On any given day, three chickens (Jazzy, Keiko and Peanut) bob, coo, squawk and cluck their way around Janice Cole’s White Bear-area backyard. They warm their bodies in the slip of sun that peers through the Jurassic-like foliage, they scratch at the dirt in the chicken run, and they lay their eggs in a nesting box in a heated chicken coop that Cole fills with the sounds of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven when the sun drops from view and the chickens are nestled in their chicken beds.
They wait, not so patiently, as Cole brings them cheese rinds, apples and other hand-trimmed bits of food she has cut up for her brood. She is their mother hen, a petite figure with sparkling eyes, a quick laugh and a maternal love for her feathered babes. They are her bobbing, cooing, egg-laying trio.
And a perfect combination they are.
Which Came First?
This mother/chicken relationship began with, well, a quest for the perfect egg: that creamy, golden-yolked beauty that can become a perfect dish on its own—not to mention scare the wits out of many a chef with its unrivaled simplicity—or add the perfect richness, color and structure to other dishes. “A friend has a farm in Wisconsin and offered me some of her eggs,” Cole says of her first foray into fresh-from-the-farm eggs. “Tasting those fresh, fresh eggs was just amazing,” Cole says, a plate of picture-worthy (and delicious) lemon bars on the table beside her.
So, a little more than 10 years ago, Cole—who had trained with some of the finest chefs around and was a lauded food writer, food stylist and recipe developer—hatched the idea to raise her own chickens. “This was before a lot of people jumped on the chicken wagon,” she says.
After doing some research and attending a class on raising backyard chickens, Cole selected three chicks from a St. Paul feed store. “It was so exciting,” she says, her eyes lighting up like a mother recalling first experiences with her baby. Cole fashioned a brooder from a large plastic tub, complete with a screen for protection and the all-important heat lamp. (“You have to be very cautious about the temperature,” she says.) She kept the brooder box in the family room, the chicks’ high-pitched cacophonous peeps filling the house. Her very patient husband, Marty, steered clear at first, but eventually grew to love the fuzzy creatures.
And much like children, the chicks’ personalities showed up early. “Roxanne, a buff Orpington, was the leader,” says Cole. Cleo, whose name matched her Elizabeth Taylor-esque look from the award-winning movie, was an Easter egg chick, a combination Araucan and Ameraucana known for brightly colored eggs, and the quieter one of the bunch, while Crazy Lulu … well, that should be self-explanatory.
The chicks grew, and when they were around 5 to 6 months, started laying eggs. And Cole took those glorious eggs and began making the dishes she’d been dreaming about: poached eggs over walnut-crusted cheese and whole-grain toast, orange-glazed country ham and eggs, miniature almond-filled cream puffs and many more. Cole’s husband and their two sons were the lucky beneficiaries of the egg-centric meals.
From Clucks to Cookbooks
One day Cole got to thinking about maybe putting her chicken-raising experiences into a book. “Chickens are such remarkable, remarkable animals,” she says. “I wrote the book because I wanted to give people a sense of what a chicken is like. They are so ubiquitous in our culture, our eating habits, but we never think of the animal at all, their nuance, personality, intelligence.”
She found an agent (on the first try, no less), put together a proposal and sent it off to some publishers. Chronicle Books jumped at the opportunity. Cole did get a rejection letter from the octogenarian Judith Jones, the heralded food editor who is said to have discovered Julia Child. “It was the nicest rejection letter,” Cole says. “It was an honor just to have her write back to me.”
The book, Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading, gives readers an up-close account of Cole’s experiences with her chicks. She peppers in factoids on chickens that make you understand these busy birds. Along with her story, Cole also includes 125 recipes, which she created and tested in her home kitchen. Divided into categories by the seasons, the way Cole typically cooks and what’s being harvested at that time, you can find appetizers through main courses in each section, with intimidation-free recipes at that. “I tried to make the recipes fairly accessible,” she says. “It’s approachable for most people, but also for people who like to cook.”
She includes numerous dishes that feature chickens, and poignantly addresses the topic of eating chicken while a chicken lover, including the importance of cage-free, hormone-free and free-range chickens.
In the end, Cole, who has raised more chickens since the book was published (the first three have since gone to the big coop in the sky), is very content with her brood and her foray into the world of fowl. “I got the chickens because of the eggs,” Cole says. “But I ended up really loving the chickens.”
- Chickens are very social animals.
- The breed of chicken determines the color of their eggs.
- The amount of sunlight per day determines how many eggs chickens will lay.
- There are approximately 175 breeds of chickens.
- The average lifespan of a chicken is 5 to 6 years, but two of Cole’s lived more than 9 years.
- Proud chickens often “announce” when their eggs have been laid.
- Chickens’ prime egg-laying time lasts about two years.
You can find Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading at Lake Country Booksellers, Barnes & Noble and on amazon.com.