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Of Eggs and Angels

February 23, 2010

February 23, 2010

Is a chicken fated to lay a predetermined number of eggs? I remember the Islamists saying the angels wrote your  story on you while you floated in your mother’s womb. In that mythology, does a little chicken-angel write inside the eggs, listing the number of eggs the chicken will lay, what kind of life she will have and when she will become dinner?

I used to bother an Egyptian friend – a Sunni – about hijab and jihad, Ayisha and Khadija, halal and haram. As frustrating and circuitous as those conversations could be, there were also colorful stories of customs, traditions and superstitions that stirred the imagination. To an outsider, it seemed the daily practices were enough to make anyone mad, or paranoid, at the very least. Most of these habits were not from the Koran, but from the Sunnah, the collected observations of Prophet Mohammed’s behaviors and stated preferences.

The list went on and on. If you see a black dog in your dream, don’t talk about this dream to anyone, as this is devil coming to you in your sleep. If there is someone in your town who envies you, for your beauty, wealth or children, for example, they might make something bad occur in your life. If you if happen to cross paths; uttering three times the equivalent of “get thee behind me Satan” – awotho belahe men al shaytan al rajeem – can help dispel the effects of the ‘evil eye.’ Never spit to your right or in front of you, but you can spit to your left. Enter the bathroom with your left foot and leave with your right. Sleep on your left side. The devil sleeps on his stomach, so never sleep in that position. And you thought fishermen were superstitious.

The tale about the angel and the unborn is also a hadith, or narration from the Prophet Mohammed, recorded in the Sunnah. It says that a person is put together in the womb for forty days. After that, he becomes a ‘thick clot of blood’ for forty days, and then he becomes a ‘piece of flesh’ for another forty days. ‘Then Allah sends an angel who is ordered to write four things: the new creature’s deeds, livelihood, date of death and whether he will be blessed or wretched. He will do whatever is written for him.’ ( Bukhari:V4B54N430)

Now, I can’t recall meeting a chicken that was particularly blessed or wretched, by human standards. Once, we ordered Freedom Rangers chickens, the same breed that is used in France to produce the tightly controlled Label Rouge brand. One of these girls was found sort of crushed in the broiler house at about four weeks old. We babied her and she rallied, but she spent the rest of her days listing to port like an overloaded clam boat. She hopped and flopped and shuffled and rolled. We called her Roly Poly, and when her flock was butchered she was spared. We added her in with the layers, where she was among the most loved of all our chickens, and she bathed in our friendship and admiration right up until the day something got the hen house door open and the coyotes sealed her fate, along with another 20 or so of her feathered friends. Somehow her story doesn’t seem ‘wretched’, but rather ‘heroic’. ‘Olympian’, even. She did look wretched, though. All she needed was a babushka and a cane and an eye patch to be the perfect little nightmare hen, but how we loved her.

We now employ a trio of roosters, and, as is usually the case with a bunch of co-habiting roosters, one is the Big Boss, and he might be ‘wretched’ if he wasn’t so darn handsome. I named him JimBob Duggar, no relation to those Duggars, and he is a perfectly mean and dangerous rooster – which is exactly what the job description calls for as a harem-head with a lot of hens and eggs and chicks to protect. He rules over the other two roosters, Poof Head and Boy George, and keeps the hens safe from hawks. He does threaten to gouge out my eyes on occasion, but I have plans for his hackles if he doesn’t chill out, I’m just waiting for the saddle feathers to get longer.

I started pondering the ‘how many eggs’ question while gazing out the window at the hen house, watching the hens jump up onto their roosts at night. This is the first winter we’ve had hens in the ‘new’ house and it has much less insulation than the old digs, so I opted to keep a single heat lamp running on the coldest nights. Chickens need around 14 hours of light each day to lay as many eggs as possible, and the heat bulb doubles as a light source. It also seems to effectively prevent late-laid eggs from freezing overnight, as the nest boxes are against the outside wall in this new configuration and at risk for getting very cold.

Our hens, Black Australorps, Golden Comets and New Hampshire Reds, have shown no signs of reduced laying through the coldest weather this winter, but they are also only nine months old. If there was a predetermined number of eggs a hen will lay in her lifetime, does artificially lit and heated surroundings mean that she will lay heavily in her younger years and cut back precipitously as she rounds the bend to old age? Is that a stupid question? Well, what do you want for February egg-washing-while-gazing-out-the-window-at-the-hen-house?

Which brings me to an important announcement: I do not wash our own eggs. I only wash eggs I sell to friends and give to family, but I do have some of my family and friends converted. According to my many poultry-raising manuals, eggs have a natural coating that prevents the porous eggshell from absorbing nasty things from the environment. When you consider that chickens poo, pee and lay their eggs from the same hole, the cloaca, you might understand why the egg would want to protect its contents from the underside of the hen who sits on it. The manuals state that an unwashed egg will stay ‘good’ for nearly twice as long as its washed counterparts. As those statistics deal with eggs older than a couple of months, I have no personal experience with this data. Our little protein powerhouses have lent their flavor to omelettes long before that date. But I figure if the egg’s surface has a protective barrier, I’m not going to mess with it. Very, very dirty eggs get tossed, and the rest are washed just before they’re cracked. So if you’re ever over my house and reach into the fridge for an egg or two, don’t be alarmed if it has muddy chicken footprints on it, or hay stuck to it, or other things you don’t usually see at the market. And besides, if you forget to wash it and your breakfast shot of raw egg introduces you to a visit from sal, just remember, it was all written on you as your story, way back in the watery days before your birth. There, that feels better, doesn’t it?

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