting for me inside, right this minute, and whether they’ll still be warm when I go out to fetch them. The mere thought of them improves the already gorgeous scenery considerably.
I often think about the chickens. When I’m in the greenhouse next to the coop, helping my sister Rebekah water kale seedlings or train pea shoots to start climbing, I can hear the chickens cluck-clucking as they scratch around their little yard. The other day, my brother-in-law, Peter, reported that the hens were making a strange, low-throated noise as they stood transfixed, staring in the same direction for what seemed an eternity before the spell broke and they went back to clucking and scratching.
When Rebekah and Peter decided two months ago to stop eating animal products (he had read “The China Study,” which advocates a vegan diet for health reasons, and she was an easy convert), my thoughts went to the dozen laying hens — mostly a breed called Buff Orpington — pecking around outside the coop. What about the chickens?
“Don’t give up the chickens,” I casually suggested. “Let me have the chickens.”
Samuel Butler once wrote, rather dismissively, of the animal, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” I want the chickens to be well cared for, but I can see his point. It wasn’t the birds themselves I was so worried I’d miss. I certainly wouldn’t mind giving up the chore of cleaning that coop.
But something has to lay those eggs, because how could I do without them? Backyard-fresh, vibrant and creamy, with yolks a deep gold (or red when we add shrimp shells to the feed) that stand high when fried in olive oil, butter or both. I don’t need the Humane Society to investigate another industrial-scale egg operation to know where I want my eggs to come from. I could wait for the local farmers market to open in May, but I’ve been spoiled by this daily egg-delivery program. Because it’s most often Rebekah or Peter who collects the eggs, all I have to do is open the refrigerator and count the stash.
The thing is, each hen lays an egg a day at her peak, and that peak comes in the spring, so we had been collecting a full dozen every 24 hours — far more than we needed even when all of us were eating them. That’s why Rebekah and Peter have for some time traded eggs for milk, an exchange with a friend who makes a dairy run for us and takes dozens of eggs back to his large family. With just one milk drinker left in the house, though, the equation wasn’t working any more. So off went nine of the 12 hens, sold to a couple who drove a few hours to pick them up. The three remaining got a lot more roaming room, and I would still get my eggs.
I’ve long sung the praises of eggs as the perfect single-serving food: long-lasting (for something perishable, they’re good for weeks on end in the fridge), portion-controlled, easy and quick to cook, even nutritious. (Studies have debunked the idea that eating high-cholesterol foods translates to high cholesterol in your bloodstream.) They’re one of my “desert-island” must-haves, along with dried beans and sweet potatoes. Now that my housemates have given them up, I find myself gravitating to eggs even more than usual. I cook for one even when I cook for three, sometimes adding an egg to what’s on my plate while Rebekah and Peter sprinkle nutritional yeast on their portions.
The last thing on my mind when it comes to these eggs is breakfast, because I’ve got my granola and yogurt for that, and I don’t like to cook before I caffeinate. But eggs for dinner? That’s what I’m talking about. My favorite off-the-cuff dish usually involves some sort of vegetable stir-fry, or braised greens and beans over rice, or tacos, graced with a fried egg or two. Or I’ll poach them in spicy tomato sauce, spooning that on top of toast; or I’ll add a fried one to spaghetti, cutting it up into the pasta and sauce and letting the runny yolk enrobe everything in its golden richness. In my go-to book on the subject, “The Good Egg” (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), author Marie Simmons devoted an entire chapter to the pasta-and-egg combination, endearing herself to me forever.
Three eggs a day remain more than I can, or probably should, handle on my own, but I’m doing my best to keep up in other ways. Thankfully, we often have guests for dinner or lunch, which gives us an excuse to use eggs for baking, or for me to make at least a dozen deviled eggs. (My favorite recipe of late uses kimchi and Sriracha sauce in the filling.)
Better yet, those 21 eggs a week have started finding their way back into my sister’s and brother-in-law’s meals here and there. They don’t want to be purists just to be purists; when the eggs are around, we might as well use them, they figure. I call their attitude “vague-an,” short for vaguely vegan. They’re fine with that, and so am I — as long as they don’t start poaching, so to speak, my supply. If they do, I might have to hunt down the family that bought the nine hens and try to get a couple of birds back.