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Which Came First? 

On eggs and chickens

click to enlarge Tea eggs - PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX
  • photo by Ari LeVaux
  • Tea eggs

I once owned a T-shirt that read, "Stock up on eggs for Passover and Easter." I bought it overseas, along with some other bits of shirt-bound poetry like "On the Road With Feeling" and "Head For These Seafood Values." But "Stock up on eggs for Passover and Easter" was always different. It seemed both completely absurd, as one would expect from bad English t-shirt poetry, but also true. It felt like it was trying to tell me something.

Eggs are, in fact, integral to both Passover and Easter, and if one wants to celebrate either, one will, in fact, want to stock up on eggs. So there is that. Of course few people celebrate both, but the shared egg hints at the fact that the two holidays are celebrating similar things. Both explore issues of birth and death and rebirth. And the egg is a powerful symbol of the transition into life.

Spring is also an important season for another egg-worshipping tribe, the locavores -- especially backyard chicken farming subset. The egg symbolizes a vibrant backyard ecosystem. It is a joyous morsel of cruelty-free animal protein, and a constant reminder how awesome it is to give your food waste to a chicken instead of a compost pile.

But while eggs are definitely a goal in the raising of backyard chickens, the chicken comes first, according to Harvey Ussery in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. And this is true both symbolically and literally.

"Most beginning flocksters start with the chicken-either just-hatched chicks, started birds just out of the brooder up to onset of lay, or adult birds-though a few go-getters might prefer to start by hatching eggs in an incubator," writes Ussery.

Most hatcheries begin selling baby chicks in March, either as direct orders to consumers or to feed stores. Of course, chickens these days can be coaxed into laying eggs all year round. And new chicks can be incorporated into a flock at any time. But from a chick's perspective, spring and summer is a great time to grow up. By the same token, hatcheries don't like selling chicks in fall or winter, because too many of them die.

My first batch of mail-order chicks arrived in the mail on Easter Sunday, 2002. You might be thinking, "Wait, the mail doesn't even come on Sunday, much less Easter Sunday." In fact, the minute a shipment of live animals arrives at a post office, the recipient is notified, 24/7. It was about 8:30 p.m. on Easter Sunday when I got the call. I had to use the post office's back door.

Ordering chicks through the mail gives you a lot of options in terms of the many the fancy and funky breeds of chicken out there. At the same time, there's something fun about going to the local feed store and rolling the dice on whatever they have in stock. I've had great luck with random feed store chicks. Of the common breeds, you can't go wrong with the bright gold Buff Orpingtons.

So while followers of biblical religions should consider stocking up on eggs for Passover and Easter, for those more inclined towards Earth Day, it's time to stock up on baby chickens.

If you are stocking up on chickens this time of year, you could do a lot worse than have Ussery's book on your shelf. It's an informative and entertaining read, and speaks to almost any question you could have about backyard poultry raising. Had I had his comprehensive opus when I was getting started, it would have saved me a lot of wrong turns and expanded my vision of the many ways that the personal flock can be integrated into the home ecosystem. Luckily, it's never too late to explore the chicken and the egg. And in honor of egg season, and in service of general egg appreciation, I leave you with an egg recipe.

Tea Eggs

This is a popular Chinese New Year dish. Tea eggs are pretty, like Easter eggs. And like Passover eggs they are salty, thanks to the soy sauce.

Start with some eggs in a pot of cold water. Bring it to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes. Let the eggs cool to the point where you can handle them. Carefully crack the shellshells, either with the back of a spoon or by bonking them on the counter gently. You want to bonk hard enough to crack the shell, but you're not peeling it, so you don't want to smash the egg within.

Return the cracked eggs to the pot. Add a cinnamon stick, two star anise pods, and several tablespoons of black tea and soy sauce, and simmer for two hours. Add more tea or soy sauce to make sure the water is really black. Turn off the heat and let it sit overnight.

The next day, peel and serve.

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About The Author

Ari LeVaux

"Chef Boy" Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated food column, "Flash in the Pan."

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