Archive for September, 2009
Well, at least I think that’s what I heard the girls say when they heard what was on the menu last night. Bernadette was joining us for dinner, so Victoria made something special: roast chicken. When I texted Bernadette to tell her not to spread the info around the chicken yard when she arrived, she texted back: “Was it a close relative?”
Probably not, since the chickens we buy in the supermarket are generally Cornish X’s (Cornish Cross), a bird that was developed specifically to fit the needs commercial factory-raised poultry operations. This is the chicken that nearly led to the extinction of Lily’s breed, the Delaware chicken.
A Cornish X is less a chicken than an eating machine and a freak of fast-forward photography: Due to their rapid growth, they reach a market weight of ﬁve pounds (live weight) in six to seven weeks, which makes them the most efficient and economical meat chicken on the market.
Of course it makess more sense from a business model to process the birds at a younger age for a myriad of reasons, but I know I’ve read someplace that an older chickens taste better than younger ones. A poster on www.backyardchickens.com explains that ”older birds have higher amino acid counts wich makes the meat more complex…. more nutrient dense… and because of this you get a higher quality of flavor.” The jury will have to remain out on that one, because no matter how much my girls swear at me, I have promised not to eat them.
If you could ask your spouse for anything, what would it be? I must acknowledge that the CE is very good to me. For a guy who buys his clothes at Gap because he doesn’t want to pay the price for what he contemptuously terms “Resort Dip Wear”, he’s extremely generous with my indulgences. However, I do have to keep him on his toes, so yesterday I asked for the moon: a complete coop clean-out.
I would, of course, be happy to do this myself, but due to back problems, I must rely on the noble Chicken Emperor. We use what I would call a “modified deep litter method” of maintaining the coop. Pine shavings are my litter of choice, and are quite popular with other chicken-keepers, although some use shredded paper or hay. Some also use cedar shavings, although this is controversial due to the phenols they emit, which can be toxic to chickens.
A true Deep Litter Method begins with a four-inch layer of fresh litter material and then adding more from time to time as needed. In a true deep-litter regimen, one is removed until it becomes 8 to 12 inches deep. Since we only have four chickens, and the luxury of time, I choose to be more fastidious. I do a complete counter-top clean-up of the coop each day, and the CE rakes the “big clumps” from the floor weekly. The last full sweep-out of the coop was about a month ago, so I asked the CE to do another full-scale clean-out along with mopping the floor (one of the benefits of a concrete coop floor) with a weak bleach solution. This post’s headline is his, as he proudly announced when he was finished that “Things are spic ‘n span in Chickenland.
Some people stir lime or diatomaceous earth into their litter but so far we haven’t needed it since we change our litter more frequently and we live in a fairly dry climate. This could all change come the rainy season, of course…
There’s more to it than aesthetics. According to Robert Plamondon, who I’ve quoted previously, “the “deep litter method” was one of the most important poultry developments of the twentieth century. It resulted in a dramatic drop in disease and a reduction in the amount of labor it took to keep a flock of chickens. It also gave an early example of how biodiversity works to our advantage, even with confined livestock.” According to Plamondon’s web site http://www.plamondon.com/faq_deep_litter.html, the DLM has been proven to aid in building chickens’ resistance to coccidiosis and improve their growth rate. Plamondon would likely frown upon my method, since we don’t let the litter build up to 8-12 inches, but so far, this is working for us. Our chickens seem happy and healthy!
Future developments in Chickenland may be on the horizon. I’ve been hinting (imploring, nagging, bullying might be more like it) that I would love to put a fountain along the currently bare wall at the back of the chicken area. The CE initially vetoed the idea because of the expense of running electricity to the area, but he recently consulted with our landscaper and thinks he may have found a way to do it for a manageable cost.
Now I’m thinking we might also want to put in a small deck so we can have a seating area elevated above the oak leaves. It would be nice for chicken-viewing, and might also lessen the amount of flora the dogs track in. And, since my husband is so generous, I may as well shoot for the moon, right?
All this talk about gizzards, you’d think I’d have lost my appetite. No such luck. With all my twiddling-thumbs post-dental downtime, I’ve allowed my mind to wander (let’s put that thing on a leash and maybe we could get something done around here!) and one of the places it has traveled is the dining room. Specifically, to conjure up the perfect dinner party guest list. Not the kind where you should be looking for your invitation in the mail, which is lucky for you, since at our table, Dizzy generally claims a seat and not everyone is down with that.
No, the dinner party I pondered was the kind you (or maybe only I) imagine, the virtual gathering that allows you to assemble personages who interest you from afar. Sometimes so far afar that you would have to bring them back from the grave to attend. Here is my most recent list, in no particular rank:
Tori Amos (I would be honored to sit next to the woman who composed the songs “Winter” and “Silent After All These Years”
Warren Buffett (I could use the stock tips, and I like MidWesterners, plus I would really like to understand his affection for Hillary Clinton, which, alas, I do not share)
Willa Cather (two words: My Antonia, and, another Nebraskan to make Warren comfortable)
Johnny Depp (do you even have to ask why?)
Audrey Hepburn (what table would not be improved by her presence?)
Hugh Laurie (ever so clever and self-effacing and oh, that accent. My plan would be to detain him for after-dinner drinks. Hey, the CE has Jennifer Garner on his dinner party list, so I can have Hugh)
Cesar Millan (because he is, quite simply, the MAN. And he might be able to shoo Dizzy off the table.)
Joni Mitchell (some people listened to The Beatles; I listened to Joni and have no regrets. Plus, I think she and Tori could have a nice chat if there wasn’t too much competition for Top Diva)
Susan Orlean (the writer who has an article on chickens in the Sept 28 issue of The New Yorker, which I have not yet received and am DYING to read. She wrote the book The Orchid Thief on which Charlie Kaufman’s film, Adaptation, a fave of mine, was based. Come to think of it, Charlie Kaufman would be a potential guest, but I believe he’s not the most comfortable guy in social situations, so he would probably appreciate the non-invite)
St. Paul (so many questions for him! What was it like that moment on the road to Damascus? What was the thorn in your side? Maybe I could actually ask him to come a bit early and counsel me on faith, since I would be busy after dinner with Hugh).
This group makes a pretty full table, but I would also like to invite the team from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) who ACTUALLY invented the Internet. It seems a bit murky as to whom, exactly, gets credit for the best/worst invention of the 20th century, but apparently Joseph Licklider and Lawrence Roberts were the lead guys. I’m guessing they might dress funny, so they could sit at their own table. Maybe Charlie Kaufman could come, after all, and sit with them. )
I haven’t decided on the menu yet, so that is yet to come. Suffice it to say, chicken gizzards will NOT be on it.
Who would you invite to dinner? Send me your list and we’ll compare…
I could not help myself. I had to know more. Just so we’re all clear on this, a gizzard is the “muscular stomach” of a bird. All birds, as well as crocodiles and certain fish, have gizzards. According to Wikipedia, “poultry gizzards are a popular food throughout the world”. Sold as street food in Haiti and throughout southeast Asia, gizzards are considered part of a complete fried poultry dish in Indonesia. So apparently, in Indonesia, if there’s no gizzard on the plate, you pitch a hissy fit and send your whole order back to the kitchen. (Editorial comment: whole parts of the globe are now permanently deleted from my travel future…)
For the toothless creatures who sport them, the gizzard is indubitably handy. As Wikipedia so aptly describes: “It can grind the food with stones that have been swallowed and pass it back to the true stomach and vice versa. Bird gizzards are lined with a tough layer made of the carbohydrate-protein complex koilin, to protect the muscles in the gizzard and to aid in digestion.” Tasty, yes? A word to the wise: don’t eat gizzards anyplace but Joe’s. That’s Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville, Michigan. Seriously, you MUST click on this link:
Given my recent dental experience, who knows, maybe I should have more respect for the gizzard option. After all, you don’t see a lot of hens at the dentist, right?
One of the beauties of being a hen is that you have no teeth and thus no reason to ever, ever, spend three hours in a dentist’s chair, two-and-a-half of them with a saw clattering and whirring and going szszszszszszs szszszszszs szszszszszszs at a pitch so impossibly shrill and high that it rattles your sinuses. My teeth don’t hurt, but my head and face do, jangled and throbbing like they’ve spent too long at the fair in a tilt-a-whirl. Or a centrifuge.
Hopefully the next eight or twelve appointments will be less exciting than this one was. While I white-knuckled the arms of the chair, I tried to think of things other than the small remaining amount of grey matter in my brain being flung about by the vibration of the saw. Or drill. Or whatever evil instrument the dentist was wielding. And I actually did think about hens not having teeth, which led me to wondering a bit more about how they get away with that, given their omnivorous diet.
I posted a chart of the digestive system of a chicken once before, but I now realize that I did not fully understand it. I knew that chickens have a “crop”, which is a sort of pouch that lies in front of the proventriculus, or what passes for a chicken stomach. I also knew that the function of the crop was food storage. But I was a little fuzzy on why it exists.
I knew that, due to the lack of teeth, chickens require grit in their diet to help break food down so it can be digested. Misinformed, however, I believed that the food and the grit met in the crop, which is not true. The purpose of a chicken’s crop is only and simply for food storage. It’s as if they have a little internal suitcase packed with snacks just in case they don’t know where the next meal is coming from. Like camels who store water in humps, chickens have the ability to store food in a crop.
From there, the food moves to the proventiculus and then to the gizzard, which is where the grit helps to break down the food so it can pass through the intestines. If I am not mistaken, someone, somewhere, actually eats chicken gizzards. If you know someone who does, or has, please send me their photo, as I would like to post it. Oh, and, while I’m on the subject, guess what Victoria made for dinner tonight…
Three hours in the dentist chair yesterday which is actually a good thing since they’d initially estimated it would be four. Feeling just a little jangled, so chicken blog devotees will hopefully be patient with me.
Cleaned out the chicken coop this morning, had lunch with the CE, a few phone calls to NYC to discuss the apartment, and eventually headed out to wash the car and get a long overdue mani/pedi (you have no idea what dealing with chickens does to your nails!) at which point I DROPPED MY BLACKBERRY IN THE SPA CHAIR WATER.
The dear proprietor of the salon I went to (please patronize these nice folks at Today’s Nails 3114 State Street across from Mackenzie Park) spent twenty minutes holding a hairdryer over my Blackberry, claiming it would be fine – and so far so good. The screen is a bit foggy, and I may be in a race against time to convert all my contact information into a Word document for back-up, but for the moment, I’m still in Blackberry heaven.
I kind of like living in a time where my real chickens and my virtual world intersect.
How was your day?
Yesterday the CE stopped off at Ralph’s and brought home a carton of eggs that were not only labeled “cage free” but also “vegetarian fed”. The phrase was printed in bold red letters like some sort of declaration. Like a parade banner, if you will. I began to imagine hens lining the street and cheering, but only briefly, because it occurred to me that my girls would be mighty unhappy to be “vegetarian fed”. I would not want to be the one to tell them they’d seen their last meal worm. Or that their days of foraging for bugs in the pen and garden were over. In truth, chickens in their natural free-ranging state are omnivores, not herbivores.
Every book I’ve read about chickens emphasizes the importance of the nutritional balance of their diet, to the point of discouraging too many “treats” since this can affect how much of their regular food they eat. According to the Alabama Cooperative Education Extension, laying hens (starting at about 20 weeks of age) should have a minimum of 15% to 19% of crude protein in their diet. Commercial chicken feed includes animal proteins in the form of meat and bone meal, dried whey and fish meal, according to www.poultryone.com. While protein is also available in the form of legumes and soybeans in chicken feed, PoultryOne.com states plainly that “an all-vegetarian diet is not natural for (chickens) ~ they need animal protein”, and that “strictly vegetarian-fed chickens are potentially undernourished.”
As for the girls of Chez Poulet, this morning they were deeply troubled when I entered their pen with the Swiss chard we bought yesterday. As has now become their tradition, they high-tailed it into the coop until they were convinced the sky was not falling, then tiptoed out to circle the strange new stalks and leaves I had left behind. When I returned an hour later, they had completely polished it off and were looking for a chaser. I dutifully peeled an apple for them, which did not strike quite the terror into their little hearts that it did yesterday. Meal worms rounded out the menu this evening to entice them into the coop. Tomorrow we may go a bit easier on the treat schedule now that I am reminded of the importance of their commercial feed balance.
And for anyone concerned about “additives”, the feed we purchase is unmedicated, which is not to say medicated feed is necessarily a bad thing. And, according to www.plamondon.com (Robert Plamondon’s Poultry Pages) fear of hormones being added to commercial chicken feed is unfounded. According to Plamondon, “hormones had a brief burst of popularity in the late Forties and early Fifties. By the time the once-popular hormone DES was banned in 1959, it had fallen into disuse. Anyway, it wasn’t used in the feed, but was in the form of a little time-release pellet that was injected under the skin.” In his words, hormones in chicken feed is “ancient history”.
It’s just about dinner time. I’m not too interested in sharing the same menu as Amelia, Autumn, Hope and Lily, but I may have a hard time eating as healthy as they do. Bon appetit!
I cannot tell a lie. I cheated on my chickens in Santa Monica.