Tastes Like Chicken: Because It Is
From Soup to Rooster Fries
When I moved into my house just outside Concord in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was intent on being a gentleman, quasi-hippie, organic farmer. I immediately rented a tiller and started a quarter acre organic garden. The folks who lived there before me had apparently at one time raised chickens. There were "wild" chickens roaming about the property and roosting in trees at night. They laid eggs under bushes in out of the way places. None of them ever survived. Various varmints would get to the eggs and devour them. I decided I wanted to raise chickens in a more controlled environment where I would have access to the eggs.
For me, anyway, the question as to which came first the chicken or the egg is a moot or, more precisely, a cluck point. It was chicks for me, baby chicks, that is. Ain’t nothing cuter. I ordered a couple of dozen through the mail. Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks – all hens, of course. Both breeds lay brown eggs. And their eggs are larger than the white Leghorn eggs. The girls are nearly twice as large as Leghorns – six or seven pounds.
This was when I was young and energetic and as idealistic as I have ever been. It was the 70’s and I was in the Bay Area. I owned and operated a restaurant in Oakland, California at the time. And, later opened Mudd’s for Virginia Mudd, as executive chef.
I bought a couple of books on organic chicken raising and studied them. While they were small I kept the chicks in the house in a plastic wading pool. Had feeders, waterers heat lamps etc. Lots of contented peeping going on.
Meanwhile I was building a chicken house and yard in my back yard. This involved lots of 2x4’s, scrap lumber, plywood, tar paper and lots of chicken wire and cursing. I ciphered the square footage so as to have happy hens. I attached it to my Quonset hut. (Yes, I had a Quonset hut.) . Chickens will never roam vary far from their house. The only reason I had a fenced in yard was to protect the chickens from predators – mostly neighborhood dogs. Oh, and don’t even ask me about my Lop-eared rabbit fiasco!
Let me move ahead a little here…
When my girls got a little older - they had begun to lay eggs – I decided it was time to introduce them to a gentleman chicken (little did I know there was no such thing.) I’ve never been one who knows when to leave well enough alone. My readings indicated that fertilized eggs were lower in cholesterol. My neighbor had a small flock of Araucanas. This breed was introduced to the USA from Chile in the 1920’s. There was a claim that Araucana eggs had lower cholesterol, too. This turned out to be wrong. The hens lay a light bluish or greenish egg. Now, these varmints are a smaller breed than my girls, but my neighbor assured me that would be no problem. So, one bright morning when my girls were promenading around their yard, clucking, soaking up some rays, preening, my neighbor brought over a burlap sack containing a young Araucana cock.
I opened the door to the yard and let him out of the bag. Hmmm. He was half their size. The girls stopped their contented clucking and there was dead silence. They surrounded him. One let out a squawk. There was another squawk. Then lots of squawks. No demur sotto voce here. It was like a slumber party run amok. One where all the girls were armed to the teeth and taking speed. Screeching – I didn’t know chickens could screech. Then lots of dust and violence. They jumped the poor little clueless adolescent bastard. The hysterical cackling was deafening. They pecked him mercilessly. These broads were large and in charge. He fled for his life – into the chicken house. The total disaster resulting from my matchmaking attempt put me in mind of a couple of blind dates I had experienced.
I had built a roost of 2X4’s in the house. There was a kind of trough underneath where I could rake out the chicken droppings from the outside by means of a small door I had inserted on the side of the house. That was I could clean without going in. Poor little bastard got in there and I could not retrieve him. He was immediately placed at the bottom of the pecking order. Yes, Virginia there is a pecking order.
There will always be a top chicken. This chicken gets the best of everything in ChickenLand. It eats first. It gets the best spot on the roost. It gets to peck all the other chickens at will. And peck they do. All the chickens get to peck anybody below them in the pecking order. And, in turn, get pecked by anybody above. The sine qua non of corporate structure. How they establish the order is somewhat opaque to us. Where there is no rooster present the Alpha Hen is in charge. Some species have more clearly defined signposts. I read about a study where these guys tried to figure out orangutan hierarchy. They finally decided the guy with the bluest ass was at the top of the heap. So they took the guy with the palest ass and painted it bright blue. (Hey, I’m just the messenger here!) Sure enough, he shot right to the top of the corporate orangutan ladder. CEO’s take note.
At any rate it ain’t so clear with chickens. But, what was crystal clear was my poor little guy was at the bottom. My neighbor said not to worry, we had just introduced him when he was too young to handle the girls. A kind of chicken version of an acne-ridden, squeaky voiced gawky tweener. He said he’d wait about a month and bring me a mature rooster. I said okay - somewhat skeptically, though.
A month later…
Another bright, crisp day and my neighbor shows up with another burlap sack. I am dubious. For one thing I’ve recently read that one rooster can only comfortably handle 7 or 8 hens. I’m thinking even a big super stud like Foghorn Leghorn or Rhode Island Red might well be over matched here. And I’m going to get another 4-pound weakling – my girls will just kick sand in his face. I am having thoughts of one of my favorite Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. The Dog ("I say, Dog…) has just tricked him into going through a hay baler. He comes out the other end buck naked, completely plucked, carrying a large, neat bale of all his feathers. In typical, optimistic Foghorn fashion he turns to the camera and says, ""Fortunately, ah keep mah feathers numbahed for just such occasions." The boy I had introduced earlier to do a man’s job had no such numbering system and was looking pretty plucked. I really feared for the new guy in town.
With much trepidation I once again entered the yard with the sack. The girls stopped what they were doing and looked at me with those cocked heads and sideways glances with jerky head bobbing. I let him out and backed out of the yard fearing the worst. They gathered round him and sized him up. He was nearly twice as big as his predecessor, but still much smaller than the girls. The squawk! The horror! They jumped! There was a huge pile of dust and the scuffle was on. It was truly Wagnerian.
When the dust had lifted I saw what had occurred. Casey was swinging for the fences - only connecting this time. Much to my amazement, they had fled, almost as one – well all but one – to the fenced sides of the chicken yard. They cowered – or chickened - there with much cackling, squawking and flapping of wings. He was on top of the one doing what roosters do. The cackling was subsiding. He proceeded to go around the yard kicking ass, taking names and boinking them one by one. That day everybody moved down one in the pecking order. There was a new sheriff in town.
My girls were content. During the season they laid an egg a day each. I had more than I could eat or use at the restaurant. I had dozens in my refrigerator in the Quonset hut. All was as peaceful as it ever gets in ChickenLand.