Category Archives: Feasting

What I learned from a bunch of city chicks, part the first

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Which is our egg, and which is storebought?

Saving the planet was not foremost on my mind when I decided to start keeping chickens. As I have written before, I wanted to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. Really, though, it was about the eggs. Fresh, yummy eggs with yolks as richly yellow as new dandelions.

But I was soon to discover that urban flockkeeping is about much more. Indeed, there is a growing movement of city folk who are discovering the pleasures of keeping a few chickens. Books have been written. Documentary films have been made. I was on National Public Radio talking about my chickens. And for many of us, one of the greatest satisfactions is knowing that our food hasn’t traveled thousands of miles over land and sea, at the cost of untold quantities of fuel, to get to our tables.

Indeed, my next-door neighbors, with whom I share the costs, labor, and benefits of our birds, and I quickly saw what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into the quickly expanding ranks of people who are seeking ways to connect with the origins of their food—and with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our avian adventure is a story of identity, friendship, and flock formation, you might say. My neighbors also grew up in rural places, in West Virginia and western North Carolina, and shared my longings for something like home. When we discovered to our surprise that it was legal to keep poultry in Decatur, we decided one evening in 2004, during an across-the-backyard-fence chat, to give it a shot.

In spite of living quite congenially next door for ten years, my neighbors and I had never has any real imperative to get to know each other well. But for this project, they brought design and carpentry skills that I lacked, and I had an existing building on my property that would serve as a fine henhouse.

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (the blonde), enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

We began meeting for dinner to pore over poultry books, draw up plans, and research local breeders. Together we hammered, stapled, and stretched chicken wire on our new coop, most of which we built from recycled materials. One afternoon we headed north of town to pick out two Buff Orpington chicks from a breeder. I will never forget the late summer evening our first five pullets were at last happily scratching and clucking in the coop, as the three of us sat watching with our (what else?) cocktails raised to new friends—feathered and otherwise.

News of our endeavor spread quickly. Neighbors we had never met soon tapped on our doors, curious about our birds. Drawn to what amounts to an exotic animal in the midst of Georgia’s most densely populated city, they wanted their kids to understand where their scrambled eggs (and chicken dinners) came from. Neighborhood kids brought other neighborhood kids. We would often find ourselves delivering informal lectures on the requirements and benefits of keeping chickens in the city.

Scene from Cluckapalooza I

Scene from the first-ever Cluckapalooza

By the fall, we had had so many visitors that we decided to throw a party to celebrate all things chicken. The first Cluckapalooza, now an annual event, drew about seventy-five friends. We strung lights around the coop and decorated it with flowers and art. Guests admired both the “East Wing” (my side, where the family resides) and the “west wing” (my neighbors’ side, where all the power resides) of the coop. Everyone feasted on a huge potluck dinner, including deviled eggs from our hens and other treats from my garden, now enriched with copious chicken manure. Games—with prizes—included a clucking competition, a Funky Chicken dance-off, and a contest to name one of our new birds (“Delilah” was the winning entry, but “Layla” ran a close second). Musicians brought their instruments and played their favorite chicken songs (there are more than you’d think).

A frittata from our "girls'" eggs I recently prepared with roasted peppers from my garden, potatoes from my CSA, and some turkey andouille sausage I got from the DeKalb Farmer's Market. Salad was arugula (my garden) and baby lettuce (CSA) with muscadines (CSA) and some Georgia pecans (Dekalb Farmer's Market).

A frittata from our "girls'" eggs I recently prepared with roasted peppers from my garden, potatoes from my CSA, and some turkey andouille sausage I got from the DeKalb Farmer's Market. Salad was arugula (my garden) and baby lettuce (CSA) with muscadines (CSA) and some Georgia pecans (Dekalb Farmer's Market).

But the event was more than fun and games. Our guests witnessed first-hand the role of the chickens in our turn toward a more sustainable lifestyle: they provide safe, nutritious, and delicious food that didn’t get here on a refrigerated eighteen-wheeler; they are humanely kept; they reduce household waste; they fertilize my garden; and they aid in weed and pest control.

Coming up in Part the Second: Chicks in the City, and Team Chicken (whoop!)

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The sun and the rain and the salad greens

Welcome to my Southern Urban Homestead, a long, narrow lot in a beautiful neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, a small town situated fifteen easy minutes east of downtown Atlanta. Over the past fifteen-plus years this little slice of urban earth and I have had quite the partnership. We have rejoiced together. We have exchanged magnificent gifts. We have argued, even fought (I usually lose). But I have come to understand myself and my homestead better. I have, I like to think, become more awake, more patient, and more respectful of the nuances and cycles of my immediate natural surroundings.

I grew up in Rabun County, Georgia, in the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for most of my adult life, I have searched for ways to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. So it made sense that I would have a garden. My mother and grandmothers kept gardens.

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

They also “put up”–that is, they canned and froze the produce from the garden. My dad planted an orchard–another lesson in patience–and decades later, we are still harvesting apples and pears and blueberries from the trees and bushes he planted when I was a teenager. And the offspring of his blueberry bushes now thrive in my yard here in the city.

Blueberry bushes, a fig tree, and a small garden–that is how it started, when I moved here in April 1994. Soon I had expanded the garden, added a second one, and was cramming vegetable beds into every sunny nook I could find. I improved soil and began starting all my seedlings indoors each winter, as soon as the catalogs started arriving. I started canning like my mother and grandmothers had done. I composted obsessively.

Then in 2004, my neighbors and I acquired our first batch of baby chicks–fulfilling a dream I’d had for several years. We all wanted the eggs, of course, but my garden wanted the chicken poop. Thus launched an exploration of what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into an exciting local movement of folks who wanted to model a certain kind of ethical living and to connect with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our latest spring chicks

Our latest spring chicks

This blog will tell stories of how we connect and interconnect around food–where it comes from, how it circulates, brings us together, shapes our identities both as individuals and as communities. There will also be stories of how we struggle with food–how it challenges us, disappoints us, forces us to work hard and get creative, even alter our understanding of what food is. There will be tales of my war (well, not war exactly; more a kind of gunboat diplomacy) with the squirrels. Chronicles of my close encounters with other beasties great and small. Legends of my ongoing quest for free water. Shocking revelations of unimagined thrift. Inspiring accounts of efforts to establish a local barter economy. And culinary adventures that will, I hope, drive you to the garden yourself.

My intention here is not to live “impact free”–no extremes, no gimmicks. Rather, I aim to share my daily search for ways to live effectively, efficiently, and responsibly in an urban landscape. Growing numbers of city dwellers are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life. I can think of no better reason in this world to be optimistic.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

For me, it all begins with the act of providing–of feeding ourselves and those we care for. This goes to the core of how we live on the earth and with one another. It’s a daily invitation to be mindful of labor, consumption, and reward. Even here, in the heart of the urban South, we can be aware and grateful.

Grateful for the things I need–the sun and the rain and the salad greens.

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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Putting Up