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.

About David Leite

David Leite has received three James Beard Awards for his writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. 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. Thank you Batya for this sane response. There has to be a halt to all this cruelty!

      Helene Aylon

    2. 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.

  2. 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.)

  3. Southtown Farm in Mahwah, NJ. They sell at Ramsey Farmer’s Market. Also sell chicken and pork!