This week’s share: Thai basil, Carrots, Chard, Cucumbers, Escarole, Candy onions, Parsley, Shallots, Tomatillos, Tomatoes, Cherry tomatoes, Zucchini
Our three remaining hen are adventurous eaters. They wander around the barnyard all day, chatting and looking for food. They will peck at just about anything: rotten tomatoes, pebbles, shoes, anything shiny. In their minds—if that is the right word for a chicken’s mental capacity—they are still velociraptors, and everything is prey. They have a way of eyeing us that suggests we are not excluded from that category. They just haven’t figured out the right plan of attack yet.
In the meantime, we serve a purpose. We give them treats. Toss almost anything in their direction and they will check it out, give it at least an exploratory peck. If they are lucky, it will be popcorn or a fat zucchini that Sunni has been kind enough to cut in half so they can get at the seeds easily. And they know that if they come to the kitchen door and announce their presence, Liz might give them breadcrumbs. They spend a lot of time by the kitchen door, and Liz spends a lot of time cutting up stale bread for them. She is sufficiently well trained now that she gets a little anxious if she doesn’t have something to offer the hens.
One thing they don’t seem particularly keen to eat these days is chicken food. I still put out a little food when I open their coop in the morning (at least it keeps the rats and sparrows fed). Often, though, the hens have already headed off to the barn before I finish pouring it into the feeder. They might stop in during the day for a snack, but they have decided they can get better things to eat elsewhere—especially if Liz and Sunni are around.
There are so many better things to eat, but the best of all, they clearly agree, is whatever one of the other hens is eating. When one of us gives them food and the fastest hen gets hold of something, the other hens rush over to her, ignoring the available food, in order to get a piece of what she has. They squabble over it, the one who has it in her beak taking evasive action while the others try to grab it from her. Eventually they settle down, notice all the other unclaimed food. But even when they have sorted themselves out and everyone’s pecking away at their own treat, they are still eyeing one another. If anyone makes a move you see the others’ heads pop up, and often they will go back to fighting over a single piece of popcorn or whatever it is you gave them. And they’ll do this no matter what you give them, even over things they decide they don’t want.
I suppose it could be explained as competition for limited resources. Chickens evolved in the jungle, where treats and treat suppliers where presumably in shorter supply. I suppose whenever one perceptive jungle fowl found a food source it was easier for the others to go after it than find their own. It’s better to be a bully than a forager. And now they are just set in their ways, even in the presence of more than enough food for every hen (Sunni can be quite generous with the popcorn).
It’s also possible, though, that they are like my father in a Chinese restaurant. He always scans the other tables to see what’s there. And no matter what we order, he’s always sure the other diners have something better. Quite possibly something not even on the menu we saw, maybe from the secret menu. Or maybe only available to those who know to ask. We could be eating the best Chinese food we have ever had, and he would still be convinced that everyone else in the restaurant was having something better. Since he wasn’t raised in a jungle, he won’t actually go to the other tables and try to take the food. But he cannot keeping an eye on the other dinersAnd every dish that emerges from the kitchen causes another pang of anxiety that he might be missing out.
It’s some deep, complicated impulse, at once selfish and social. It’s hard to be your own hen in a flock, and hard to be a hen on your own. So you stick together—for safety, for company, for something to do all day, because three beaks are better than one—and then squabble over a zucchini even when there’s more than enough for everyone, because that’s what you do when you live other chickens.
Vegetable notes: The shallots (the elongated reddish oniony things) are a variety called Crème Brulee. I don’t know why. I cannot explain most vegetable variety names. In this case, though, it does make me think a shallot crème brulee might be good. Steep some garlic and herbs in the milk before making the custard. Maybe add a little parmesan. Pour it over a layer of caramelized shallot. Sprinkle a little salt on the crunchy burnt sugar to finish it. If that seems like too much effort, you could just put the shallot, finely sliced, in a salad dressing (make it a few hours ahead so the shallots mellow and the flavor permeates the dressing) or use them with the potatoes (and maybe some zucchini) in a frittata, or add them to some sautéed chard, or put them in a tomato salad, or fry them until crisp and sprinkle them and the basil on a Thai salad.