Let’s Give Them Something to Squawk About.

It started with a chicken.

I suppose to be more precise, I ought to confess that it was really the chicken population at large that did it to me. There I stood, standing in front of a glass case at the grocery store, staring wide-eyed at a veritable mountain of egg cartons. Sandwiched in between yogurt and the unsalted butter, they were speckled brown and milky white, extra-large and normal-sized, and there were a thousand different brands to choose from.

I have no explanation for what happened next, except to tell you that on most days, I feel like I am raw, walking around the planet without any skin. I am a raging bleeding heart, and quite without warning I suddenly found myself overcome with the plight of chickens everywhere. Cramped in filthy cages with little room to move, condemned to a sickly life of egg-laying day in and day out until their little chicken-ovaries dry up and they end up in a bucket at KFC. The whole thing sounded positively heinous to me, and while I had successfully navigated twenty-seven years of life without managing to give chickens so much as a second thought, without warning I became rather inexplicably stirred. Moved almost to tears, I felt deeply virtuous as I reached for a pretentious brown carton of “organic eggs”. I grinned, picturing healthy chickens happily waddling and squawking about the grassy knolls cheerfully pictured on the front of the carton. They were $1.83 more than the blood-eggs that I had been previously purchasing, but I consoled myself with the assurance that $1.83 was a small price to pay to afford chickens the opportunity to roam wild and free.

I arrived home feeling like Joan of Arc, and promptly informed Kellan that we were officially “happy chicken” people. He rolled his eyes, and decided that chickens weren’t a hill worth dying on. “Happy eggs” became a weekly purchase, and it wasn’t long before we couldn’t remember anything else.

Those were the good old days.

Several weeks ago, I found myself sitting around a brown kitchen table with friends in Amish country, PA. I was in Lancaster for a work conference, and Meredith, Isaac and Nick sat across the table from me as we chatted about life and microfinance over heaping plates of Mexican food. There was a distinct air about them—these were clearly the sorts of people that buy organic peanut butter and almond milk from health food stores that smell conspicuously of mulch and hamsters. The sorts of people that spend long weekends chained to endangered trees, and have involved conversations about the merits of 18th-century Russian novelists. They were so cool. It was clear from the moment that we sat down that at a table of French rose water macaroons, I was a shrink-wrapped, gas station Tastykake. A pearl-wearing, air-conditioning loving steak enthusiast sitting at a table with three vegetarian hipsters, and I desperately wanted to fit in.

Casually, as though I talked about this sort of thing every day, I breezily mentioned that I bought ORGANIC eggs. Because, you know, I CARED about CHICKENS.

Isaac looked at me with a sort of amused expression, as though I had just announced that I was going to be President when I grew up.

Undeterred, and quite caught up in a state of astonished appreciation for my own magnanimity, I proudly soldiered on. I really want the chickens to have space to play, you know? So I only buy cage free.

It was clear that the hipsters could take no more. They were silently exchanging incredulous, sideways glances, a delicate dance of who’s-going-to-tell-her floating through the sweet summer air.

Meredith, whom I have known and adored since our college days at UNC, looked at me gravely, as though I were the next of kin. Ashley, you know that “cage free” only means that chickens have ACCESS to the outdoors, right? Those “cage free” eggs that you’re buying from the grocery store all come from miserable, disease-ridden chickens packed tightly inside a warehouse. There’s a tiny opening in one of the walls so that technically, the chickens have access to the outside. But they’re not really cage free. What’s more, the chickens are so sick that the yolks are gray. They have to inject them with yellow dye so that people like you will eat them.

You could have heard a pin drop. I was so blusteringly indignant that I couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. After all, I had been SPENDING OUT THE YIN-YANG so that the blasted chickens could frolic in the sunshine!

Out to finish the job, Meredith grinned and asked if I wanted to know something else.

NO. NO I DO NOT. THE FREAKING GRAY-YOLKED CHICKENS AREN’T HAPPY AND NEITHER AM I.

Meredith leaned in, looking gleeful, as though she were about to share a delicious secret. She looked me dead in the eyeballs, and sinisterly whispered, The milk you’re buying at the grocery store? The cow’s udders are so infected that you’re essentially drinking pus that’s been cut with water.

I couldn’t breathe. Udder. Pus. Udder. PUS. UDDER! PUS! I had been drinking UDDER PUS my whole life and NOBODY HAD EVER BOTHERED TO TELL ME. The frantic thoughts running across my scattered mind were so terribly violent that I cannot bear to share them here, because they would make Mother Teresa drink whisky straight out of the dog bowl.

Meanwhile, the hipsters chortled unsympathetically in the background.

I called Kellan that night, and my voice sounded shrill even to my own ears. He could barely understand a frantic word that I said—did someone kidnap you? Are you in a trunk? I finally managed to eek something out about udder pus and miserable chickens and I have to find a local farm, and Kellan calmly mentioned that maybe we should do some research.

Um. I already did some research MY FRIENDS TOLD ME SO.

And so June finds us in search of a local farm, and drinking VERY expensive milk in the meantime because I CANNOT POSSIBLY HANDLE UDDER PUS.

Did you know about this? Bueller?! What else am I missing? Clearly, this is dire.

Comments

  1. Brooklyn says:

    I have 7 happy happy free hens running around in Wake Forest who produce the loveliest yellow-yoked happy eggs I have ever seen daily. The solution – get chickens! If your ever in the area you can drop in and meet these beauties

  2. Oh great day. That is so gross. My aunt and uncle give us chicken and duck eggs (though, I’m currently not cracking them, due to finding an either frozen or bad egg). But, the milk thing….I love milk, but am not scarred–and need to do research.

  3. That is so not true! The agricultural industry is very strict and has so many regulations regarding milk production/dairies, etc, etc. That is one reason there aren’t many small farms, they can’t handle all the regulations!! The milk we drink is not puss infected. Milk is tested before it is sold/bought/processed! The chickens may not be range free but they are not sick! These animals are the farmers livelihood, they take care of them. They do not have human accommodations and all may not be perfect but come on…don’t get crazy…and definitely don’t believe everything tree-hugging vegetarians tell you. I am a proponent of growing our own food and I do as much as possible but I can not feed the world like the large farms do and it is hard to keep farms profitable with all the regulation. Food for thought!

    • Phylis – basically every word you said is exactly opposite of the truth. Big farmers do everything wrong. Small farmers do it with passion, love, and care and spend all their time and energy into the health and life of the animal – as I am one I would know for myself and the many many others I know. You are so far off it’s hard to know where to begin. I love meat, so much that I know how absolutely disgusting anything at the store is compared to how it’s intended to taste. That’s why I raise everything myself – on the side in addition to my full time career. Take your own advice and check the research every major university in country has done affirming what ashley has said and what I am saying.. and that you are very wrong. You’ve drank the kool-aid and are being fooled … and you’re on the side of the big business government subsidized agriculture companies that are feeding the lowest quality food in the world to the masses.

      A good start would be watching an easy award-winning documentary called “Food Inc.” or many others out there.

      And I’m done. :)

      • Clearly, this is something a lot of people feel very strongly about! Josh, I wish I still lived in NC–y’all are my favorite local farmers. :) And Phylis, I promise to do my utmost not to go off the deep end–as I mentioned in the blog, I’m very new to all of this and am in the process of learning! :)

  4. I am crying I am laughing so hard. Gosh, so funny.

    I did know about the udder puss, but I didn’t not know that about the cage free cage.

  5. I don’t drink milk so thankfully udder puss is not an issue. I did know about the cage-free thing – get yourself to a local farmer’s market and you’ll find some real free-range chickens. Or try http://www.eatwild.org or http://www.localharvest.org (Eat Wild is mostly for meat but that should mean eggs, Local Harvest is for everything). You can search by location and find farms, farmer’s markets, etc.
    I live in Raleigh (which I mention because I know your family lives here) and get our eggs, pork, and beef from a fabulous farm called MAE Farm. You’ll never go back to regular eggs after having true free-range ones, I promise. The yolks are almost orange they’re so full of beta-carotene.

    • Some NY friends are helping me find local farms and farmers markets–I’m really excited! It’s too bad I don’t live in Raleigh any more–it sounds like you’ve got the hook-up. ;)

  6. The best book I have read on this subject (and I just read it last month) is called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. He does a fair job at showing both bad and good sides of different types of agriculture and animal situations, and it doesn’t feel like he is lecturing, because he is telling the funny stories of his visits to the various places and the meals he makes/buys from them. I found it very balanced and informative and also intellectually HILARIOUS and witty. Highly recommend it! (But I still buy lots of the bad stuff, so it can’t have worked too well, I guess.)

  7. joshsliffe says:

    and this post was highly entertaining by the way. glad you can be honest for the rest of the majority out there. :)

  8. I may need to quit my job and it is your fault. My colleagues probably think that I am an absolute idiot after I was discovered alone in my office yesterday howling and snorting with laughter as tears streamed down my face. The cause of my uncontrollable guffaws was your blog post. But I confess, some of the replies have caused the giggling to reappear. First, anyone that knows you knows full well that you are an equal opportunity chicken eater. Small farms, big farms, I’ve never seen you turn up your nose at a piece of a bird. We have pictures of you as a young child sitting in a high chair consuming half a carcass of chicken. You did not grow up with dreams of overthrowing the ruling poultry giants. You were more concerned about overthrowing my reign as Queen. (By the way, you were not successful in your attempts.)
    I also chortled, (yes, I chortled,) when one reader responded, “And definitely don’t believe everything tree-hugging vegetarians tell you.” We have had practice in our family, ( and I shall not give names as to protect the guilty,) of having to listen to some far out idea politely, knowing full well that one or two screws need a little adjustment in the speaker. You have clearly had your own opinions since you were two and a half and decided to potty train yourself. (By the way, thank you for that.) I do understand your new found desire to eat a little cleaner. When someone watches helplessly as their little brother dies of cancer, you do question things like food. Who wouldn’t? As to the comment about not all families being able to pay $6.00 for a gallon of milk, I think you get that. You have seen poverty up close and personal. As a child, you understood that there were people going through our garbage scrounging for food. It wounded you as a child knowing that neighbors didn’t have enough to eat but they didn’t want a handout. They wanted an opportunity to provide for themselves. I think that is part of what drives your passion for Hope.
    I’ll stop now. I do thank you for writing a hilarious story and thank you that when they fire me for laughing hysterically in my office alone, you have promised to take care of me in my older years. Don’t worry! It’s a good deal for you when I move in with you and Kellan. I’ll help with the cooking. In fact the first night, I will fry my world famous mystery chicken. I just won’t tell you if they were happy or sad.

  9. Hi, Ashley, I really enjoy reading your blog…haha, but you really scared me with this post! ;) I definitely found some information online talking about puss in milk, but I must admit, I’m a bit skeptical. This article assuaged my fears (though I still drink organic milk, just to be on the safe side). ;)
    http://www.dairymoos.com/is-there-pus-in-milk/

  10. I gave my husband the same “happy chicken” speech… and then he took me to a “free range” farm and I cried about that little door that the chickens are too stupid to find.

    However, I do remind myself that I want to be a good steward of the planet, nature, etc, but also of my time and money. Thus I try to go for hormone/ antibiotic free/ etc…. but decided to stop caring if the chickens are happy. I haven’t the time to give all my energy to animal feelings. (I feel SO BAD typing that…. but there it is.)

    But milk pus… ew.

  11. hahahahah

    hahahaha oh my gosh.

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