Is it safe for me to keep chickens again?

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By Janny Wilcke

When I was growing up in the 1950s on an upstate New York farm, a henhouse full of chickens supplied our family with eggs.  Still vivid in my memory are the special mailing cartons my mother used to send farm-fresh eggs 150 miles south to friends near New York City, perhaps because I was always amazed – and still am – that the eggs did not break en route.

My husband tells me that keeping hens for eggs these days is not cost-effective. Commercial operations are so efficient that it is actually cheaper for American families to buy eggs from the store. Still, in thinking about projects for the spring, I’ve been tossing around the idea that having some laying hens might be fun. The childhood image of hens clucking about my feet as I scatter their feed hither and yon on a soft summer morning – well, it appeals to the romantic in me and my inner pioneer child who yearns for ‘those good ole days.’ 

My old barn has a tobacco stripping room on one end that would be perfect for nests. I figure that one day of helping my husband fix fence in exchange for one day of building an outdoor coup and some nests should put me in business.

Still, I have to admit that I’m a bit nervous about this prospect. You see, the last time we had chickens – in the 1980s – I almost killed myself on the surplus. 

That project, or let’s call it a whim, started out innocently enough.  Someone at my husband’s work had extra day-old chicks so, on impulse, he brought home about two dozen. We kept them in the basement shower for a month until they were ready for the outdoors. (We never used that shower again, but that’s not the point.)

The children and I were thrilled when the hens finally started laying. Every day we excitedly searched the old shed for eggs. And did they ever produce!  It wasn’t long before they were laying more than a dozen a day.  I scrambled them, hard-boiled them and used them in cakes, pies and bread, but still they got ahead of me.

In the midst of this cornucopia, my thinking got a little convoluted. Unwilling to waste food, I decided I would eat the extra eggs myself to be economical. I ate scrambled eggs for breakfast, egg salad sandwiches for lunch and then omelets for dinner. In truth, I was eating almost nothing but eggs while my family enjoyed the varied diet I should have been eating. Can you imagine how high my cholesterol level must have soared?  A doctor would have been horrified.  Even my husband didn’t realize how many I was consuming, yet I continued on this madcap ration for months.

Eventually, my husband decided to butcher them with the intention of supplying our family with delicious dinners of fried, broiled, and barbequed chicken. But they were skinny laying hens and the meat seemed tough. I ended up whirring most of it in my food processor with mayonnaise to make chicken salad.  The kids refused to eat their feathered ‘friends’ and my husband quickly grew tired of processed chicken.

Now, some 25 years later, I am thinking again of keeping chickens. My romantic side thrills at the prospect of my hungry flock greeting me in the morning. My practical side warns me about my thrifty tendencies and the need, even more important these days, to keep my cholesterol in check. So I am not really sure how this project will end up, but just in case, do you have any wholesome recipes that call for lots of eggs?


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