Nearly all of our chickens have been named after classic country singers. Our 6 month old Jersey Giant, Gayle (eponymously named after Crystal Gale for her long, sleek, blue-black feathers), just began laying eggs. Our young rooster, Lt. Merle, is a first-rate crooner and sentinel. Every morning, as I approach the coop, I sing an anthem for them—“Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…” Merle warily tolerates me, probably because I deliver gifts of scrambled eggs, raisins, fresh greens and herbs, crushed egg shells, and sunflower seeds. And, on afternoons when I’m at home, I let them out of the pen to free range until dark so they can get their fill of juicy bugs, green grass, forest floor, blue sky, and gravel for their gizzards. “Lt. Merle,” I say to him, “you’re in charge. Keep my girls safe.”
Those of you who have a flock of your own probably get it—watching chickens be chickens as nature intended warms the cockles of the heart in a very specific way. So, naturally, I was drawn to the title of Rob Levandoski’s novel, Fresh Eggs (Plume, a Penguin Group, 2002, reprinted by The Permanent Press, 2015) in a local used bookstore.
Fresh Eggs takes satiric aim at industrial farming practices which crept into U.S. agriculture in the 2nd half of the 20th century, while keeping a sympathetic stance towards the farmers who converted to them. The plot centers on the family farm of Calvin Cassowary, a married, 20- something, recent college graduate whose first kid is on the way when his father dies, leaving the financial burden of running the ancestral farm to him. “But what’s a man to do?” under such circumstances, the narrator asks , “You give up your dream of being a high school art teacher. You sign a contract with Gallinipper Foods. You borrow a quarter-million bucks. You do whatever it takes to keep the family farm in the family for at least one more generation.” Cassowary develops in wariness and cynicism as the choices which stem from moment this grow vanishingly small over time.
There are two flocks in Fresh Eggs—the old flock of Buff Orpingtons who are kept as pets for Calvin’s young daughter, Rhea, and live the old life because they lay unsatisfactory brown eggs, and the new flock of 60,000 bleached white egg-bearing Leghorns who live the industrialized life. The Orpingtons “…can scratch and peck to their hearts’ content in the vegetable gardens….They can explore the high grass and the shrubbery and hop up on the low branches of the peach and apple trees to look sideways at the endless world and feel the clean fresh breezes. They can pretend to be what nature intended, free birds of the jungle; free to eat and run and sleep; free to lay eggs where and when they want; free to squirt their manure where they won’t have to step in it…”
The Leghorns, however, have a radically different life: “There were 60,000 hens originally, but 10,000 have already died of suffocation or disease. Just 18 months ago they arrived as young ready-to-lay pullets. For 18 months they stood wing to wing, 6 to a 12 by 18-inch cage, unable to flap their wings, their aching toes wrapped around the wire bottoms of their cages, their beaks unable to find a bug or a worm in their tasteless mash…Now their human master says they’re spent, though they could go on laying an egg or two a week for a long time yet…and, if a hen can’t average those 2 eggs every 3 days, well, it’s time for a new batch of pullets whose uteruses are still chock-full of happy ova, who can fulfill their biblical responsibility and keep the Cassowary farm in the Cassowary family for one more generation.”
Rhea, Calvin’s daughter, loves all animals as children tend to do. She empathizes with the Leghorns’ plight and tries to save one from culling by incorporating her into the old flock. Calvin, moreover, wants the old flock to die out naturally to reduce costs. He forbids Rhea from saving the Leghorn and from allowing her own Orpington hens to get broody over their eggs. He forces Rhea to steal eggs from her most beloved mothering hen. This authoritative, paternal command forces young Rhea into acute ethical suffering at a very young age, for she is helpless to sustain defiance against it.
The intergenerational struggle between farming methods and economies thus worms its way into a struggle of ethics, perspective, and relationship between father and daughter and personal conscience. Father is burdened by the economy of scale: the more eggs that are produced in an intensive food production economy, the less each egg earns in the market. Ironically, the more eggs his family farm produces, the greater the financial burden and debt he accumulates, the only way out of which seems to be to try to find a way to accommodate 10’s of thousands more Leghorns in worsening living conditions. The daughter, in contrast, grows up deeply seeing and feeling these chickens not as commodities, but as living beings whose suffering she cannot ignore because it is put into full relief by the way of life of her own flock of Orpingtons, whose life-style is gradually encroached upon by the concentration-camp conditions of the Leghorn flock.
Levandoski manages to juggle these macro- and micro- economies with a facile narrative lens that zooms out into the agricultural market at large and zooms in to fine-grained detail of the fallout of industrialized farming within the human experience. His prose is light, reserved, sparse, and humorous for such a serious subject. It is as though Levandoski crafted a style to mirror the consumers of cheap, intensively produced eggs in their refusal to see, much less take the life of any chicken seriously. The plot vacillates between realism and surrealism. The satire is bittersweet. It is a certain kind of tragi-comedy that will leave you pining for simpler days, going to the farmer’s market to obtain eggs from pasture-raised chickens, and possibly building a chicken coop of your own.
So, thank you, Gayle, for these delicious eggs. We look forward to the spring when, after a brief broody spell, your sweet, little eggs will crack open and bring forth our next generation of country singing chicks. In the meantime, we honor your little offerings by transforming them into savory Tex-Mex style migas. And, of course, we’ll share our scraps with you. Full circle.
Migas with Sweet Potato Hash and Roasted Pineapple Salsa
Fluffy scrambled eggs with onion, bell pepper, tomato, and fried corn tortilla strips over a savory sweet potato hash. Vegetarian.
For a vegan version, replace the eggs with firm tofu, pressed for 15 min. under the weight of a jar or plate to let the liquid out, and pan-fried in a cast iron skillet with the onions and tomatoes. I, personally, would season the crumbled tofu with smoked paprika, ground cumin, and chili powder.
Sweet Potato Hash
- 1 large sweet potato, cut into small chunks
- 3 TBSP olive oil
- 1/8 tsp cayenne
- 1 tsp salt--I prefer gris sal (grey salt)
- 1/2-1 tsp chipotle chili powder the more you put in, the spicier the hash will be
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp tajin seasoning optional--this spice mix of chili peppers, salt, and dehydrated lime juice can generally be found in the spice aisle and/or in the international food section of your grocery near Mexican cuisine
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- cracked pepper, to taste
- 1 large, ripe tomato, diced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 onion, diced, with 2 TBSP set aside for the salsa
- 1 bell pepper, any color, diced
- 2 tortillas, cut roughly into ~ 1 inch squares typically corn tortillas are used. I, however, used sprouted grain tortillas because I had them in the fridge and I was curious if they would perform as a decent substitute. They ROCKED!!
- any vegetable oil (I used olive), enough to fry the tortillas in--~ 1/4 cup
- 4-5 pasture-raised eggs or more if necessary; I usually mix up 2 eggs per person
- 1/8 cup half-n-half increase by 1/8 cup every 3-4 extra eggs
Roasted Pineapple Salsa
- 1 pineapple, peeled and cut away from the core in slices
- 4 TBSP olive oil
- 1 tsp honey
- pinch of salt
- 1 large, ripe tomato, diced
- 2 TBSP onion (that you chopped for the migas)
- 1 large handful cilantro, chopped
- 1 med. sized garlic clove, finely chopped
- juice of 1 lime
- 1 tsp honey
- pinch of salt
VEGAN OPTION: SCRAMBLED TOFU 'MIGAS'
- 1 block of firm tofu, excess liquid squeezed out or pressed out
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 onion, with 2 TBSP reserved for salsa
- 1 chopped bell pepper
- 1 tomato, diced, lightly salted, and set in a strainer to release excess liquid
- 2 tortillas (corn or sprouted grain)
- olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Roast the Pineapple
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a cookie pan with parchment paper.
Slice off the top, bottom, and prickly sides of the tough pineapple peel. Then, slice the pineapple meat on all four sides away from the core. Slice each four large piece into smaller slices. Place pineapple pieces on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.
Drizzle pineapple with olive oil, honey, and salt. Mix it up with your hands to ensure that all is evenly coated and dispersed on the tray.
Place cookie sheet in the oven and roast until the pineapple begins to carmelize around the edges, about 30 min. Take out of the oven and set aside to cool.
Sweet Potato Hash Browns
Place the sweet potatoes, olive oil, and all spices, salt and pepper into a pan--I prefer a cast iron pan. Turn on heat to med./ med. high.
Frequently stirring, fry sweet potatoes until they are carmelized and crisped here and there--about 20 min. Take them out of the pan and put them in a serving bowl. I like to keep them heated in a lightly warmed oven (about 250) until the eggs are ready.
Make the roasted pineapple salsa
While the sweet potatoes are cooking, make the salsa. Take some of the pineapple and chop it finely until you have about 1/2 cup for 2 people or 1 cup for 4. Add 1/2 cup for each additional 2 servings.
Mix pineapple with all other ingredients. Add 1 additional tomato for each 2 servings.
Stir/mix well and let it sit to develop while you make the migas.
Placed the chopped tomato in a strainer. Lightly salt the tomatoes and let them strain in the sink to release excess tomato juice. This is an important step because the last thing you want is for the eggs to be laden with moisture and the tortilla squares becoming soggy.
In a small cast iron pan, add about 1/4 in. oil and over med. heat, heat it up until it begins to pop.
Add in the tortilla squares and cook until they are more brown than golden brown and quite crispy. They will soak up some moisture from the eggs, so the crispier they are, the better.
Using a slotted spoon, take them out of the pan and place the cooked tortilla squares onto a plate lined with a paper towel.
In the same pan in which you made the sweet potato hash (for economy of space and ease of cleaning), saute the onions, diced peppers, and drained tomatoes on med. heat until onions are translucent, about 10 min.
Meanwhile, whisk eggs and half-n-half together and lightly salt the eggs.
Turn down the heat of the veg. mixture to low and pour the eggs into the pan. Stirring frequently, cook the eggs until they are about 2/3 of the way done. Then, mix in the crisped tortilla squares evenly and cook until the eggs are fluffy and light.
Take the hash out of the warming oven and place some on each plate.
Top with migas, then sour cream (or a dairy-free alternative), a hefty spoonful of pineapple salsa, and a few scattered cilantro leaves.
Making VEGAN Scrambled Tofu 'Migas'
Cook the tortilla squares and set aside, as in the directions above.
Saute onions, diced bell pepper, and drained diced tomatoes in a skillet (I prefer a cast iron) over med.-med/high heat until onions are translucent.
Add spices. Stir well.
Add in crumbled tofu and saute with the veggies and spices, stirring frequently, for about 5 min..
Add in the crisped tortilla squares, and stir again.
Assemble plate with sweet potato fries, tofu scramble, vegan sour cream (if desired), pineapple salsa, and cilantro.