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Worm- and bug-fed chickens
Editor’s note: This is a new column on food and politics that will run regularly in this newspaper.
It never fails to amuse me. As I stroll through the supermarket, I can’t help but notice the shiny labels bursting from egg cartons: “Cage Free!” “All-Vegetarian Fed!” “Cage Free Organic All-Vegetarian Fed!” The next thing to burst from these labels are the price tags, a price making any respectable grandmother grasp her chest and shake her head in disbelief.
We’ve all heard about the political complexities of “cage-free” eggs, and how, by some stroke of bureaucratic genius, the USDA defines “cage-free” as chickens having access to the outdoors, even if the chickens never actually walk outside.
However silly this may sound, and for however much USDA literature can be manipulated by Washington lobbyists, it does not bother me as much as the “all- vegetarian” claim, whether this vegetarian diet is certified organic or not.
The “all-vegetarian” diet is probably composed of corn, rice and soy, with varying amounts of each depending on the chicken farm and countless other factors, up to and including availability and market price of animal feed on any given day. While corn, rice and soy may be inviting for a human’s lunch menu, there is one major problem when discussing said diet and chickens: chickens are not vegetarians!
Having worked on an organic farm raising chickens, it was clear from day one what food chickens prefer above all others. Sure, they enjoy the cracked corn and rice we used to supplement their gastronomic needs, but without doubt, the cuisine of choice for chickens are the squishy, slimy creatures wriggling their way through the earth and grass. Earthworms, meal worms and maggots, with the occasional and unexpected spider in the stomach, is certainly the way to winning over a chicken’s heart.
Needless to say, the eggs produced by our pasture-raised, maggot- and spider-fed chickens were, by far, the best eggs I’ve ever had, and to this day, I constantly search for an egg to match their intensity. A deep orange yolk, reminiscent of the sunrise at dawn, surrounded by thick egg whites calling memories of puffy white clouds on a clear summer day, stacked on a plate with toast and accented by coffee. Each bite more savory than the last, the perfect, most satisfying egg created.
Just once in my life, I would love to see an egg carton’s banner reading “All-Earthworm Fed Diet!” “Our Chickens Eat All-Organic Maggots, Meal Worms and Spiders!” With the trend of grass-fed beef allowing cows to eat what nature intended, maybe “worm and bug” fed chickens are not far off?
Such a day would bring about a moment of happiness, not just because I would have a more delicious egg to call my own for breakfast or an emulsified aioli. It would be a ray of truth in our American food culture people don’t want to hear, but would be better off if they did. Chickens eating what chickens were meant to eat ... imagine that!
Vegetarian-fed chicken eggs (organic or not), with their small pale-yellow yolk and thin whites, are good, but lack the deep complexity of a “worm and bug” fed chicken egg. Consumers want their food to be clean and tidy, but more importantly, they want the story of their food to be clean and tidy. The last time I checked, most people don’t want to hear about maggots when eating breakfast. But this could change. It was not long ago when grass-fed beef was a strange concept for consumers to understand. “Worm and bug” fed chickens could be a turning point in American label literature, and I will gladly shake the hand of any local chicken farmer in Litchfield County who wants to be the first.
Aaron Zweig is director of the Food Studies program and a history teacher at the Marvelwood School in Kent, a veteran restaurant cook and an experienced organic gardener. He holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University and is a self-published author of two food novels.