The egg came first; let’s just get that out of the way. For millions of years before humans domesticated the feathered lizards known today as “chickens,” countless generations of amphibia and reptiles, including dinosaurs, were laying eggs. The egg is an amazing system for nurturing young beings that’s just plain awe-inspiring to contemplate. It’s also a delicious and beautiful form of animal protein that no animal had to die for.
When Easter comes around, people steam up their homes with vinegar in order to recreate the pretty colors that come naturally from a diverse set of hens. We backyard hen keepers, aka flocksters, understand the excitement. There is something deeply captivating about a diverse basket of eggs.
That’s why for the flockster, every day is like Easter. It’s extra-true if the flock includes a blue egg layer, like an Araucana or an Ameraucana, and you can have a mix of white, brown, and blue eggs. In the company of blues the brown eggs look reddish, and your basket looks red, white, and blue.
Perhaps the best thing about having chickens is not having a compost pile, or not worrying about not having a compost pile. The chickens eat everything. The girls cluck pleasantly as they convert soggy noodles, meat scraps, old greens, and browned bananas into brunch, and close the loop between your kitchen, garden, and surrounding ecosystem.
This time of year, there is something soothing and invigorating about the sound of spring chickens scratching in the dirt. They have a zest for life that is contagious. After a long winter, I let the hens run around the entire backyard, including the garden. They aerate the top layer of soil with their beaks and claws, like scratching the earth’s head after a long sleep, at the beginning of a big day.
Last fall, my flock had dwindled down to just two golden Buff Orpington hens, ages 2 and 8, both named Annabelle, only one of whom was still laying. At least they had each other through the winter, but by spring the amount of organic material in the chicken yard had pulled ahead of what the girls could eat. They needed reinforcements. Thanks to a deal that went down in a parking lot near the bountiful Missoula Winter Market the other week, they got them, from the back of an old Ram long bed owned by a market vendor whose eggs I’d been buying a lot of lately since my flock dwindled.
The timing of this transaction had been planned weeks ahead of time, from when the baby chicks were barely a month old. We had to wait until they were big enough to not get pecked apart by the old hens, and old enough to be distinguished from the roosters, which we couldn’t accommodate. But they couldn’t be too big, else they in turn would bully the senior hens.
At home, I set my box of boisterous cargo in the chicken yard and took off the lid. A single feathered head popped up like a periscope to survey the new digs. One by one, they hopped out. After a polite, deferential period of about 30 seconds, the new chickens quickly made themselves at home. They knew exactly what to do in a chicken yard, and were soon running around like juvenile delinquents, indifferent to the concerned old hens watching from the corner, occasionally squawking beseechingly in my general direction.
By the time evening fell, the new girls had all found their way into the coop and were snuggled up on perches alongside the old girls. The flock merger was complete. And thus, the hen party doesn’t ever have to end, as long as you replenish the flock and rebuild the chicken coop if it burns down (long story).
But if chicken farming isn’t your thing, or you don’t have the yard space, extra bandwidth, or desire to take care of living, eating, pooping beings, you certainly don’t have to. By all means, support your local chicken farmer.
And since my girls aren’t yet big enough to lay their spectrum of eggs, I’ll be coloring the eggs by soaking them in strong teas made from intensely colored natural materials, some of which I found around the house and some of which I ordered online.
Natural dyes give a more “realistic” look to the eggs, making them look like magical treasures from the nest of some fabulous bird, rather than perfect cookie-cutter eggs with the flawless, airbrushed finish of synthetic dyes.
My favorite materials for “tea-dyed” eggs are turmeric, black tea, and dried pea flower, which is easy to find online and makes a bright indigo color.
The eggs in the photo were dyed with black tea (brown), turmeric (yellow), and pea flower (blue). Like making tea, the concept is always the same regardless of which type of leaves, but each person has different tools in their kitchen and a personal preference on how strong they like their tea.
The depth of color is dependent on how much material you use and how long you let the eggs “steep.” Some of the eggs pictured have lighter shades from less time steeping.
If you want to eat the eggs, go for it. Just keep them refrigerated as they steep.
- 6 white eggs
- 1 quart water
- 1 cup vinegar (or more, which might help depending on the material)
- Choice of colorant: 1 cup powdered turmeric, 1/4 cup pea flower, or 3 bags black tea
Place the eggs, water, and vinegar in a pot over medium heat. Add the dye materials and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, and simmer for 10 minutes. Turn it off and let the eggs steep until they reach the desired hue. For the darkest shades you see on the plate, let them sit overnight (in the fridge, if you plan to eat them).
Remove them very gingerly and set on a rack to dry. When the coating is still wet, it can rub off, leaving a lighter shade below like an old coat of paint. Once completely dry, they can be handled more easily.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.