When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts there was a little jingle on a TV ad that aired, theoretically, to educate consumers about where and how to buy the freshest eggs. It went like this:
“Brown eggs are local eggs/And local eggs are fresh!”
That was it. And somehow it’s managed to stick in my head for decades. It inspired decades of brown-egg buying – thinking that the brown color somehow denoted greater nutrition, authenticity, a more local provenance, and less tampering with what ought to be a pretty simple food.
Since that jingle, the question of how to buy a “good” fresh egg has gotten considerably more complicated. We can’t count on brown eggs to be local, and determining the origin of the eggs on offer in the supermarket is a challenge. In recent years, as concerns about our food supply have multiplied, egg cartons have become billboards offering complex information meant to guide the consumer. A box near you can read: “Cage free, Hormone free, Free-range, No antibiotics!” You can also find, “Organic”, or “Fed Organic Grains”. And then there are the latest ones on the block: “Omega-3 enhanced!”
Given that we are meant to match this level of complexity up with the cacophony of environmental and nutritional information we read, the decision about what carton of eggs to put in the cart can become taxing.
More recently, widely publicized reports about the welfare of laying hens in big, commercial operations have exposed fairly horrifying conditions in the chicken house: Cutting beaks, chicken cannibalism, antibiotics in the feed to combat the diseases that proliferate from overcrowded, unsanitary conditions… A growing demand for “cage-free” eggs has erupted since these reports, and currently (currently) the industry can’t keep pace with consumer’s enthusiasm for what is seen as an alternative.
Back at the grocery store, the same conscientious consumer can find that some of the free range, organic, omega three enriched eggs come enfolded in so much plastic that one expects the egg within to be Faberge… or maybe a hand grenade. It seems the picture of a chaotic and contradictory stab at sustainability.
Recently, I called chef Tony Maws at Craigie Street Bistrot to discuss all things egg. Right now, the restaurant is featuring lovely fall dishes that call on farm fresh eggs to make them sublime, including a slow-poached egg in smoked game broth with matsusake mushrooms. But these eggs, from Maple Meadow Farm in Vermont, aren’t reserved only for star billing in a fall soup. They can also be found on the vegetarian tasting menu, and folded into pastries. Tony describes them as “lovely to work with” with deep-colored yolks and says that his guiding principle for sourcing things for the restaurant – from produce to eggs to meat – is “would I serve it to my family?”
So if you employ the same question – what egg should you serve?
In Ideal Terms…
A couple of months back this blog featured the farmer Joel Salatin – an iconoclast in Virginia who is spreading the gospel of his pasture raised eggs. What makes an egg pasture raised? Salatin produces grass-fed beef, eggs, roasting and stewing hens, hogs, turkeys, and rabbits. The quality of each of these products depends on the health of his pasture, so all are put to work on it. Consider this cycle: after the cows cruise through, dropping dung and shortening the grass, he sets movable chicken coops down. The hens gobble up grubs that just love those cow pies, and scratch around in the undergrowth made accessible by the cow’s grazing. They leave their nitrogen rich droppings and eat up the pests. In their wake the pasture returns even healthier for the next round of cropping. The eggs are nutritionally rich – higher in those omega threes than conventional eggs because the hens ate what they’re supposed to eat, including bugs and grubs, grit and grass seed.
Tipping an Industry…
Many of us can’t easily find organic, pasture-raised eggs. When you spot them at your farmer’s market or a roadside stand, consider paying a dollar or two for what is really an ideal product. The benefits are multifold. But in the meanwhile, keep clamoring for humane standards of animal welfare, feed that’s good for the chicken and not just the bottom line, and producers who are local and relatively small in scale. Of course it wouldn’t hurt if they were in a regular old, recyclable, biodegradable cardboard carton too. Interest in these eggs will tip and industry. And an industry tipped is a mighty revolution indeed.
*For more on what’s happening with the food you eat, don’t miss Michael Pollan’s op-ed in this week’s New York Times about the new Farm Bill. Anyone concerned about the health of the nation, its citizens, and its food supply will be interested in his thoughts.