Sunday, November 22, 2009

First: Chicken or Egg? Both!

by Zinta Aistars

What comes first? The chicken or the egg? Do I care? I don't. What I do care about is that the eggs and chickens I eat are organically raised. That means free range, in fresh air and sunlight, enjoying a good chicken life until they reach me. And I am most grateful for the gift offered.

I'm quite new at this, but I'm learning fast. While working on an article about organic foods and traditional farming (rather than food factories), it's like a new world of good food has opened to me. I knew a little, just enough that I had to push it all out of mind in order to enjoy a burger in peace. But knowledge is... knowledge, and once I started doing the research, I soon learned just how much garbage is going into our bodies, how much environmental damage misguided agrigulture is causing, and how unspeakable the cruelty to animals in food factories. Enough. Once known and  understood, there is no going back. And the best part? This education tastes delicious!

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this seemed like a great time to start setting my table right. I have been horrified by what I have been reading about turkeys... those Butterballs injected with saline solution to make them taste "okay." I have been reading about the growth hormones, the daily diets of antibiotics and other drugs, the genetic manipulation of this poor bird that has resulted in today's Franken-turkey: a bird that is so deformed that it can no longer walk without falling over due to an overgrown breast (we do love those large breasts, don't we? even if they throw off the bird's center of gravity), can no longer fly (yes, turkeys do fly, at least in nature they do) or even, poor old toms, make love to their turkey ladies. It must all be done with artificial insemination. The addled and drugged brains no longer know how to do the act. Talk about a miserable life. A life lived in tight wire cages, not a day of sunshine or fresh air.

I was not going to set another Thanksgiving table with such an unblessed bird. I enjoy eating meat, but that doesn't mean I have to support cruelty to animals. When I saw Shirley's post come up on a local food group e-mail, I immediately called her. Shirley Wyllys lives northwest of Battle Creek, Michigan, about a 22-mile drive from my house, and she had three organic turkeys left for sale. One was now spoken for: mine.

A beautiful and sunny November Sunday, I set out to go to the Wyllys farm. Shirley was waiting with a smile, ready to show me around. I was also interested in her chickens and eggs, because those would be my year-round fare. While researching my food production article, I had read about food factories keeping hens in such tiny wire cages, from birth until slaughter, that they could not even freely turn around. Fed on drugs and substandard feed bolstered with... more drugs to keep them from dying, their beaks cut off to keep them from pecking each other to death out of sheer madness (wouldn't you under such conditions?), their feces dropped through the wire cages on the rows of cages beneath, along with their eggs. Under such terrible living conditions, these eggs have yolks that are actually more gray than yellow, but the miracle of red food dye produces the lie many of us accept.

Not for me. Once I realized what I had been eating on what I had thought was a relatively healthy diet, I was determined to make a lifestyle change. If organic foods cost more, the value is much higher. I am willing to pay more for my own health, for the health of my environment, and for a little kindness to an animal. Shirley sold me three dozen eggs at $3 per carton. She held out a happily cackling hen to me to pet. How soft and beautiful these many-colored feathers! I was struck by how contented this brood was, cackling and chattering and nearly cooing, as they moved around their large pen in the sunshine, grazing freely. Shirley's granddaughter, Madison, joined us, carrying one of the roosters, named Chester, running her finger over his soft feathers, then perching him on her shoulder where he cockadoodled in joyous greeting.

Inside the chicken coop, I found more hens in comfortable, open cubicles, soft with straw. One hen suddenly cackled in obvious joy. She was announcing a fresh egg, just laid. Now, this was more like it. This is what we teach our children about farms. Who of us has not seen the little barns and colorful plastic animals, old MacDonald on his farm? It is a lie. But for small, too rare family farms, that romantic idea of a farm has become instead rows of metal barracks, stinking with manure and animal despair.

Yet something is beginning to change. People are becoming aware. Our children will be the first generation to live shorter life spans than we will, their parents. Diseases are rampant, cancer is epidemic, allergies seem to afflict everyone, and the resistance to antibiotics can be directly traced to our constant overload of these drugs in our everyday foods. If our supermarkets are filled with fake and processed foods, we need to start voting with our forks, as author and food activist, Nicolette Hahn Niman (Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms), recently said during our interview. My fork is voting at every meal.

Shirley walks with me the boundary of their five acres. The strawberry fields are now but autumn red leaves in bunches hugging the cool dirt. Raspberry bushes will grow and fill with berries next summer. A garden will provide the Wyllys family all the fresh produce they require for a healthy and delicious dinner table, all year long. I'll be back: for more birds, more brown eggs, more berries, more good company.

I bring home an 18-pound turkey from Shirley's turkey coop. It is quiet for the season, but new turkeys will be growing there again next spring. Proud birds who sometimes fly over the fence, graze in open sunshine, know how to flirt, and taste mighty fine come another November. Somehow, that will all add to the good taste of my Thanksgiving feast - one I will feel truly good about as I serve a healthy and nourishing meal to my family. They deserve the best.

Shirley Wyllys and granddaughter Madison with chickens

Strawberry fields forever...

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