The Topic At Hand: How Do You Like Your Eggs?

At parties or random gatherings I say it out loud. Sometimes I mutter it. I can’t stop myself. I’m the Veruca Salt of chickens. More often than not I’ll find a kindred chicken spirit and we become instant chicken friends, at least until it is time to go home. Once at a party my new chicken friend asked, “Do we need a rooster to get eggs?” She was drinking some type of interesting vodka and handed her glass to me (it’s what chicken friends do). I told her no, I was pretty sure chickens could lay eggs without having a rooster, but then I spent the rest of the night with private, secret worries: Was that even right? Rooster? Eggs? How does an egg get fertilized? Did I want it to be? Didn’t I used to be smarter than this?

Nickerson Chicken Photo

Didn't I used to be smarter than this?

I live in an urban neighborhood, a mile from Whole Foods. Ten minutes on foot – any direction – and I’m as likely to hit a Farmers Market as a Starbucks. The eggs from the Farmers Markets are especially good, with thick orange yolks that stand an inch high. I know I don’t need my own chickens. I know that. But I also count at least five coops within a two-block radius of my home. The urge is upon us, primal and real.

My favorite neighborhood chickens: Lucy, Ethel and Roxie.

My favorite neighborhood chickens: Lucy, Ethel and Roxie.

nickerson_photo #3

The eggs from the Farmers Markets are especially good, with thick orange yolks that stand an inch high.

My parents got the urge, not for chickens but for growing their own food. I was twelve and there was nothing hip about it. I wanted to live in a housing development like my friends – Holiday Hills or Inverness or Wilderness – but my parents bought a rambler on W Road, not quite rural and not quite the suburbs. The house was brown and shabby, inside and out, had an intercom system and sat on eight acres of undeveloped land. My dad got free pamphlets from the Department of Agriculture and a good deal on a hundred used rabbit hutches, maybe not in that order.

We started with just two breeders: Mama-san and Jack. There are usually six to ten babies in a litter, which was the very least we were expecting given the size of Mama-san’s belly as she lay panting on her side in the summer heat. But after a lot of fluffing and nesting and false alarms and panic on our part, she gave birth to one. One enormous rabbit we named Hurk and never ate, probably because he was the first and an only – more pet than food. So Hurk became a breeder, too. I was twelve, standing next to my parents and watching rabbits hump. I think there are laws against that now, but this was the 70’s.

Eventually the process worked the way it was supposed to and we had rabbits. They bred and birthed and bounced around until we killed them. One doe can produce up to 1000% of her body weight in food per year and we had at least a dozen does. We ate rabbit tetrazzini and rabbit stew and chipped rabbit on toast and plain roasted rabbit. It didn’t taste bad but it didn’t taste good, either. We just ate it.

The extra freezer was packed with rabbit skins that would probably be worth a pile of money some day, just as soon as we figured out how to tan them – I guess we were waiting for more pamphlets to appear or, perhaps, a craggy mountain man to stop by for a visit. Like a lot of things back then, we relied on forward motion and old-fashioned faith.

Since my parents really didn’t have time for any of it, my four brothers and I were put in charge of the entire rabbit operation. We were TV kids. Sports kids. Not the kids who came to school wearing those blue Future Farmers of America jackets. This was completely new and foreign and hard to understand. And hadn’t we all been perfectly happy with meat that came in the round, gentle shape of a patty, with no identifiable body parts? But we learned. My oldest brother, Dan, just because he was the oldest, became the killer and skinner. Probably because I was the only girl, my job was to clean the bodies and get them ready for freezing.

nickerson_photo #4

My brother Dan, skinning a rabbit.

The story of my family and rabbits is one I keep coming back to in one way or another, and my brothers do, too. Not a gathering goes by without some mention of frozen water bottles in winter or smoldering mounds of manure in summer; mice springing at us from feeding troughs, or the time those rabbits went crazy and killed one of their brothers, then ate his ears. Sometimes it’s enough to quietly say, Mama-San.

We, my brothers and I, have joked and retold these stories so many times that they have become just that: stories. And turning them into stories has taken away some of the true physical horror: the sound of the oversized wrench cracking the skull, the knife slicing a line down the belly, the skin peeling away from the body like a tight turtleneck. I’m not sorry I have this. I’m grateful even. It was food and it was my childhood. But I think, like a lot of things about food – and childhood – the real stories get wrapped into the tidiest packages we can manage.

My mother called the other day to tell me about an article she was reading: cows small enough to be raised in backyards. “That’s funny,” I say, “I’ve been thinking about putting a chicken coop in the backyard.”
“Chickens are dirty. That’s why we never had them.”
“They’re not dirty, Mom.”
“Get rabbits.”
“I don’t want to kill anything. I’ve killed enough rabbits.”
“You never killed rabbits.”
“Okay, Mom. Dan killed the rabbits. But I cleaned them.”
“You kids. Maybe once.”
“Mom. Always. Always. Anyway, I want chickens. I want to go to my backyard every morning and collect a few eggs. Then I want to cook them for breakfast. And I want to grow a garden.”
My mom is quiet. When she speaks again, it’s different. “When we bought the place on W, it was a scary time. The house wasn’t much to be excited about, but I remember looking out over the acres and thinking, ‘Well, I’ll always be able to feed my kids. No matter what happens, I’ll always be able to feed my kids.’”

It’s a piece of the story that had always been missing, and her voice is so Midwest heartland that I can’t even tease her about the rabbit sandwiches in my lunch sack that no one would trade, or about the time the freezer somehow got unplugged and our entire collection of frozen rabbit skins thawed and rotted, stinking up the house in a record-breaking heat-wave. I have two boys, ages six and nine. For the second time ever, I understand my mother perfectly.

Nickerson Egg Photo #5

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9 responses to “I Want Chickens”

  1. danika says:

    this is wonderful, Sara. I love your voice, always the right mix of childlike wonder and profundity (which, come to think of it… often go together!).

  2. Amy Meckler says:

    I love it. Your mother’s words are so lovely. I have friends who also want chickens, and I think it goes back to a desire to be self-sufficient. And a desire to care for living things.

  3. sarah says:

    lovely, lovely voice. many things i’ll remember from this. you do have a knack for making me giggly and teary all in the same breath.

  4. Janie Epstein says:

    Good clear writing. The reality of your experience shines through. I was hoping for an answer to the question whether you need roosters to get eggs. Experiencing difficult times (if they turn out well) certainly builds ones confidence to manage other difficult situations. I also like that you express the understanding you gained of your mother without over-explanation. The story brings the reader to the understanding on their own. Well done.

  5. mdn says:

    Such an intimate story, casual but touching at the same time. I really enjoyed visiting your life (or the life of the “I” presented here, anyway). Thanks!

  6. Eric Eicher says:

    Sara, I enjoyed this a lot, not least because when I was little, we had rabbits because my mom ran a preschool, and though they produced no eggs that I know of, they were a nice friendly animal to have around, since though I don’t exactly know where the amazingly cute baby bunnies always went, now that I think about it, I saw nothing like this very vivid moment from your essay: “They bred and birthed and bounced around until we killed them.” That was more like a chicken’s life, where I was growing up (western Kansas), if you plugged in chicken words for the b-verbs you use about rabbits. So I can identify with your story kind of in reverse, and as others have noted, your wonderful voice makes this work on a level that it otherwise never would.

  7. Windsor Wilder says:

    The problem with rabbits is they're cute. That's why the army gives them to special forces candidates for their survival meal, unless they get a chicken. Everyone wants to get one of the few chickens but the NCO instructors reserve them for the NCO candidates they want in SF. The enlisted men get rabbits.

    Get goats. Goats are good, they can live on blackberry vines, you can make very good cheese from the females milk and the males are easier to kill than rabbits. They're not very cute and some of them seem to be asking for it.

  8. Carol Crews says:

    Hey Sara, I just found this. I love it. ~ Carol

  9. Carol Crews says:

    Hey Sara, I just found this. I love it. ~ Carol

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The Author

Sara Nickerson

Sara Nickerson is a freelance writer for television and film. She also writes novels. Her first, How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found (HarperCollins), was a Book Sense Pick, ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, Scholastic Book Club Selection, Bedfordshire Children’s Book of the Year nominee, and winner of the Tatoulu Literary Prize in France. Those last two still puzzle her.

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