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Easter Eggs : Artie and the Lost Harem: An Egg Story

March 27, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

When I lived in Iowa, my boyfriend Alan and I kept chickens. We had seven or eight plump Rhode Island Reds who laid brown eggs; two Araucanas from South America, who had black skin and white feathers and laid beautiful pale-blue eggs, and Artie. Artie was a banty rooster with glossy black feathers and huge, corn-yellow spurs. He was proud and vain and remarkably quiet for a rooster. He took his husbandly responsibilities at the henhouse very seriously. His motto was: Every Hen Every Day.

At first, I was too afraid of the hens to gather eggs; they dove at my hand, screamed, flapped their wings. Alan taught me to pull my sleeves down over my knuckles as a kind of impromptu mitt, nudge the hens firmly aside, scoop up the eggs.

We ate eggs almost every day, and sold some occasionally to our neighbor across the street. We lived in a beautiful old Victorian farmhouse, where Alan's grandma once lived, and as in his grandmother's day, eggs were stored in drawers in the pantry and not, to my amazement, in the refrigerator. With disdain for my citified habits, Alan insisted it was sheer superstition that eggs required refrigeration. Eggs, he swore, would keep for three, even six months at room temperature. And, as far as I could see, they did.

*

And then, trouble began brewing in the henhouse. First, one of the Araucanas got out and was hit by a tractor trailer. We gave the other one to a friend. Then the Rhode Island Reds started eating their own eggs. I'd go out in the morning and find the eggs pecked open, the roosts a sodden mess. Alan deduced they had a calcium deficiency, so we went to the feed store for oyster shell. The man who waited on us was dubious: Once hens develop a taste for their own eggs, he said, there was no retraining them. Nevertheless, we bought the oyster shell and a fancier mash to tempt them back to normal appetites.

Our hens laid eggs with richer yolks, tougher shells; alas, every morning, most of the shells were broken, the yolks soaking into the hay-bedded roosts.

We ate our way through the drawers of eggs. And, as Alan was of a practical, Iowa farm family bent, we ate a few stewed old hens too.

In time, we actually had to start buying our eggs. We bought them from an old coot named Louie, who lived over by the lake. Louie's wife had died a few years back, and he had slowly descended into a kind of bachelor-farmer pagan squalor.

Louie's house was heated by an old wood stove; the kitchen was tidy, but dirty. And the barnyard . . . there was poultry everywhere: chickens, roosters, ducks, geese, turkeys. In the yard and barn, in every declivity--tractor seat, spare tire, hollow in a heap of hay--there were eggs. There were eggs in his tool box, eggs in the grain bin, eggs wherever a chicken could roost with the slightest sense of enclosure or concavity.

Louie would gather us up a shoe box full of eggs. We were never fully comfortable with these eggs, always afraid one might have been sat on a little too long. Whenever I'd crack one of Louie's eggs around Alan, he'd always say "Peep, peep, peep," to tease me because I was so squeamish about finding a particularly mature fertilized egg.

*

We probably could have obtained farm-fresh eggs from any number of people, but a trip to Louie's seemed exotic, and besides, in one of his outbuildings, he had a '46 Studebaker pickup truck in which Alan was extremely interested. Meanwhile, our hen population steadily declined until the only chicken left was Artie.

While Alan had no compunction about stewing the egg-devouring hens, Artie was a different story. He had arrived as an egg in the mail; Alan had incubated him, fed him with an eyedropper. Artie had personality. He was friendly, funny, spry. He made me understand why a particular kind of cocky small guy is called a banty rooster--self-satisfied, vain, horny. Without his harem, Artie walked incessantly around the yard, stepping high in the grass, rushing up to us when we came out of the house. Without his harem, he was at a loss; eating insects was fun, staring into hubcaps had its moments, but Artie was meant for more vigorous activity.

Alan didn't want to kill him: Artie hadn't eaten any eggs. We decided instead to take him to what was surely heaven-on-earth for fowl. Early one evening, we drove out to the lake. A flock of Louie's poultry pecked in the culvert. We threw Artie out of the car window. Louie, we were sure, would neither notice nor mind this addition to his flock.

We were not undetected, however. We soon heard through the small town grapevine that Louie was telling everyone that people were throwing chickens out of their cars into his yard. He thought it was hilarious.

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