Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I'm A Chicken Hipster

....originally pulished in The Globe & Mail

I hadn’t meant to become a chicken hipster. But there was the issue of the omelettes.
  The 19-year-old me, newly urbanized and studying architecture, was destined for greater things. Things like gallery crawling, bookstore haunting, riding the streetcar into the city’s gritty heart. Late nights deciphering Tolkien, debating Nietzsche and drinking bitter, hot coffee. Black.  
  Collecting brown eggs and lugging laying mash was off my radar. I was breaking the chain: The long family line of farmers ended with me. Thanks for the memories, mom and dad, nice farmboy childhood and all. But I’ll be off now.
The student me morphed into the small-time professional, chasing sophistication on junkets to world centres known for their design cred and pronounced lack of chicken coops. I walked Central Park, monographs of obscure European architects under my arm. I sipped café au lait on the Left Bank, hoping the artsy flavour of the passing Parisians would infuse my freckled Ontario skin. London made the most sense and my English blood gave me an emotional connection.
  But something wasn’t right. I felt a tug from behind, a pull toward my rustic roots, like a salmon called back to its own stretch of river.
  And then it got worse: I fell in love with a city girl who loved the country – and the idea of chickens.
  We married in 1988 and moved back to my family farm in 1992. Despite fifth-generation status and all the baggage that came with it, we looked forward to gutting the old house and painting it in cool shades of white and grey. There would be stainless steel and concrete, blonde wood and artful compositions of urbane stuff.
“Chickens?” I asked in exasperation.
“You’ll love them,” Katy said, studying a retro edition of that old gem Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps.
Five dozen week-old chicks arrived in short order, tawny brown puffballs, chirping incessantly. The old coop was gutted and painted a cool shade of white. The chicks grew and became chickens: noisy, demanding and dim-witted. Their schedule inserted itself into our routine, their daily needs trumping trips to town for a civilized latte.
  Little by little, my pretence of sophistication gave way to the realization that chickens weren’t so bad after all. Our kitchen scraps took on new meaning as we went to a whole new level of recycling. We began to collect fresh eggs with more taste than anything we could buy.
  Katy named them all: Blanche and Moon-Chicken, Jane and Henrietta. I took to calling them the Ladies. Our carefully arranged back terrace was soon decorated with the colourful plumage of wandering poultry, scratching and pecking for worms and slugs. Things started to look suspiciously farm-like again.
  The rhythm of birth, life and death played out in front of us as it always had on this old farm, a lesson for our kids. On occasion the gun came out when the evil weasel came calling. Little grave markers sprouted in the quiet glade beneath the old pear tree to mark the final resting places of a few chickens, family cats and the odd mouse or mole.
  August arrived, and the chickens were ready for a final trip down the side road to Dan the Chicken Man, our local poultry processor. But how could we eat Blanche?
  John Berger once put it this way: “A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements are connected by an and not by a but.”
  So the freezer was filled. Never had chicken been tastier, or more honestly appreciated.
  Now, years later, the tenacious old Ladies are just a fact of life, part of the routine along with chicken manure, feed sacks, rodent attacks and wire cuts.
Those things hadn’t been part of the plan when I graduated from architecture school, yearning for that elusive aura of sophistication. But recently I read in the paper that the urban chicken is the new cause célèbre of the uber-hipsters in New York, London and Paris. The man in the photo wore Hunter wellies, a plaid jacket and two days of stubble on his ironic, self-aware chin. He had architect’s glasses on his face and a plump Rhode Island Red under his arm.
I sucked in my breath and looked at myself in the mirror of that photo: hipster status at last, after all these years. Then I looked out at the old barn, planks missing, roof needing paint, the ghosts of farming ancestors thick in the air. Hipster nothing. This is just what I was born to do, and the Ladies, pea-sized brains and all, appreciate it more than even I can understand.
  And you should taste our omelettes.

For original article, plus a variety of comments (including chicken haters, chicken lovers, vegans and free-range back-to-the-earthers) go to

1 comment: