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Of the Earth: Notes (and jokes) from the backyard coop

  • The Miller family’s chickens enjoy a pumpkin. Contributed photo/Rick Miller

  • The Miller family’s eight chickens produce about six eggs per day. Contributed photo/Rick Miller

  • One of the Miller family’s chickens perches on a bench at the Greenfield home. Contributed photo/Rick Miller

  • BLIXT



For the Recorder
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Every chicken has a joke to tell. Seriously.

That may explain both our rapidly accelerating interest in backyard chicken coops in residential neighborhoods, and our abiding affection for chicken jokes.

My dear Sadie reminded me of this recently as she described walking down Franklin Street and passing a particularly charming chicken coop that could pass for an artist’s studio. Each time she passed, she said, the “girls” would gather at the fence chortling, as if calling out, with barely contained glee, “Hey, listen to this one” and “Have y’heard the one about ...?”

It turns out that the Franklin Street house is home to Rick and Laura Miller and their children, Isabel, 13, and Sam, 8, who have raised chickens since shortly after moving here from Long Island, N.Y., 14 years ago. They have eight chickens, the oldest of which — Puffy-Cheeks — is 11, and well beyond earning her own keep in the egg department.

“The kids would never let us get rid of her,” Rick Miller said, “Not that we would.”

The family relies on Robariah Farms in South Deerfield to meet its poultry meat needs, he said.

Laura Miller has cooked professionally and, like Rick, is a dedicated heir to the Alice Waters tradition of local, fresh and healthy cooking. With six or so a day, they have all the fresh eggs they could want. Having lived in Brooklyn and Long Island, they looked forward to moving to Franklin County as a fresh food mecca. Rick Miller was surprised that more people weren’t raising chickens.

But that may be changing. While it isn’t clear exactly how many Franklin County residents are raising chickens, a walk through any Greenfield neighborhood shows that chicken coops are anything but rare and exotic. Jeff Budine, manager of the Greenfield Farmers Co-op, said that sales of “peeps” are strong, but have leveled off after several years of what he called the “Martha Stewart effect,” which had folks scrambling to start a domestic brood like Stewart’s.

In Greenfield, local zoning regulations allow for up to 10 hens without a special permit, while Budine is required by state law to sell no fewer than six chicks at a time.

So, a chicken walks into the Greenfield Planning Office and asks to see the zoning ordinance. The planning clerk turns over the 148-page document and grins at the chicken. “We don’t get many chickens in here,” the clerk says. To which, the chicken replies, “With zoning like this, I’m not surprised.”

Nationally, estimates are that there are well over a million chickens living in backyard coops, most with fewer than 10 per coop. As many as 4 percent of residents of some major cities either keep or plan to keep chickens.

That adds up to a lot of chickens and a lot of jokes, including one offered by young Sam Miller, who asks “Why did the chicken enter the bar?” I’ll leave the punchline up to Sam, whose delivery is better than mine. Or even better yet, go straight to the chicken.

Matzoh Brei

This is one of Rick Miller’s favorite recipes for fresh eggs. It comes to us from his mother, 93-year-old Goldie Miller, and originated with his grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1920, way ahead of Alice Waters.

Ingredients:

Two pieces of matzoh

Four eggs

Salt

Pepper

Butter

Applesauce, sour cream, onions, garlic and goat cheese are optional

Crumble two pieces of matzoh into a strainer or colander, and rinse with cold water. Whisk together four eggs, salt and pepper. Add matzoh to egg mixture and mix to combine. Melt butter in a skillet.

Pour mixture into a skillet and cook like a pancake: first one side, then the other.

Top with applesauce or sour cream, or both or neither, as desired. Serves two.

For a variation, sauté onions and garlic in the skillet first, then add the matzoh and egg mixture. Goat cheese whisked into the egg and matzoh is also a tasty addition.

The Cutting Board

Alan Surprenant of Brook Farm Orchard in Ashfield sent this along via his “wood-fired iPhone.” Sounds great.

The farm will host “Working with the Wood — Pruning and Grafting Fruit Trees” on Saturday, April 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Learn the hows, whys and when of pruning your fruit trees. A classroom lesson will be followed by hands-on pruning. Learn how to graft a fruit tree of your choice, then bring the tree you grafted home to plant.

A brown bag lunch is provided. Participation is limited to 12 attendees. The cost is $80 to attend. Reserve a spot by calling 413-625-9615.

Wesley Blixt lives in Greenfield. He is a longtime reporter and the author of “SKATERS: A Novel.” Send him recipes, stories and suggestions at wesleyblixt@me.com.