15 April 2009

What came first, the carton or the egg?

Mr. Fritillary asked me a pair of thought provoking questions, and my answers were all the more genuine because he asked them without context or prompting. He handed me an egg from the basket of freshly collected eggs on the kitchen counter, and asked me to describe my thoughts and feelings as I held this egg. Knowing that he must be working on an essay, I dredged for both immediate as well as the deeper responses, and began to sort through the flood of personal and specific stories and feelings that his question provoked. The weight of the egg in my hand communicated the feeling of good, nutritious food to my body. I thought of all the things I had recently made with eggs, and what I could make in the future. I thought back to the previous few months when we were without eggs, and again of the celebratory occasion of our first omelets this spring, of pudding and meringue. But my thoughts were also specific to that egg, I knew it was from one of the young pullets that had just started laying. I thought back to last summer when we incubated the eggs from our old hens, watched the chicks hatch, brooded them, and brought them through winter, into their first spring when we finally start to receive the rewards for our work and our attention. This egg also reminded me of the future potential it contains, to hatch out and ensure the continuation of our flock, and our egg production. I even started to think of the connected stories of growing and harvesting our own grain by hand last summer, and the accomplishment of providing feed for our chicken flock all winter. And even on to the manure we have been moving out of the chicken coop that will provide the fertility to grow another year's worth of food for ourselves. All these stories in one little egg. I also noticed that my feelings were centered around contentment, accomplishment, resilience, celebration, and the security of being able to put nutritious food on our table.

At this point, I began to wonder where this all was going, when Mr. Fritillary handed me an egg carton, and asked how it made me feel, and what it made me think. Now I could appreciate the direction this was going. I was immediately confused, in a subtle way: was this food? Doubt: Where did these eggs come from? How were they produced? How fresh are they? How far have they traveled? And then there was driving to town, supermarkets, prices, organic or omega-3, fat and cholesterol. These feelings hit me like a brick in my stomach. How long would this carton last? How many meals could I get out of it? When would I be able to get to town again? (We do not have the option around here of buying eggs from a local small farm.) Scarcity and anxiety tugged at me on one end, and on the other end over-production and waste from our own past market egg production: How big is our local market? How much do we charge? Are we covering the cost of producing the eggs? What do we do with the surplus? Are we providing the best, highest quality product, or do we have to cut corners in order to cover the costs because quality food is not valued in the local food-culture? Food is expected to be cheap, and we could not contend with the ethical compromises of producing cheap food. And worse yet, if we did compromise, producing and selling cheap food would only perpetuate the cycle because we could only afford to buy cheap food on those wages. There are quite a few stories in that egg carton. Among them, the story of our becoming primarily subsistence farmers, on a self-reliant scale, each year trying to keep our interaction with the market economy contained and under our control, so that it does not contaminate our entire lives in the way that this single egg carton demonstrated.

I have been reading recently about the concept of Resilience in the Transition Handbook over at Appropedia. Resilience is the concept I have been reaching for, without knowing what to call it, always aware that there is something stronger and more necessary than self-reliance or sustainability. Resilience describes a network, more complex than a closed-loop self-reliant principle. Out here, we are forced to be self-reliant because our neighboring "community" does not share our values, or our view of what needs to be done now, in order to ensure a future on this planet. So for the most part, we act on our own, and rely upon ourselves. This is not a model of strength, it is vulnerable and open to shocks, and at the very least, restrictive because it closes us out of the full resources of a community and a local economy. But on our little homestead island, we have moments and pieces of resilience. I will never look at an egg in the same way again.

Speaking of eggs, forget frugal for now, this is the season when we splurge! Eggs are a wonderful spring food, easily digested protein for spring work, like mucking out barns and starting on this winter's supply of firewood. I've had my eye on this Yorkshire Pudding recipe all winter, and couldn't wait to try it. You may know them as pop-overs. They can be made plain, and spread with jam, but I opted for the savory version, making what some may know as Toad in a Hole. I never grew up with any of these recipes, but they are a new found favorite. If you are awash with your hens' idea of spring fever, and have some extra eggs to spare, then these are quite a frugal delight.

Batter: 3 eggs lightly beaten, 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup whole milk or light cream. The batter will be runny. You can pour this batter plain, into a greased muffin pan, filling each cup half way. Or you can add a tablespoon of sugar and fruit (dried or fresh). Or for Toad in a Hole, add half a teaspoon salt, your favorite herbs, and one small onion, diced and sauteed until beginning to brown, mix into batter. For the Toad part, make marble sized meatballs (a la breakfast sausage patties) and brown them in a frying pan, or use slices of dried or cooked sausage. Drop your choice of meat in the bottom of each greased muffin cup, and pour batter over, just to cover or half-full. Bake in moderately hot oven (375F), until fluffy and browned, about 15 minutes. Best enjoyed steaming hot!

I never was a fan of meringue pies, at least not the store bought kind. But I'm digging up all kinds of egg recipes, and gave it a try. The recipe was for a basic vanilla pudding, and press-in crumb crust. I used oat flour in place of 3/4 of the whole wheat flour, making a soft textured pie crust. And I added some dried blueberries and chopped dried apples, along with a dash of cardamom and nutmeg to the pudding (in place of the vanilla). The pie didn't last long, but my favorite part was the pudding, and I am quite happy with this oat pie crust, it held together very well. It went something like this: 1 cup oat flour, 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, 1 tablespoon lard (or softened butter), mix, then add spoon fulls of water (I tried milk too, but it made the crust too crumbly) until the mixture holds together and is slightly sticky. Press into lightly greased pan and bake 10 minutes at 350. Pour pudding (using your preference of thickener, flour, cornstarch or arrowroot) into baked pie crust. Beat egg whites, adding a teaspoon of sugar, a sprinkle at a time, until frothy. Spread evenly on pudding, bake 5 minutes at 350 until browned. Cool to room temperature before cutting.


Anonymous said...

i LOVE this post!

this brought home to me that the life of "convenience" that most of us live here in the states almost completely eliminates the actual process and story of LIVING. that is what the carton does. it seperates you from that story and keeps you boxed in from life.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

Anon, glad this post meant something to you, and that was just what I got out of it... the story. I want to know the stories behind all of the material things that my daily life revolves around. It makes me richer in life.