The Story of a (Pastured) Egg

Pastured Eggs

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a proselytizer. I don’t cram sustainability concepts, politics, or ideologies down anyone’s throat. Quite the contrary. I’m heinous at dinner parties. The minute I see someone starting to climb up on a soapbox of any kind, I look for the nearest bottle of Scotch (of which there are usually many) and a pack of matches. A little immolation always brightens up a dull evening out here in Connecticut.

Then this past weekend I attended the annual conference of The International Association of Culinary Professionals in Chicago. One of the keynote speakers was goat farmer, filmmaker, photographer, and writer Douglas Gayeton, who along with his wife, Laura Howard-Gayeton, founded The Lexicon of Sustainability. His message was about how words can influence, cajole, move, and ultimately change a person’s behavior. Having worked for The Dark Side (aka advertising) for more than 18 years, I know firsthand how true this is. I sat rapt, listening to Douglas speak, adoring his deeply affecting photography, and watching—and, I admit, sometimes wincing at—his films.

The one short film that I found extraordinarily powerful is “The Story of an Egg,” because it honors what is, for most of us, a fridge staple. For years I’ve heard stories of the conditions laying hens are subjected to, but I didn’t want to be exposed to it. Ignorance is life’s barbiturate is how I looked at things. The One and I still did our part. We prided ourselves on going from buying generic eggs to consciously choosing first cage-free eggs and, more recently, free-range eggs. We considered ourselves progressive—superior, even. We were part of the army of well-intentioned consumers doing the right thing, smiling our members-of-the-club smiles at affluent dinner parties. Having known how advertising co-opts legitimate terms and converts them into fuel that runs the moneymaking machines of huge corporations, though, I should have been suspicious. But, like Donna Reed, I was content to love my man, make our gut-busting breakfasts, and clutch my faux pearls while looking down demurely when someone complimented my cooking.

Gayeton’s message, and the message of the farmers in his film, is that humanely, economically, and ecologically sustainable eggs come from chickens found in pastures—and no place else. Here they live outdoors, pecking at bugs, seeds, worms, and other gnarly things of their choosing. The uncorrupted term is “pastured eggs.” Cage-free eggs, the film demonstrated, were produced by chickens who, rather than being stuffed into small mesh cages with so many other birds that they couldn’t turn around (or, in some cases, not even touch the bottom of the cage), were lucky enough to be crammed into a huge pen filled with hundreds of their brethren, pecking and walking though mud and excrement. Free-range, which sounds so wonderful—so American it could be part of our Constitution—simply means thousands of factory chickens are offered a single door to an outside cage the size of most people’s mudrooms. Yee-haw! 

I was so affected by this that the day after I arrived home, I sent out an all points bulletin on Twitter asking for information about local farms that raise pastured chickens and eggs.

Pastured Eggs Twitter

My assistant, Annie, and I scoured the Internet. I made a few phone calls to local chefs. In the summer, The One and I usually ride up to Toplands Farm, where at the end of a meandering dusty drive is a red cooler containing a mishmash of reused cardboard cartons filled with fresh eggs. A splintered honor-system cashbox sits nearby. I always assumed these eggs were the real deal, as their yolks are the color of the original orange Crayola crayons, not that “sun-burnished wheat” hue found in eggs languishing in supermarket coolers. Now that I know better, I need to investigate further.

Color of Yolks

I know what you’re thinking. First: Damn, dude, what’s taken you so long? (All I can do is quote my old shrink: “Denial works.”) And second: Pastured eggs, chicken, and beef cost a fortune. In some places, they cost triple the amount of food that comes out of those chambers of horror that feed so much of America. If you can’t afford pastured eggs, no problem. You need to feed, clothe, educate, and provide for your family how you see fit. And if that doesn’t include pastured eggs, so be it. But for those of us who can afford pastured eggs and meats, I say, let’s do it. Let’s search out those farms, roadside stands, greenmarkets, stores, and online resources that sell true, honest, pastured food.

To that end, please use the comments section to tell me what venues you buy your pastured eggs from. It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter how frequently—or infrequently—you buy eggs. What matters is that readers have a list of resources to turn to when they need it.

Now, anyone have some Scotch and matches? You may commence lighting my soapbox on fire.

David Leite's signature

Comments

  1. A view from the other side.

    I grew up on backyard eggs so I do know better. But I ‘m going to have to stick with denial. Buying hormone and antibiotic free milk that costs 2 to 3 times more is a stretch for the average family. It is not just about choice but a real sacrifice, a what do I put back kind of sacrifice, particularly at the rate a gallon disappears in a house with young kids. We just hope it pays off in long term health benefits. But pastured eggs at $4-$9 a dozen? Yeah, not going to happen. So until we reform, by law or regulation conditions on chicken farms, denial it is.

    1. Anne S., you are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Your savings from buying eggs laid by chickens laced with chemicals, in poor health due to living in unmitigated stressful conditions, will, in the long-run, cost you much more than you would save by buying eggs from healthy hens. And, since there could be NO health care insurance in the future, you would have to pay out of pocket sums astronomically greater than what you would be paying for eggs laid by chickens raised in natural, humane, and healthy conditions. And THAT expense says nothing about the emotional and spiritual expense you incur by contributing to brutality and abuse. I am vegan, so I eschew eggs of any kind as representing non-adherence to a compassionate and non-abusive lifestyle, but still I welcome David’s decision to only eat pastured eggs and meat. Whereas this decision falls short of true veganism, which, in my opinion, is the only way the world will survive, it is a major and brave step in the right direction. Everyone should watch “The Story of an Egg.” It clearly lays out the facts and gives people the information they need to make an intelligent choice. Thank you, David, for being a beacon of light for those who realize that our eating habits have to change if we are to survive.

      1. Murry, I’m not sure I could become vegan or vegetarian, but there have been times in my life that I’ve considered it. Several years ago, I figured that if I eat meat, I should at least be part of the raising and slaughtering of an animal. It’s my responsibility at a meat eater. I chose a farm that raises only pastured poultry, and I chose to raise a turkey for the holidays. The farmer cared deeply about his animals, spent time with them every day, and personally dispatched them. The grief I felt driving home with the cleaned and dressed bird in my truck was immense. But what was even more immense was the sense of responsibility I felt NOT to mess up that meal. I finally understood how that animal’s life was taken so we could eat. I don’t think I was ever more nervous or more desperate not to overcook the bird. And we haven’t said grace in decades in our home, but I did that day because there was a incredible sense of thankfulness for the food we were about to eat.

    2. Anne S., as I said, everyone has to find that line over which they don’t feel comfortable crossing. You have to do what works for you and your family,and I don’t judge. We don’t have kids, and I’m truly blessed to be able to afford pastured food. I don’t know what I would do if I were in different circumstances.

      What really hit me while watching this and other videos from the Lexicon of Sustainability is how we treat animals. I was horrified to discover baby male chicks are simply ground up alive for feed. I don’t think I could become vegan or even vegetarian, but I just don’t feel “right” buying products from farms that inhumanely raise and dispatch animals. I’m starting to get a lists of sources. My friend Joel Viehland, who’s a great local chef in at Community Table, in Litchfield, CT, is connecting me with farmers who raise truly pastured meats–pigs that are allowed to forage their whole lives in the woods, etc. And he’s teaching me to forage. This won’t be a fast or easy process. And I suspect I’ll even adopt that Meatless Monday approach–something I mocked just a few years ago–which is a great way for budget-minded families to stretch their dollars.

  2. I am so touched by this article. I haven’t seen “The Story of an Egg” yet but it sounds like something everybody should see. As an animal advocate I learn from your reaction that we have to do a better job of getting those kinds of films out there because they have a real effect on compassionate people. I have pet turkeys, rescued from Thanksgiving, who are an absolute joy to have around. They live in the garden and sleep in a converted shed. I bet if you do adopt hens for their eggs you will be delighted by them, not just by the eggs. I don’t know where you are in the country but Animal Place, in Grass Valley California, is currently looking for homes for thousands of hens saved from a battery farm. Many of them were airlifted to Catskill Animal Sanctuary in New York (there was a New York Times story on it) so if you are driving distance from either place you might be in luck.

    I wonder if in the future, the new products coming from Hampton Creek Foods, a company in which Bill Gates invests, will appeal to you. I have not yet tasted their “Beyond Eggs” but their “Just Mayo,” entirely plant based, is delicious and has been widely taste tested and found to be indistinguishable from mayonnaise made with eggs. Here’s a video of a tour of the factory, which includes cookies being taste tested by the reporter.

    It is so cool that you were affected by “The Story of an Egg” and actively started seeking a way to make changes. May I recommend you rent Forks Over Knives, a super fun film on dietary health that features interviews with the leading doctors who changed Bill Clinton’s eating habits? If you watch it you’ll view Beyond Eggs in a whole different light.

    Again, thank you for caring and for the changes you are already making to help make the world kinder.

    1. Karen, so good to have you over here at LC. (BTW, everyone, Karen is the author of “Thanking the Monkey.”)

      Yes, I was deeply affected by the film, and others of theirs that I watched. I don’t see me moving to an all-plant-based diet. I don’t think that’s me. But eating consciously, shopping at what I call Mindful Markets, and making sure the food I eat comes from farmers that humanely and lovingly raise and dispatch their animals is a start.

      But it’s such a balancing act: Do I drive more than twice as far for pastured eggs and meats (which means a bigger carbon footprint) rather than driving to the local store (which means buying eggs that come from abused hens)? For me, the answer is yes. The better answer is that awareness rises to such a degree that my local store is as mindful as the health food store, where I shop a lot of the time.

      BTW, I do have an egg-free “mayonnaise,” called milk mayonnaise or maionese de leite, which is a milk-based sauce from my cookbook. not all plant based, but a good start for people who want to eschew eggs.

      1. I chuckled to myself when you mentioned the milk-based mayonnaise, thinking we better let this lovely man absorb what he saw in the egg film a little longer before we get him to watch the dairy videos. You’ll need a strong stomach.

        I respect your feeling that you don’t see yourself moving to an all plant-based diet but I think the more plant-based choices you make the better you will feel on many fronts. I was touched by your description of the grief you felt driving home with a newly killed turkey in your truck (turkeys are such cool animals) and I get the feeling that part of your psyche would prefer not to be eating animals, which is a common feeling, but I can tell that the idea of leaving animal products off the plate entirely feels like too momentous a change — another common and completely understandable feeling. But nobody here is saying it has to be all or nothing. I actually went vegan over a period of years with no particular intention to do so. I just kept making more and more veggie choices. I do hope you’ll check out Forks Over Knives, which is on Netflix, which really is thoroughly enjoyable and will no doubt make you want to raise the number of vegan recipes on your site from 200 (so great) to 300! It will also teach you some things about casein, one of the proteins in milk, which you might prefer not to know but that it’s better if you do if you want to lead a long cancer free life, which we all want for you.
        Thanks for the shout out re Thanking the Monkey! Do you have a copy? If not it would sure be my pleasure to send one your way.
        Thanks again for your heartfelt blog and the efforts you are making on behalf of the animals.

        1. Karen, I definitely know about dairy abuse and the treatment of veal, which I rarely, rarely eat. What’s good is we get a lot (not all) of our milk from a local farm that treats their cows very well. Growing up I drank a lot of milk, and I knew all the cows that produced that milk, as I played in the pastures where they grazed. I even helped Mr. Lawton, our milkman, milk them sometimes. Nowadays, I still love milk but am pretty good about where I buy it.

          I’d love a copy of your book. I’ll email you the address.

          1. David, if you feel like exploring non dairy milks, Silk’s almond vanilla (not the unsweetened one) tastes about ten times better than many–truly rich and delicious. And it’s next to the cows’ milk in many supermarkets. The Wholefoods brand of almond vanilla, in the refrigerator section, is good too (it may be Silk repackaged). I had friend who thought he’d never give up his cows milk morning lattes till he tried it.

            I’ve been checking my email for your address! The best way to send me an email that I will definitely get is through the contact page at ThankingtheMonkey.com I look forward to putting a book in the mail today. Thank you so much for your interest!

          2. Rice “milk” is also very good. It comes unflavored with with vanilla flavor. It’s also made into “ice cream” called Rice Dream.

  3. I can tell you that pastured is not free from corruption. I went to a local farm in SC that sells pastured eggs. What I saw by going to the farm was 200 hundred chickens in a hoop tent in a pasture. They were moved from day to day but were not free ranging. I have since gotten coop myself and 3 hens. They free range in my yard and eat organic foods, garden scraps, clover, grass and bugs. My garden is nearly bug free now so my organic veggies happier too. If you want great eggs you must do it yourself. The folks you had in the video are rare.

    1. Betty, that’s the sad fact: There will always be folks who push the envelope, trying to put one over on folks. Yes, by definition, those eggs and chickens would indeed be “pastured.” But the crowding, disease, and stress more than negates any positive benefits. But from what I’m seeing from folks commenting here, and from what I’m seeing up here in CT, there are farmers who do offer unfettered pasturing to their poultry. Acres and acres.

      And…I do admire you for having your our birds. How I so want to do that.

      1. Go for it. It is much easier than I ever thought. Set it up with feeders and watering and you can leave for vacation. Just get that neighbor you have been giving free eggs to the right to take all while you are gone. Keeps all happy!

          1. Long ride from SC. Would you be cooking? Just kidding, do tell him to read about it. They are funny creatures.

  4. Thank you so very much for this brave and informative article. I have been a long-time reader of Leite’s Culinaria and enjoy them very much, even tho some of the offerings are not entirely in sync with my own lifestyle as a vegetarian/mostly vegan. I do appreciate the occasional offerings you include that are for vegans. The only eggs I ever eat are from friends who have land and pastured chickens who have been rescued from really bad situations… but I don’t eat eggs when not available from these particular chickens. Even those local sources for pastured eggs where the chickens all have names and are treated as beloved pets are problematic for me, because of their usual sourcing from large breeding establishments. Since the male chicks are not useful to the egg industry, they are routinely thrown on a heap and ground up, often alive if not already suffocated, for animal feed. In addition, baby chicks routinely have the tips of their beaks painfully seared off without anesthesia so that they cannot harm each other in the overcrowded conditions most are headed for. I consider these practices too cruel to participate in, and, therefore, will not consume eggs from chickens that might originate from these industrial breeders, even tho they have found a much better life in friendly pastures.

    That said, I am very appreciative of your article, and I am sure that it will go, a long way to make for a more humane and compassionate world.

    1. Batya, thank you for your comment. For the record we do have more than 200 recipes on the site that are vegan.

      It’s my understanding, and anyone please correct me if I’m wrong, that farmers who raise truly pastured chickens are purchasing them like mined sources.

  5. HEB! It’s a major supermarket chain here in Texas. They carry pastured eggs from Vital Farms. I just Googled them and learned they supply pastured eggs to Whole Foods, too. Apparently they’re becoming a big business. Usually there are only a couple of cartons left, but this weekend I saw double shelf space and stock. I take this as a sign that the demand is growing.

    1. Hey, Ren, thanks a lot for the sources. I hope our Texas readers take note. I also hope that we get a WholeFoods up here in CT, where I spend most of my time. It would be a huge boom for the economy. (I rarely shop COSTCO these days–mostly for dry goods.)

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