In Search of Good Eggs

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I’m living dangerously. I just make a sunshine cake whose main ingredient is (gasp!) eggs. I even licked the bowl. And the spatula. And the beaters, too.

But I have not a shred of fear, because the eggs came from my brother Henry’s farm. He has a few dozen hens, and I know exactly how healthy and happy they are because I visit with them every time I bring over my egg shells, watermelon rinds and corn cobs. Those scraps, plus our neighbor’s organic grains, plus a smorgasbord of plants and insects, provide the nutrients and energy that are transformed into the gorgeous eggs I just enjoyed in the sunshine cake batter.

With all the news surrounding the recent recall of over half a billion eggs, it’s easy to forget that for most of the long history of human ovivorism — certainly ever since wild jungle fowl were domesticated in India around 3000 BCE. — eggs have been an unimpeachable good.

This was certainly the case when I was growing up in the 1960s, spending summers on my grandparents’ central Illinois farm, gathering warm eggs seemingly custom-made to cradle perfectly in a child’s hand. And in Nepal, where my brother Henry lived in the ’80s, a fried egg over one’s dal-bhat was the lap of luxury. Henry’s wife Hiroko tells us that during World War II in Japan, eggs were so precious that they were reserved only for pregnant women or those in ill health.

What has transformed the perfect package of nutrition, the literal bearer of life, into a biohazard? Common sense (and the Washington Post) point to two interrelated developments: the factory model of egg production and massive consolidation within the egg industry.

When 95 percent of the 338 million laying hens in the U.S. are owned by just 192 U.S. egg companies (that’s an average of 1.6 million hens per company), we are in effect putting 1.6 million eggs in one basket every single day. The likelihood of massive contamination occurs because all of those hens are fed the same potentially contaminated feed, and all live in the same cramped, stressful conditions that render them susceptible to infection.

Consumers turn to local eggs

While there are no silver linings to ingesting salmonella, a massive, costly recall like this one just might have an upside: People are finally fed up enough to take action.

I saw evidence of collective consumer action in the “Sold Out” signs that egg vendors at my local farmers market had put up a few days after the contamination news. And I overheard it in a series of nos and yeses from people buying those eggs.

They were saying “no” not only to the specific contaminated eggs in the recent recall, but to the environmental, animal and human abuses associated with factory farms in general.

On the other side, I heard “yes” to local farmers who raise hens humanely. And from that one “yes” flow many more: “Yes” to rural economic vibrancy. “Yes” to a clean environment. “Yes” to healthy, happy hens. And “Yes, please!” to their thick-shelled, rich-yolked, great taste.

There is no question about what constitutes a truly good egg — and it has nothing to do with pasteurization or battery hens. A good egg is laid by a mentally and physically healthy hen. What this translates into is a free-running hen on a balanced and varied diet that includes all the insects and plants she wants, with the odd bit of meat thrown in when she captures a mouse or other small creature. Yes, chickens are omnivores, too.

The hen’s quality of life, her physical and mental well-being, is important when it comes to the quality of the egg. If you crack a factory-farmed egg next to a truly free-range egg, you will see that they are not created equal. Or, to be more precise, they were created equal, but since we started treating hens like machines, they are no longer equal. Only the happy, healthy hen produces an egg with a viscous white and a high, plump yolk. Unlike the pale, watery yolks we are now used to in supermarket eggs, these yolks are brilliant orange, even red.

A successful egg

The “battery hens” whose feet never touch the ground and who never nibble at fresh weeds, grass, and insects produce eggs that, even when free of salmonella, are watery in color and taste, and low in nutrients — particularly in omega-3 fatty acids. A free-range hen, on the other hand, who pecks and scratches and eats a huge variety of nutritious bugs, insects, and plants, gives us delicious eggs high in omega-3s. Since this was reported a few years ago, some commercial egg producers began adding algae to their chicken feed to boost the omega-3s. This may help out on the omega-3 front, but not on the larger problem, which is treating hens as if they were inanimate egg-producing machines.

Sunshine Cake

Courtesy of Mari Coyne Blucher, in memory of her mother, Anne Coyne, who made this recipe a Coyne family classic, long on the birthday cake list.

Ingredients

6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
⅔ cup flour
pinch of salt
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon flavoring (I always use vanilla, but one of these days will expand into almond, lemon, etc.)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Separate the eggs, putting the whites in a big bowl and the yolks in a small one. Beat the egg whites at medium speed until frothy, then add the cream of tartar and beat at high speed until stiff peaks form.
  3. Scoop the beaten whites out into a large bowl. Pour the yolks into the bowl that just had the whites, and beat until they turn sticky and light yellow (about 3 minutes).
  4. Gradually add the sugar and beat at high speed for another 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce speed and add salt, flavoring and finally the flour. Fold one cup of egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then gently fold the rest of the whites into the lightened yolk mixture until just blended.
  5. Pour into an ungreased 10-inch, two-piece, tube pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until tester comes out clean.
  6. Remove from oven and place upside down to cool. (Mari's Mom used to invert them on Coke bottle necks). When cool, loosen sides and remove from pan.

What you get when you treat living creatures like cogs in a machine are contamination problems like we’ve been hearing about on the nightly news, plus a host of other social and environmental problems such as those detailed by Iowa native and NY Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg.,

While it is true that no one egg is immune to microbial contamination, a decentralized food system with many local egg producers is much safer than a centralized system with few producers for the simple reason that a contamination problem, should it occur, would be extremely limited in scope, and easy to trace and contain.

Such a system has many other added values, not the least of which is that when hens are treated like hens, not cogs in a machine, they produce eggs that taste like eggs should — rich, nutty, buttery — one like Henry James must have eaten that prompted him to write:

“I had an excellent repast — the best repast possible — which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed. … It might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can be reasonably expected of it.”

James’ euphoria is unmistakable. It is similar to mine as I inhale the aroma of the egg-y sunshine cake.

Once you have eaten an egg like this, you will never turn back to the industrially produced pale shadow of an egg. To find such an egg, don’t rely on egg carton ad copy. The terms “natural” and “naturally raised” for example, are meaningless, and “cage-free” is almost meaningless.

The only reliable source of an unimpeachably good egg is a small producer whose hens forage freely — ideally someone you can talk to and whose farm you can visit. To find good eggs near you, enter your ZIP code into localharvest or visit your local farmers market. Then make sunshine cake (or your favorite egg dish) and enjoy great taste and peace of mind.

 


Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

Photo: Eggs in a basket at Chicagos Downtown Farmstand.
Credit: Courtesy of Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.

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