07 October 2009

How and Why to Buy Fresh Eggs

When you think of fresh eggs, what image comes to your mind? A hen in her nest plopping out a brown egg and then attacking your hand if you try to steal it? Those blue robin's eggs nestling under the eaves of your roof? Or perhaps rows of mass-produced and sanitized cartons of uniform white eggs in the refrigerated section of your supermarket? Yeah. I didn't think so.

This isn't one of those vegetarian blogs that chastises you for not purchasing and eating food 100% conscientiously, although I respect the mission of those bloggers. The Goofy Gourmet is about enjoying food—or enjoying the inadvertent wreckage of food, whichever happens—and I'd like to appeal to your inner glutton.

Last week I purchased my first dozen fresh eggs from the farmers' market in Durham, North Carolina. The eggs were brownish, but not all the same size or color. They cost $4.50 or, as my mother averred, twice what she pays for eggs at the supermarket. Obviously they'd better be twice as good as those eggs.

They are. The shells are thicker, the egg whites are thicker and more viscous, and the yolks are brighter and hold together much better in the fry pan. Fried or poached, they look and taste fantastic. Let's explore the process that makes for top-notch fresh eggs:

Non-genetically-modified hen wanders happily around with other hens in a non-pesticide-treated field, pecking bugs and eating grass seeds and grain and whatever else she finds. When she lays her eggs, they are immediately sold locally that day or the next day no matter what color, size, or shape they happen to be.

Now let's look at how supermarket eggs are made. This site has a comprehensive explanation, but don't go there if you don't want to be majorly grossed out. The International Vegetarian Union explains why they advise against eating eggs. Suffice it to say, hens are squashed together inside in cages with no room to run around, no sunlight, and no fresh air. Their beaks are cut off so that they don't peck each other. They live right above their own filth, and because conditions are so unsanitary, they are flooded with antibiotics. They are genetically modified to produce 250 eggs a year instead of 12 like their wild cousins. They have to reach their necks across wire fence to eat mash from a trough. And then God knows where those eggs travel from or how long they've been sitting around in trucks or warehouses.

Do those eggs sound tasty? No.

At supermarkets you can often find eggs labeled "cage free" or "vegetarian fed." These are obviously a better choice than eggs from hens caged and fed recycled chicken, but you should be aware that they still aren't what you probably have in mind. Even cage free hens are usually genetically bred to be fat, often don't leave the shed because the food and light are inside, and are sometimes encouraged to eat their own waste. Gross!!! Vegetarian fed hens, could still be caged, fed a heavy, monotonous diet of grains, and not get any exercise. And how come all the "enlightened" supermarket eggs are a uniform size and color? That is not normal, my friends.

To sum up, the tastiest, highest-quality eggs will generally come from local farmers. If you can see their hens out roaming in the fields or at least see a picture labeled "our chickens" with chickens out pecking happily, then you're good to go. Indeed, pretty much all farmers' markets eggs come from a small and automatically better hen-raising system.

Happy hunting!

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