Eggs: A Simple Guide

Last night at our screening of Food, Inc the question was raised about how to choose eggs wisely.

at least I'm not shopping for eggs...

Eggs…why’d it have to be eggs…?

This can be more complicated than Indiana Jones and the Hall of Holy Grails.

So when a friend this morning mentioned she wants to up her egg intake, I offered (at her request!) the following suggestions which I have gleaned from my studies of the food system.

I try to base my opinions on the hardest evidence I can find and not be especially emotional or anthropomorphic. I do subscribe to Slow Food Principles (Good, Clean & Fair) and hold a personal spiritual conviction that we are stewards of the earth and animals, responsible to them – and to our fellow humans – to carefully consider our impact.

That said, this is just from my personal observations and reading, and I haven’t done a ton of specialized research. So if I’m wrong about something, by all means please leave a comment and correct me! We are all here to learn. (But no need to comment about how “eating all eggs is evil” or something because that’s not the purpose of this post. We’re changing the food system from the inside; there’s certainly a place for those who wish to boycott as well, but I’m writing this for the “buycotters” out there.)

So…disclaimers & provisos finished with, let’s move on…

If you want to eat eggs & chicken that were raised the closest way possible to their natural God-given behaviors, here’s what they do: they want to be outside. They scratch the ground. They forage and eat bugs. They take dust baths and flap around a lot. They are social creatures with established networks (yes there is a “pecking order”).

Not your grandma's chicken coop

Not your grandma’s chicken coop

So, battery cages – standard practice in the egg industry – are really against their natural behavior. If eggs are cheap you can bet they’re from cages. Same goes for that $2.99 rotisserie cooking under the heat lamps…sorry to disappoint.

But this post is about eggs, specifically. And the language you see on egg labels is mighty confusing. Here are what a few of the standard terms mean:

What cage free looks like

What cage free looks like

Cage Free: exactly that, but nothing more. Usually means kept in a dark, hot barn, with thousands of hens (one friend called it a “sea of chickens”) crammed in together. They are not in cages but they’re running around in their filth and eating god knows what (but mostly corn). Diseases do spread. Natural behaviors are minimal. Note: Organic chickens can be raised this way. They just have to be eating organic corn/soy.

Free Range or Free Roaming: this is up for debate (and there are no standards universally anyway) but most of the time it does mean some measure of outside time. I understand it to mean a step better than Cage Free. Animal activist websites do claim that Free Range is no different, and it may not be in some (many?) cases.

Fertile: means they were exposed to a rooster, which increases the likelihood of the chickens being actually roaming. Also, boy & girl chickens together is more natural than not. It is very, very difficult if not impossible for a large farm to maintain roosters, so fertile eggs will usually be from a smaller operation (but note that the smallest backyard enthusiasts also usually can’t keep roosters because they are loud, make babies, and can be rather mean – they didn’t start cockfighting because these were cuddly creatures).

[Roosters btw are a whole other issue – male chicks at large operations are gassed to death at one day old, en masse – thousands and thousands per year. They are an unusable byproduct of the egg industry. You can’t guarantee you’re not contributing to that unless you know the farmer and know what they do with their males – most family farms will raise the males for meat, which is preferable IMO.]

unfortunate byproduct of the mass egg industry

unfortunate byproduct of the mass egg industry

Vegetarian: hens are not naturally vegetarian. I think this is used to trick ovo-vegetarians into feeling comfortable because they know the hen hasn’t been eating, say, dead animals (which isn’t very common). But actually what it means is that the hen’s diet was controlled, i.e. she ate corn and/or soy exclusively. This isn’t a natural diet for a hen, and it means she couldn’t have been freely roaming. As mentioned above, if given her choice, she would also be eating seeds, grass, and bugs. So I avoid vegetarian or vegetarian-fed eggs.

pretty eggs

Easter eggs – no dye required!

Brown: Color doesn’t matter. Egg colors just vary based on the type of chicken that laid them. Some lay beautiful pink, purple, orange, and multi-colored eggs. There is no nutritional difference between a brown or a white egg (it’s not like bread…and even then, just brown bread doesn’t mean it’s healthier…but that’s another post).

Now, obviously, if you can keep your own chickens for eggs, more power to you. As long as you commit to it and your hens don’t wind up at the Humane Society because you bit off more than you could chew (a common problem in places I’ve lived such as Berkeley, where it was fashionable to build a coop but somebody forgot to point out there was a learning curve), this is the very best way to get eggs, hands down. And if you have a friend willing to do that work and give/sell you eggs, so much the better!!

But if you can’t raise them and your friends don’t either, then here is my “pecking order” (ha ha) for how to choose eggs wisely:

ce_chickensongrass1. Farmer’s market eggs ($5-7/dozen ouch!) when I’ve talked to the provider and trust her/his methods. Note that not all FM eggs are raised right – I’ve seen eggs at the FM from caged hens or big operations, even just carted over from the supermarket. An alternative would be to seek out a CSA (be it veggie or meat) that includes eggs.

2. Fertile free range or free roaming eggs

3. Organic free range – USDA organic is supposed to carry some modicum of humanity in the animal treatment. And usually anything raised in an organic manner is better for the environment. Also, supposedly organics can’t contain GMO ingredients (although I’ve just been told that non-GMO corn doesn’t exist any longer…so organic corn would be GMO…I have to check on that).

4. Organic cage free from a local store I trust is using my dollar wisely – because I will balance the benefit to my local economy and a well-paid worker, plus the fossil fuels saved by local shopping, against the welfare of the chicken, just like I will also take into account the environmental health of an organic vs. non-organic production method.

If I can’t at least meet #4 I will skip eggs until I can do better. The best part about buying an egg from a chicken that lived well? It tastes soooooooooooooooooooooo good!!!Today chickens are happy

Hope this is helpful, and please do leave a comment – whether you like it or if I’m unknowingly giving bad or wrong advice!

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Artisanal Foods?

Have you noticed the recent rise in so-called “artisanal” products, many from fast food establishments – the very antithesis of artisan! Lewis Black gave a classic rant about this growing problem on The Daily Show. (Artisan Dominoes Pizza? REALLY???)

In related news, Zagat’s blog produced a helpful Smackdown of products making the claim, taking one for the foodie team by actually tasting them.

My kitchen smells so goooooood….

Photo by Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman herself. I hope mine tastes as good as this looks.

…because I am cooking this:

The Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Dr. Pepper Shredded Pork

I’m making it for three reasons:

1) I live in Texas now, and I believe there is some kind of law here that you have to cook with Dr. Pepper on a regular basis. If there is not, there should be.

I know there’s a law that Dr. Pepper must be offered in every restaurant. I’m sure of it. Also there is an addendum that you should probably oughta offer Diet DP as well, to please the womenfolk, as they say.

This has been problematic for me, as Diet Dr Pepper is my achilles heel when it comes to what I affectionately term “cancer juice.” Yes, I am powerless before its strange chemical-laden flavor profile and tiny, tiny bubbles. To hold the Big C at bay, I have promised myself only to drink it when I can get it on tap, much as my husband has pledged to the Guinness Brewing Company.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing for some time about adding soda (usually Coke) to various braised meat recipes and thought hey, since I’m in Dr Pepper land, I’d better go that route instead.

PLUS, our local grocery chain, the fine H-E-B (which is growing on me greatly), offers a CANE SUGAR version of Dr Pepper that DH (who refuses the diet stuff) actually prefers to the HFCS-sporting original.

So we actually have “Dr B” in tonight’s pork (brief aside: Dr B is clever and all, but nothing will ever beat Dr Thunder for genius brand lifting), with sugar from our friends at Imperial Sugar formerly of Sugar Land, Texas, where I shop at the Farmer’s Market. What a fine Texas meal this is turning out to be.

2) Speaking of shopping locally and H-E-B, they have the freaking best tortillas ever. They even have a machine to make them (“El Machino” in Chevy’s parlance) that keeps the kiddos entertained whilst Momma visits the wine tasting station. Yes, I really am enjoying my local grocery store. And I get their tortillas almost every week, hot off the press, and it really is a challenge to keep the family from eating the whole bag before dinner is on the table.

So I intentionally look for dinner dishes that will give me an excuse to buy these flattened globs of white flour & fat. Yum O.

3) Most importantly, this all came about because I had a pork shoulder to use up from the wonderful Jolie Vue farms. Since moving to Houston not quite two years ago, I haven’t had much luck finding a CSA for veggies that I love. They’re all either too expensive (I was super spoiled in California by the cheap produce), don’t deliver close enough to me, don’t have enough variety (see: spoiled by California), or some even use pesticides, which is SO last century.

But, I had the fantastic fortune to meet Honi Boudreaux (gotta love those Bayou City names!), a genuine force of nature herself, at a talk I gave last summer at t’afia restaurant (where I also got to visit with the amazing Monica Pope, a true believer in the Slow Food cause). Later I asked the Boudreaux’s (Boudreauxes?) to come and talk at my church for my series on Slow Food: Slow Worship.

Our piggies rooting in their personal pecan forest

In the midst of all this, I got super excited about their farm and signed up for home meat delivery, which is an incredible bargain at $220 per delivery but unfortunately I can only afford to do it every second or third month (which is fine, because there’s enough meat in there – and we eat meat infrequently enough – that it lasts that long).

This is, by the way, exactly what I want to encourage all of you to do: eat locally-sourced meat from a rancher or farmer whom you know personally, who will let you visit the farm and meet the animals, who treats them with respect and honor as God’s creatures, and who uses a “glass house” butcher. No funny business in this meat. It’s so much more expensive, and it’s worth every penny. When I can’t afford to eat meat like this, I simply don’t eat meat.

OK this is getting long…my point is that like with a veggie CSA (“Iron Chef Veggie Box” we call it around here), a meat CSA loads you up with all these weird cuts you wouldn’t normally cook, or bother purchasing. At least we wouldn’t.

So in the last few weeks I’ve made a brisket (divine) and now this shoulder which will become carnitas (sort of…not fried). We had a pork belly the first month. Those things go for like 60 bucks a pound in NYC! It was out of this world braised in an agave glaze. AND we got to render the lard and wound up with cracklins (which I put in mac and cheese…OMG).

Anyway we have been really thrilled with getting local meat and I really can’t stress enough how much more delicious it is than the supermarket junk. It’s becoming impossible for me to eat white pork anymore (did you know pork isn’t actually “the other white meat”? That was made up by pork producers to convince consumers to believe the lie that pork isn’t red; a pig will only have white meat when it’s been kept out of the sun). Forested pigs like ours have a beautiful marbled ruby or garnet color to their meat, and the taste is truly beyond compare.

So now that I’m salivating (and I have like four more hours to wait, dang it!) I’d better stop writing about this shoulder. BUT I will ask a favor from any foodie readers out there: we have a NECK of all things (it’s either pork or beef, I honestly can’t tell and it’s not labeled) and also a huge blob of pork fat to use up. Any ideas???

Eating as a Spiritual Act (Part 1)

These are the first of my notes from a wonderful presentation I attended yesterday, entitled “The Spirituality of Stewardship, Sustainability, and Food”. It was held at the holy Rothko Chapel and featured Dr. Norman Wirzba of Duke (author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating) as well as some Texan farmers and one pastor who are advocates for sustainability. But it was Wirzba’s talk which garnered the bulk of my note-taking, since he & I are simpatico.

Dr. Wirzba

If one does not eat mindfully, as Slow Foodies like myself advocate, one is reduced to being a “food consumer”, as opposed to being intentionally involved in some step of food production (be that growing, processing, preparing, sharing, etc.). That person labors under the misconception that food is something that can be purchased – that it is a commodity that he consumes.The first question Wirzba asked was: What are we doing when we are eating? He suggested that “eating is a holy mystery,” giving the example of Shakers who spend two full minutes in silence prior to eating any meal (not easy when you’re hungry!). This is to bring their minds to the present moment and to the food before them, so they will not eat mindlessly (he also mused, “Does eating mindlessly lead to living mindlessly?” – or I would say it could go the other way around, too).

But here is the difficult truth: “For any of us to eat, others have to die.” Not only animals, but plants; and then microbes in the soil, yeast organisms, even our own flesh which feeds the grass which begins the cycle over again. So the real question when you sit down to a meal mindfully might be: “How do you make yourself worthy of another’s life and death?”

In our culture, we are obsessed with eating yet we are ignorant eaters. As pointed out by Eric Schlosser in the seminal Fast Food Nation, we witness our values to the world by the way that we eat. Wirzba made a wonderful connection from this to the “99 cent value menu” – when we order from this “value” menu, right there we are broadcasting “value” all right – our values, placed on efficiency, price, and speed.

Who knew the 99 cent value menu had deeper meaning? But it’s just so appropo!

He pointed out too that the idea that we can talk into a box and then a hamburger magically appears before us reveals our supreme worship of all things convenient (and I would add it’s a wee bit sci-fi).

Living in a Fast Food Nation also means we lose the connections food can make for us: to place, to the earth, to animals, and even to other people. We wind up going “through” life instead of going “into” it; always passing “through” instead of “entering into”; living in touch with machines (like the squawk box) rather than human beings.

Connecting to people through food isn’t just about who we cook or eat with; it’s also about being aware of the people who produce, grow, butcher, process, and in all other ways make our food available. We are only 2-3 generations removed from a time when nearly everyone was a farmer, but today much of the world’s population lives in cities, and relates to the world entirely “through computers and credit cards.”

We also have what he termed “ecological amnesia”: that is, we don’t think about how ecology affects our ability to eat – how very vulnerable and fragile food actually is. In fact, we have a “food superstition” that “money produces food” – which is patently ridiculous (any farmer will tell you money can do very little to make food happen).

Wendell Berry described it another way, as “one night stand” eating: we want it cheap, we want it now, we don’t want to ask questions about its past partners or where it came from (no backstory, please), and after we’ve enjoyed it we’d like to move on without considering the future impact to our lives or bodies that this union might result in. (this is so incredibly apt – one of my favorite food metaphors ever!)

The anonymity of our current society (particularly fed by the Internet) contributes to this amnesia: we see a big beautiful red strawberry in the supermarket in January, and we don’t want to know how that’s possible (let me ruin it: it’s created by a mixture of poison and slaves). We don’t want to shatter our enjoyment of the moment of consummation with the strawberry (I added that part).

“Every time you eat you bite into ecological realities, you bite into agricultural realities, you bite into social realities…realities of greater or less justice, greater or less care, greater or less mercy.” And it is in religious traditions, Wirzba argues, that we can find help thinking through these realities.

I’m going to finish this in another post, since it’s getting long. Stay tuned!