“That meal — with the salad right on top of the complet, and a bottle of the hard cider kept at truly cellar temperature in an actual cellar — was one I ate every day without ever getting bored with it. I had never given a single thought to how different the lettuces and the cider and even the butter, bread and eggs tasted when left at room temperature and never refrigerated, but now I was keenly aware of it.” – Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones & Butter
I often participate in Twitter chats about food and agriculture. A few weeks ago, during one such chat meant to bring farmers and consumers together, a consumer tweeted that he’d like to see farms “getting back to the basics.” I tried to engage him, ask which basics he wants to see, what his vision of the ideal farm looks like, but he never responded. Maybe he thought I was being flippant; I wasn’t. Maybe he thought it should be obvious; it isn’t.
The eggs I’ll eat for breakfast tomorrow are sitting out on my kitchen counter. They’ve never been refrigerated and they never will. They went straight from chicken to counter and from the counter they’ll go straight to the pan. Oh, and Gabrielle is right, they do taste different that way, better.
I’ll top them with mashed avocado or a dollop of one of my favorite soft cheeses and I’ll devour them with a glass of juice as I check my emails. It is as basic as it gets, and I suppose this is what consumers are looking for. But it’s not that simple and, contrary to popular belief, it’s not complicated just because farmers are evil.
It’s complicated for many reasons, because — as I’ve written before — consumers demand a certain level of “affordability” at the grocery store, but also because they’re generations removed from the farm; something that interferes with an understanding of what goes into the production of food as much as it becomes a handicap that effects the way their bodies react to the very food they’re eating.
We’ve known for some time that children raised on farms come away with more robust immune systems, that they’re less susceptible to allergies and asthma than their city-living counterparts. Scientists believe this is because they’re consistently exposed not just to a greater quantity of pathogens in the environment, but a greater variety as well. My kids regularly handle freshly laid eggs, they go into the chicken coops, they coddle the baby chicks fresh from the incubators, and they help haul bedding and manure to the compost. They eat the eggs straight from the counter and they’ve never once been ill, but when their city friends come to stay we don’t have counter eggs for breakfast. When clients come calling I fill their baskets with eggs that have lived a different life; they’ve gone from chicken to refrigerator in short order and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our consumers don’t live with chickens every day. They don’t handle fresh eggs and haul manure and walk around in chicken coops. They aren’t exposed to chicken “dirt” the way we are and we can’t expect their immune systems to compensate as if they are.
Soon, a new egg rule will go into effect; one that has been strongly influenced by the salmonella outbreaks of the past few years. Aimed at reducing the incidence of salmonella in eggs this rule will put some farmers — especially organic farmers — between a rock and a hard place. One of the requirements is that chicken housing must prevent any and all non-chicken animals from having access to the laying hens’ living areas. This will, without a doubt, change the way many organic chicken farms look. It will change them in such a way that they will not resemble what consumers have in their minds eye for a happy hen’s environment, at least not as much. But it will also change them in such a way that the incidence of salmonella is reduced in eggs and therefore, a consumer’s risk of contracting salmonella from eggs is reduced. In short, it will make the food system safer. But it’s not getting back to basics, certainly not in the way most people see it. And yet, this is where we stand.
As quaint as it would be, not everyone can go back to the farm and as long as that’s the case, those of us who have, must continue to provide safe food for those who can’t. Sometimes that’s not going to look ideal, but until the market can bear the higher cost of utopian production principles this’ll have to do. It looks better than hunger, that’s for sure.