The Nation's Pulse

A Chicken in Every Lot

Sherwood Anderson’s "The Egg" as a cautionary tale for hipsters.

By 7.19.13

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It is my belief that a great deal of misery can be avoided by reading great literature. I, for one, have never had the slightest impulse to raise chickens, and for that I have Sherwood Anderson to thank. Anderson’s short story “The Egg” should be required reading for all would-be urban chicken ranchers:

One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic things that can happen to a chicken. It is born out of an egg, lives for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you will see pictured on Easter cards, then becomes hideously naked, eats quantities of corn and meal bought by the sweat of your … brow, gets diseases called pip, cholera, and other names, stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies. A few hens, and now and then a rooster, intended to serve God's mysterious ends, struggle through to maturity. The hens lay eggs out of which come other chickens and the dreadful cycle is thus made complete. It is all unbelievably complex.

For a decade or so this complexity has been a popular pastime of urban Do-It-Yourselfers. Not content with a cabbage patch and a few carrots and maybe some marijuana plants in the attic, DIY’ers crave the full agricultural experience. Since raising cattle and hogs on inner city streets is out of the question, poultry must suffice. What could be easier? Build a little coop in the back yard, throw down some corn in the morning and sit back and think about all the money you’re saving, all that sustainable food grown in a humane manner, all while basking in the warm, fuzzy glow of self-sufficiency.

Here’s where I turn into a wet blanket. Turns out that the “pets that make you breakfast” aren’t pets at all. They are livestock, and, as every child who has read Charlotte’s Web knows, one must be willing to butcher one’s livestock. What’s more, it is hard to sex chickens, so when you order a bird online you cannot be guaranteed you are getting a hen and not a rooster. And many cities ban roosters because they are considered too noisy. Turns out with all the pit bulls, jackhammers, weedwackers, leaf blowers, hip hop music, garbage trucks, rush hour traffic, and incessant sirens, your neighbors are most likely to complain about a few cock-a-doodle-dos.

Turns out hens only lay eggs for about two years, but can live as long as a decade. Who knew? I didn’t, until I came across a magazine piece about fair-weather farmers dumping hundreds of yardbirds on animal shelters. Nationwide, urban animal shelters are reporting steep rises in their chicken populations. Suddenly the urban farmers, who probably laughed at the high school kids that joined Future Farmers of America, find themselves stuck with dozens of noisy, expensive, dirty, spent hens. A country girl would not see this as a problem. She would see this as a solution to Sunday’s dinner. But urban farmers are notoriously squeamish. While the thought of eating a chicken seems palatable, the thought of killing one’s hen seems like something a Republican would do.

CRITICS BLAME THE locavore movement for the unwanted birds. Locavores respond that Americans -- especially conservatives -- talk a great game about tradition, small business, small farming, and rugged individualism, but write off those who indulge in traditional practices as suffering from a misplaced rural nostalgia.

Put me down with the locavores. The fact is our small towns and small farms are vanishing. If there is too much rural nostalgia, which I doubt, it certainly hasn’t led to a rush from the cities and suburbs to the countryside. It hasn’t led to the best and brightest of small town America returning home after college to settle. As for buying locally, as a family that buys local produce at a farmer’s market, I can report that the sweet corn we buy from the farmer in nearby East Carondelet tastes like butter, and the small sweet strawberries we buy from the Kruse farm in nearby Columbia taste like real strawberries, and not like the giant, red waxy things produced, frozen, and shipped in from California.

But as Sherwood Anderson would tell you, poultry is another matter. Cities probably meant well when they began allowing city dwellers to raise chickens in their backyards. But gardens are one thing. Livestock is another. Animal husbandry is best left to the professionals.

Photo: Creative Commons

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.