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Revolutionary Chickens

When I look out my kitchen window, I see seven girls dressed in plain black and white with just a touch of red on their bonnets. They chatter all day long and love to sunbathe. They pick at each other, they eat non-stop and don’t gain weight. 

These girls are industrious if querulous farmhands. They have a lot of fun but they mostly study on the subject at hand, which is agriculture in this case. I like that in a teenager — focus. But these doyennes of my yard-stead are black and white American Dominique chickens. With rose-red combs and wattles. And they are intent on one thing only, making our breakfast every morning and giving us darling little nitrogen packages, otherwise known as “poo” that makes our vegetables and small fruits grow like a well-tended Amish garden! 

I don’t understand why so many people fear the chicken. They should fear the eggs and chickens in the grocery story. Not my cute, personable girls. 

The Amish are known for their self-sufficiency, just as Thomas Jefferson’s America used to be known — a nation of farmers who grew most of their own food. These yeoman farmers would have never engaged in the risky financial games many Americans have played with their homes in recent years. The Amish, like our farming ancestors, know and knew what is real; they continue to grow their own food and wisely conserve their land and resources. 

I regard my home in a different way than I have in the past. Real estate investment potential and borrowing power not-withstanding, I view the soil around me as my ancestors used to regard theirs: it is possible in a very small space to produce a great deal of organic food to feed my family at a very low cost. We get a lot of sunshine, exercise, and laughs in the deal as well. Anyone can do this whether in a regular-sized yard, a sunny apartment deck or an acre. 

Back to my Amish teenagers. My husband gave them to me last spring when they were just six weeks old as an early birthday present. They will be a year old in May, so in chicken years, they are teenagers this blustery winter. And they are weathering the snow in the South just fine because they are a hearty, American heritage breed. Through many vicissitudes including trouble with zoning and having to move them several times, I have held on to Isadora, Rosebud, Blanche, Sophia, Marie Antoinette (she used to be named Madelaine but that is another story), Pearl, and Ruby, because they are the thin edge of a wedge. 

What is this thin edge of the wedge where my seven Amish teenagers sport playfully in the fresh air and sunshine all day? You may also imagine, if you are so culinarily inclined, this as a wedge of a delicious leek and bacon quiche made with orange-yolked eggs courtesy of my modest, twittering teens. My feathered friends represent to me the cutting edge of my efforts to create a permaculture of life – chickens, bees, vegetables and small fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, jujube, and blackberry that together with my freshly ground wheat and bread form a healthy, organic, and low cost diet for my loved ones. 

The problem most Americans will come up against with their yard-stead is outdated zoning laws that need to be challenged and changed like the state of Georgia did with the recent passage of their “Right to Grow” law. During the debate process, it became crystal clear that this is an issue Democrats and Republicans can unite on because it is an issue that goes beyond ideology or farm policy or globalization. It is the basic human right to feed oneself and those who rely on us. 

My Revolutionary War ancestors would be appalled by a country that won’t let citizens take care of themselves with a few chickens in the backyard. They rumbled over tea. I am fighting for eggs. 

You would think I was cooking up meth, not eggs Benedict. 

In these hard economic times, some people need to get real. Otherwise, “let them eat grass!” I know my chickens do and that is why my eggs are so rich in Omega 3 and are a fabulous source of nutrient-dense protein. I can turn my back on the teas I savor, but this scratch-cook really can not do without eggs.

Like a rising tide across this country and many parts of the globe, others like me seek to be increasing independent of what is found in our grocery stores – those anemic, genetically modified products of a sick industrialized food chain, a far-flung system that will increasing cost more money and that is already making many Americans fat and disease-riddled. It is a broken system that can all be interrupted by bad crops here in America and globally (something we already face), by high oil prices and distribution disruptions such as riots, and Chinese creditors calling in loans. Pass the apple pie but please to remember that most of them come across the Pacific from China. 

Suddenly, apple pie isn’t so American anymore. 

I wrote a version of this article before the Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire a few weeks ago, igniting a firestorm of frustration that made its way to the land of the Pharaohs. I set it aside and went about my other business but watched our brothers in the cradle of Western Civilization as much as I could, transfixed like the rest of the world. I cried when I saw those women putting those ancient cobblestones back in place with their bare hands after this first phase of their revolution. And now the revolution has spread to other Middle Eastern nations. Something is happening in Wisconsin and I am betting it will spread. 

The historical study of revolutions is a highly evolved sport. It is not a playpen for the faint of heart because ideology – right and left – rewrites history at least twice every century. There is no such thing as objectivity whether you are studying the grandmere of all revolutions, France’s first, which began in 1789 or the Russian revolution of 1918 or any of the Latin American revolutions. I do know that what I learned in graduate school 25 years ago, I have come to see in a vastly different way since I have learned about some, other crucial viewpoints on these events. 

Never mind ideology, I do know this: that mothers and fathers everywhere and in every age want to feed their children. On this all of us can agree. I know farmers, and master gardeners, and county extension agents, and regular folks with backyard urban chickens just like me who would love to give that Tunisian widow some fresh eggs or our lettuce and tomato seeds or our beautiful high country grain for whole wheat bread. 

But we can’t. We can’t even have backyard chickens in most of the municipalities in this country. Americans want to feed themselves too, and somehow, this city girl turned urban farmer wants to shout “feed the people, and ask questions later!”

Because we are all at that point. Not just our Middle Eastern or our Latin American neighbors or the lovely Mexican family next door to me whose four-year old Fernando helps me gather eggs while we learn each other’s language during our multi-generational 4-H club meetings. 

I am glad that our first Lady is growing food on the White House lawn. It is the people’s house. It is a good use of all that grass. I think I will ask her if she will ask her husband to pardon my chickens.

They pardon turkeys at the White House. Do they pardon chickens? What is the fax number? 

Viva la food revolution! Would you like some devilled eggs?


Virginia Fisher Murdoch is a published historian with two years experience writing for EWTN. Blogging about food for five years as the Kitchen Madonna, lead to grinding grain for bread, a master gardener certification, chickens, and an urban farming passion. Her engineer husband builds the greenhouses, the chicken coups, and supports her cheese-making habit. 


  • Jann

    Virginia,

    What a fantastic read!

    There was a day when 2 or 3 of the meals we ate daily were 100% “home-grown and made-from-scratch,” on our little rented homestead. Except for organic wheat berries from a friend, that we ground and baked into award winning bread, quiche, cookies, etc. and some yummy co-op organic cheese on occasion, it was really like God’s manna from heaven. How I miss those days with all my “babies” underfoot, home schooling and including gardening, chicken raising, running a home, sewing and a multitude of other life skills right into our curriculum!

    • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Kitchen Madonna

      Thank you for your kind comments Jann. Love your description of the homeschooling and life skills in one seamless “garment.” My school teaching grandmother who worked with my dairy farming grandfather would probably agree with you about those days but even as an elderly woman, she drew crowds to her table because she cooked. She lived alone but she just cooked for a family. And they showed up.

      Our children are grown but we can still nurture!

  • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

    My grandparents lived over 60 years on a large farm in North Dakota near the Canadian border. In the old days before I was born Grandma used to keep chickens and other farm animals; by the time I was growing up, there was only one pony, a cranky dog and a few barn cats. Grandma used to cross the line into Manitoba once a week to get eggs from the woman I referred to as “the egg lady.”

    I have never since had such eggs. Today I buy the cage-free eggs, the all-natural-food eggs, and the organic eggs, all in a vain search for something similar; but there are no eggs anything like the eggs we used to get from the egg lady. They had huge, orange yolks; many eggs had two or even three yolks (I guess these were twins or triplets in the making). They tasted like, well, eggs: rich, full flavors when fried in a little Crisco the way Grandma used to make them almost every morning.

    I am an apartment dweller with no yard, so even if my town allowed it I couldn’t keep chickens. Watching world events the last decade or so, I have often wryly thought that a few chickens and a she-goat would be a good insurance policy. There’s a lot to be said for cultivating the simple ways of our grandparents.

    • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Kitchen Madonna

      You are right PrairieHawk, you can not get these eggs in a grocery store, even if you buy the $5 a dozen variety. And that insurance you write of is “what I’m talkin’ about.” Get to know your local farmers at the Farmer’s Market. Bet yet join a CSA. Might seem more expensive but it is real food. Not the c-r-a-p in the grocery store.

      If you have deck, you can grow food if you have some light. Earthboxes with the cover that draws limited sunlight are wonderful investments.

      • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

        Unhappily, I am deckless. I don’t even have a place to put a barbecue. And our farmers’ markets are kinda lame, especially considering that we’re in the middle of farm country (but most producers here are growing small grains and sugar beets, not vegetables). But a CSA is a really good idea. I’m going to check and see what we have around here.

  • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

    I did a web search and located a CSA farm about 30 miles from my home. I am going to go in with my mother for a half-share this summer. It’s really exciting! Mom and I tried organic gardening a couple years ago at a local community garden, but we folded under the workload. This is a perfect solution for our home-grown veggie-loving palates. Thank you for getting us started, Kitchen Madonna!

    • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Kitchen Madonna

      Feed the People!

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  • Jann

    Kitchen Madonna,

    I am concerned that since many of the seeds we buy to plant in our gardens have been continually hybridized and are often GMOs (they don’t label all of this) so I’d like to find seed savers to connect for my future seed source.Do you have a good source for heirloom seeds?

    Also, when we raised eating chickens, we could not locate real, naturally bred stock from which to order chicks. All had been so “modified” that many had heart attacks while we were raising them, due to being bred for rapid weight gain on the breast area of the animal. Any ideas?

    • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

      GMO’s are nasty nasty nasty and when you look into it, especially how Monsanto was able to patent life and seeds, you will say “viva la food revolution” and St. Isadore the Farmer pray for us.

      Yeah, go ahead and start a novena to St. Brigit of Sweden, one of the patron saints of poultry because you do want a heritage breed. Google Ark of Taste and heritage poultry to get a good list. You can also look at Storey’s classic book on chicken keeping and look at the breed characteristics. Decide what you want and look at Craig’s list. Also McMurry’s hatchery will ship. My cousin looked for American Dominique’s on their site and didn’t find them but people far and wide are wanting them because among other reasons they are dual purpose and gentle.

      Skip the hybrid birds, hybrid seeds. Look at the Weston Price Foundation website and be amazed!

      I just got a gallon of raw milk 3 days ago and I am sleeping like a baby every night.

      My dairy farming grandparents would be proud!

      • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

        Great heirloom seeds: seedsavers.org

      • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

        You can patent a chicken?

        • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

          No I don’t think so unless it was cloned or something freakish like that. I was referring to Monsanto patenting seeds, their genetically modified seeds when I said patenting life. That was something no one could get away with before – patenting seed life. But when they do things like insert a gene from a cold loving fish like a cod into a tomato to get a hybrid that will be resistant to cold weather, that is how they claim they can patent life. And they do. AND they own most of the seed companies in this country at least.

      • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

        I went to the feed store today where my birds came from and they said McMurry’s does ship American Dominiques so give it a whirl for that breed or any other that strikes your fancy. There are tons of good sites on the internet for beginning chicken keepers it has gotten that popular.

  • Jann

    Prairie Hawk,

    I lived in ND for more than 20 years–seven of which was in the country. We were surrounded by grandma-farmers like those you described and that was just a handful of years ago. The lady behind us raised a 2-3 acre garden every year and canned cases of veggies even though it was only she and grandpa for many years. Old (good) habits don’t die easily :+}

    I have an idea for your gardening. I once organized high-risk kids to plant large flower pot gardens for local nursing homes. The facilities put them right out front on the side walks and the elderly would buzz up in their wheel chairs to water them–as well as their own spirits! You could give this a try.

    Lastly, I use to teach at NDSU in the Communication Dept. across the Red River from you in Fargo. So I mean it when I say that you have a real gift for writing! My mom was bi-polar and God far made up for her challenging mental illness with more creativity than anyone else I know. Have you tried submitting articles for publication to supplement your income?

    If you’re interested, let me know and I will connect you with other area Catholic authors!

    • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

      Hi Jann,

      Thank you for your kind words. I was thinking earlier about growing in pots and I could probably do a few tomato and pepper plants that way. We do have a small backyard with grass; they could go there.

      I have never written for the money. I’ve thought about it, approached the diocesan newspaper and the odd magazine at different times over the years, but the barriers always seemed too high. My writing is very contemplative; it’s more about be-ing than do-ing, and everybody wants action. But if you have any suggestions, I’m very happy to hear them!

  • noelfitz

    Another great article.

    If we find chickens too challenging, at least we can think of growing fruit and vegetables.

    • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

      Backyard chickens are really easy but you can always get to know your organic chicken farmer at your local market and know that you are not really paying more for a superior product but you are also refusing to buy cheap c-r-a-p from the grocery store.

  • Jann

    KM,

    Great info! Thanks–I had been traveling back 7 hours to the Bismarck ND area each spring to get my seeds and plants from a little 3rd generation seed/plant market (founder Hattie Faulker, the Daily Communicant grandma, now in heaven, pray for us). I am unable to do so any longer and the farmers market where I now live (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN) does not have many organic farmers who sell their wares–the Hmong people are fantastic veggie farmers but they are no longer organic and often raise “funky” varieties of things like bitter zucchini which I have yet to develop a taste for.

    Can’t wait for spring to come now more than ever!

    • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

      Welcome to winter in the Upper Midwest. Is it June yet?

  • Jann

    Here’s another fun tidbit:
    My grandmother on my dad’s side, who raised 4 kids in a tiny house in Chicago would keep a gosling tethered to a pole in her basement raise it and force feed it corn for a few weeks prior to it becoming the Christmas Day meal of goose! Now that’s ingenuity!

    • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

      That is ingenuity! That is why you always see Third World folks fleeing this or that conflagration with their one or two chickens in a wire cage, or basket cage, etc. I am all about finding my “inner peasant.” Read what G.K. Chesterson has to say about peasants!

      My cousin and I are already plotting to grow some Bourbon Red turkeys for Turkey Day!!!

  • noelfitz

    Chicken/hen breeds have great names. Please look at http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html.

    I do not insist on organic eggs or poultry, but I do insist on free-range, partially because I consider that keeping animals in small cages is cruel.

    Isn’t it great that we have such a lively discussion going here in CL?

  • Jann

    Yes it IS a great discussion–and about Chickens!!!

  • Mary Kochan

    Yes, it is about chickens and I think much more. It is about how we take some control over our lives and over the welfare of our families when so much is being dictated by either the government or corporate interests. It is about how we stay in touch with who we used to be as a people and pass along that identity to the future.

  • Jann

    And there are really some great theological undertones and Catholic themes to this whole chicken/egg/veggie discussion, believe me!

  • http://kitchenmadonna@blogspot.com Virginia Fisher Murdoch

    I do try and let Catholic doctrine – social doctrine in this case – inform my writing. And thank you.

    If you have a roof, you can have bees, chickens, and a container garden. If you have a sunny window, you can grow microgreens and herbs. Grow lights help. How about this site – Homesteading in a condo!

    http://homesteadinginacondo.blogspot.com/2009/05/raw-milk-butter.html

    The point is, once I read about folks in Mexico City growing food on rooftops and using urine for a free nitrogen source, I realized like a lot of other folks, that where there is a will, there is a way.

    Feed the people and ask questions later!