MINEOLA — Last week I ate my first “real egg.” Now I’m sure I have eaten thousands of eggs over my lifetime, but what made last week’s eggs different is that they were the first that I personally harvested from under hens that had been raised running around a grassy pasture and eating insects and seeds from the ground -- “free range” as they are called.
While I’m a Dallas resident, my wife and I own land in East Texas outside of Mineola. The chickens in question are lovingly cared for by the couple that owns the property next to ours. We have to slow down frequently to avoid hitting their chickens as we drive past their house on this quiet, dead end country road.
Last week (and prior to the big egg recall) I asked if I could try some of the eggs. Over the past few years our family has tried to focus more on eating locally grown food and our land has allowed us to fill our freezer with the fish we caught, venison we harvested, and natural beef that we raised. We have traded and shared what we produce with our neighbors and received sweet potatoes, corn, beans, tomatoes, and other items from their gardens. The eggs seemed like the next natural step to take.
Not knowing much about chickens, I learned that asking a couple that own dozens of chickens for a few eggs is like asking a bar owner for a bottle cap. Hens are proficient at laying eggs and typically lay one per day, they told me. A couple dozen hens could lay 10-14 dozens per week. That’s over 8,500 eggs a year -- which is a lot of egg salad for a household of 2.
I can now tell you firsthand that there are big differences between a grocery store factory egg and a natural egg in taste and consistency. The contrast is as big as the difference between a homegrown tomato versus a grocery store tomato or a juicy, ripe peach right off the tree versus a flavorless, engineered peach. While they look perfect at the store, when you bite into one you have a hard time differentiating the flesh of the peach from the pit! But I’ll return to the egg taste later.
If there is such a thing as a happy chicken, our neighbors house is likely where you would find it. The owners are quite fond of their birds and they take the time to cater to the things that are important to chickens: When the chicks are young they have them in a large wire pen open to the ground that they move every few days to expose the chicks to a new patch of grass and insects. This gives the added benefit of eliminating the need to mow, fertilize, or use pesticides on their lawn. Once the chicks get larger they are released to roam free.
Our neighbors always seem to be buying more chicks and raising them. I suspect this is due to predators that also seem to be quite fond of chicken. Coyotes, chicken hawks, bobcats, and an occasional mountain lion keep them continually on alert. As we were walking back to the barn among a recently freed group of teenage chickens “going through their ugly stage,” he commented that this last group of chicks ended up being mostly roosters. He said that they give the roosters and many of their hen’s eggs to needy families that live in the area.
As we approached the egg-laying boxes, you could immediately see that there were eggs sitting atop tufts of hay everywhere. Only a few hens were actually sitting on the eggs. Feathers flew as we reached into their nests to collect the eggs. He suggested I take a white egg, a tan egg, and a brown egg. When I asked him the difference, he said “absolutely nothing.” There is a lot of misinformation about egg color and health benefits associated with it. I recently read an article from a supposedly reputable source that said that egg color was related to the color or breed of the hen. When I asked him about it he laughed at me, saying it’s okay to pay a little extra for brown eggs at the grocery store, but do it because you like the color, not because they are better for you.
After we collected the eggs, we washed them off. One looked appropriately egg shaped. One was longer and a bit pear shaped and the third, the white one, was smaller than you would ever see in a store. As I looked at them I was thinking to myself that I was seeing the real thing … perfect eggs as nature intended. He told me not to refrigerate them and to put them on the counter until I ate them, saying that refrigerating them changed the consistency of the egg white and yolk and that nature had given them the perfect packaging. As I was walking towards my truck, his wife invited me to go and collect eggs anytime.
I should point out that online research suggests that farm fresh eggs that are organic and not exposed to chemicals in their feed and physical environment are generally safe unrefrigerated. Some say that you should not wash the eggs if you are going to store them on the counter, which seems counterintuitive. In many countries, eggs are not refrigerated and purchased off of grocery store shelves instead of under refrigeration. Most sources recommend that store bought eggs stay refrigerated at 40 degrees or cooler until used. All of the dos and don’ts are related to the potential to grow Salmonella bacteria inside the egg. I am finding that the articles suggest that the risk with Salmonella is significantly higher with factory farm eggs than with small farm eggs such as my neighbor is raising. This reminds me of a similar issue that I have read about suggesting that small farm grass fed beef has lower risk for e-coli bacteria than feedlot beef fed large amounts of corn. I guess it’s the trade-off that modern agriculture has made.
The following morning, I took out the frying pan and put a small amount of butter in the pan. I added a bit of olive oil to keep the butter from burning and satisfy my Italian upbringing. I cracked the eggs one at a time on the rim of the pan. When they cracked open, the egg white and yolk hit the pan and spread quickly across the butter with a consistency that was more watery than with a grocery store egg. I had to tip the pan to keep the egg from covering the entire bottom. I added the other egg and put a bit of salt and pepper on it. After a few moments I flipped it, choosing “over easy,” but was careful not to overcook it because I wanted to taste the yolk.
Once the eggs cooked, I took my spatula and carefully placed them on a hand thrown plate my wife had bought from the town potter who lives and works a few miles up the road. I added a couple pieces of diagonally cut toast and poured freshly brewed coffee roasted at the local coffee shop downtown into a mug also made by the Town Potter. I sliced a fresh peach that I had purchased a day earlier from a farmer up the road. I sat down at the table with my eggs and coffee facing the window that looks out onto our pastures where our cattle were grazing. I believe I was experiencing what Denny’s calls “The Country Breakfast.”
I took a bite of my first real egg.
It was lighter and less rubbery than eggs can sometimes get. The white was whiter, the yolk was darker and the complexity of the flavor had me thinking that I would forever prefer it over the thousands of other eggs that I had consumed. All of the proteins my neighbors’ hen consumed by free ranging in their yard produced a very flavorful egg indeed!
On my way back to Dallas that afternoon I passed a small handwritten sign in front of a house on Hwy. 80 advertising “fresh eggs, $2.” It was right next to a similar sign in their yard advertising “notary.” While double what you would pay at the grocery store for a dozen eggs, it seems that it would be well worth the money, with the price difference being less than that of a bottle of water at a convenience store.
The next morning I read about the egg recall due to Salmonella contamination and that a half a billion eggs were being recalled. My neighbors’ chickens now have a new weekend predator.