Staving off Hen-O-Pause


Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

Over the last year, I've cut back on my personal egg consumption, to one a week, because our Hen House eggs have been in short supply simply due to the age of our hens. The matrons, from eight to 15 years old, consider themselves "retired." They've been through hen-o-pause and have decided that eating, dust bathing, grooming, and pooping are quite enough activities for any old hen.

At seven years of age, Tootie J. Tootums, my favorite hen, is entering this phase. She cared for the 60 young pullets, the new generation who, by their "labor," will pay for the old timers' upkeep. However, when their chick peeps turned into squawks, signaling maturity, Tootie resumed her life of privilege -- having the run of the farm, mingling with customers on market days, and resting on the benches on the farmhouse porch.

Both chefs and hens would have been envious of Larry and me last Sunday morning. I cracked open three Hen House eggs to top a skillet of gently sautéed spinach.

Yesterday, firming her decision to retire, she laid an egg on the leaf mulch under the bare branches of the farm stand fig tree, right before the start of market. I saw her preparing to launch the egg -- standing and bearing down -- and out it popped. Without a shell!

Of course, Tootie knew the egg had no future, so she slit the filmy liner and ate the yolk and white quickly. The liner, too. She had no competition for this delicacy, as no French chefs were near and certainly no other hens. All of them would have vied for the egg, and any hen or chef who managed to snatch it would have had to run here and there, determinedly pursued, barely being able to enjoy the fresh, warm, nutritious deliciousness.

At market, most of the eggs I collected were quickly bought by the early-bird (a.k.a. early-egg) customers, who head to the egg cooler for their "Limit One Box of 6 Eggs" before they allow their eyes to rest on any vegetables, and before the French chefs arrive. Because a lot of folks expect a farm stand to have fresh eggs, we have a supplemental egg producer whose eggs are mighty fine. But the Hen House eggs are almost mythical, not only because of their rareness, but because of their quality.

In the hot season, the eggs are made of worms, bugs, native greens, and vegetable leftovers and "rejects." (The hens adore the rejects by the way, until the tomato deluge just becomes too mundane!) In winter, in addition to serving a menu of leftovers, roaches, and other tiny critters, I regularly harvest armloads of brassica greens and toss them into the Hen House. The chickens eat the cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprout leaves to the stems, and knowing the stems are very nutritious, if the hens had teeth, they'd eat those, too.

Both chefs and hens would have been envious of Larry and me last Sunday morning. I cracked open three Hen House eggs to top a skillet of gently sautéed spinach. There were two large matrons' eggs -- their enthusiasm for the new season reflected in these special donations. Between them rested the smaller egg of one of the White Leghorn pullets. Her first egg. I served Larry a matron egg and the pullet egg. He pronounced them both splendid.

Trying not to think about withholding Hen House eggs from our customers, I managed to enjoy the third egg. Soon, all the pullets should be laying. A lot of folks who don't have what it takes to be early birds for whatever reason will finally have their chance. But still, only six eggs per person, to make them go further. Anyway, six is enough when they are so fine.