This week, I’ve been thinking about chickens.
I’ve been thinking about chickens because we’ve been eating them–experimenting with using dry rubs, letting the breast meat soak that in, and then roasting it on the grill, basting it with a barbecue sauce, letting it slow cook, and then eating it with farmers’ market corn and new potatoes from Randy’s fields. Rubs are new to our chicken repertoire, and the results–tasty and moist, seared on the outside–are a welcome revelation.
But I’ve been thinking about chickens, too, because of the folks we know who raise them. They are varied, these chicken-raising people: artists and officers, class-act retirees, professors, stay-at-home moms. These are people, for the most part, who have been quietly tending their fowl for a long, long time. Their chicken preoccupations predate the current poultry raising craze by a broad span of years. Their stories, I think, would make a compelling article, and I message my friend Robin to see if she’ll let me come and visit, to interview her about her chickens and her art.
Robin is gracious and welcoming, and so, on Thursday morning, James and I pile into the car and drive north to Mount Vernon.
Robin lives, with her husband Craig and their sons, Paul and Isaac, in a pretty red cottage on the borderline between town and country. The house perches on a little slice of verdant heaven, and we pull up the long gravel drive and park next to the family van. We walk up a path bordered in green, past a homey looking chicken coop, and up the steps to the back door.
We sit at the table and visit while cinnamon buns bake and Robin makes a second fragrant pot of decaf. Isaac, about to enter his last year of college, tells us about a new bird he’s been watching this summer. It’s wren-like, but with a longer beak and a different perching pattern, and it’s been pecking at his window. He realized, he says, that it had peeled away a corner of the window screen to get to spiders spinning homes in the space between window glass and summer screening. He’s excited because that means the bird has taken its instinctual feeding pattern–foraging in the bark of a tree,–and adapted it to human construction.
Isaac is tall and lean, ponytailed, with piercing black eyes. He is a biologist, studying, right now, fish and their adaptive relationships in Ohio waters, but birds are his passion. He loves video games, too, and Robin and I leave him and Jim discussing a digital world. We take our coffee and warm-from-the-oven buns, and we retreat to a little sitting area at the top of the stairs. It’s where Robin does her sewing, away from everyday house bustle.
Robin moves the sewing machine close to the window, pulls out chairs, and we settle in. Emily, the aging poodle, sweet and friendly, hoists herself up the stairs, too, settles in, falls asleep on the area rug at my feet. Robin shows me her just-finished project, a beautiful, capacious, quilted bag that she puts up on top of the sewing machine and covers. Otherwise, the cat will find that soft and comfy fabric, mash it down, and create for herself a new sleeping spot.
And then we talk about chickens.
Robin and Isaac started raising chickens together twelve years ago. It was a 4-H project for Isaac; he got several Banties, who first lived in the basement. Every day, Isaac and his mom would take them outside and put them in a hutch with a run; every night, they would herd them up and bring them back inside. They grew completely used to humans, those chickens; Isaac took to wandering around with the rooster on his shoulder, like a pirate with his parrot. He loved the chickens and he continued to raise them long after his 4-H time was over.
The Banties were joined by other breeds–Orpingtons and Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Cuckoo Morans, and Rhode Island Reds. Robin loved the birds, too, and even after Isaac went away to school, she continued to keep the chickens. She favors heavier hens who lay brown eggs–they are tougher birds, she says; it’s harder for a hawk to swoop down and carry one away.
Still, they have attrition. One night, as she turned up that gravel drive, Robin’s headlights illuminated a coyote stealing off with a bird in its jaws. It dropped the hen and ran away. Robin butchered that freshly dead bird–something they do only rarely, although they enjoy the eggs year ’round.
Chickens are one connection, for Robin, to an Iowa farming childhood. She may not have time, with her full-time job at a bookstore, and her commitment to teaching ceramics, to till a kitchen garden or tend to goats or pigs. But chickens she can do.
We go into the basement and visit the newest chickens–babies just fluffing out working wings. There are eight or ten chicks; they are all hens and all different types–pale and dark, some with patterned beaks, some with feathered legs, some just beginning to sport a comb. They tumble together in a big galvanized tub, sweetly cheeping, running to get food, taking impatient little drinks of water. They are impossibly fluffy and impossibly cute.
Outside, the mature chickens–a Banty rooster named Earl, Lord and Lady Orpington, and a Wyandotte hen, wander peacefully among the shrubs by their coop, poking their heads out, looking to Earl for instruction when Robin offers feed. They are big and bright-eyed, strikingly colored, and beautiful.
Robin talks about predators–raccoons are the worst, she says, followed by foxes and an occasional coyote, and they have to balance a healthy, free-range life with the carnivore threat.
She shows me chicken catalogs, with glossy, alluring pictures of beautiful birds accompanied by lists of characteristics. You can choose size, of course, and appearance and egg color; you can choose the level of cold-weather hardiness and you can choose disposition tendencies.
There’s a lot to think about with chickens, I begin to realize. There’s a lot, say Robin and Isaac, to love.
Robin has taken to photographing the grownups; she sketches from the photos she likes, and then the sketches flow into her ceramic designs. She’ll throw a batch of mugs, then pull and place the handles, coat them with a slip made from local, Knox County, clay and bisque fire them. When they’re cleaned and washed, she’ll do a wax drawing of a chicken, a drawing taken from life. She shows me a photo of Earl pecking at a nugget of food; she shows me a mug with a perfectly proportioned, stylized rooster in the very same pose.
Wax drawing done, Robin dips the mug into a base coat of glaze, applies a second layer of wax, adds the top glaze coat, cleans the base, and then loads the kiln and fires the mugs.
A mug takes at least two and a half weeks to create.
You have to love the process because it brings you joy, says Robin, but you’ll never recoup, in dollars, the time you put into it. You have to own an appreciation of the long, slow way of doing things.
It’s true in raising chickens, as in art, of course. We talk about the difference between a factory farmed egg and its free range counterpart–the richer, more deeply colored yolks, the shells’ fragility, the difference in flavor. The same differences, says Robin, are seen in the chicken meat. Factory farmed chickens are bred to maturity within eight weeks; their meat is watery and flavorless, their bones flexible and rubbery. Free-range chickens take a minimum of twelve to fifteen weeks to grow into themselves, and their bones, and their flesh, are firm. The flavor, Robin says, is incomparable.
It’s a dilemma, she acknowledges, because to buy a free range hen for roasting, you’d probably pay something like $6.99 a pound–a cost most families can’t embrace.
Long ago, I read that United States Americans seldom think about where food comes from. They just eat it—a lot of it.
And I think about the chickens–food chickens–in this context: I’m reading Robin Wall Kimmerer. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about the relationship between a person and her food. In her native American tradition, when she gathers food, Kimmerer asks permission and she gives thanks. And she never takes everything.
So she’ll go out to gather wild leeks to make a risotto for her visiting daughters, and when she locates a patch, she will ask the plant’s permission to take her harvest. Then she’ll dig up a tiny portion; if the plant has granted her permission, it will be whole and healthy. Kimmerer will leave a gift of tobacco and judiciously harvest what she needs, leaving enough to perpetuate the food plant’s life.
It’s a philosophy, a practice she calls the Honorable Harvest; she applies it to the eating of plants and to the eating of animals. We need animals, she acknowledges; we need their flesh and their fur and and their hides and their feathers; we need their bones to make our stock. But we need to use them wisely, judiciously, reverently. “Gifts from the earth,” she writes, “or from each other, establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”
And I wonder if this has something to do with the pull that draws many to the raising of chickens–the ability to hold the tiny chick in your hand, to feed it, to allow it to run and explore and take dust baths in the bare spot under the rhododendrons. To get to knows its quirks and foibles and to enable it to have a natural life, a wholesome life, a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. To say thank you when the eggs are harvested. And, when the hen or the rooster is butchered for food, to make it happen in a quick and respectful way. And to use, as Robin says, every part of that chicken that can be used–even the heads and feet in a stock that, she affirms, is more flavorful than any you’ve ever tasted before.
Knowing the bird on the plate before me has to make a difference, to slow me down, to make me appreciate, force me to savor. This is not just one of a million identical bred-to-eat birds, I acknowledge. I know this bird. This was an individual who flapped and pecked and socialized, a being who gave us joy in life and sustains us by his dying. We gave him freedom, sunshine, and companions. He feeds us. We knew this rooster’s name.