One of the only sadnesses I have about living in Philadelphia, in my elderly brick row house with its pocket handkerchief garden, is my lack of chickens. I would love to have a couple of chickens running about, but I’m a few inches and one city ordinance short of being able to do that. I had a flutter of hope on the matter when my aunt, who lives in Birmingham England, brought me up to speed on a new lodging option for the urban chicken: the Eglu. The Eglu is a “modern home” for the chicken who chooses the city life, a recyclable groovy plastic pod-house complete with an “eggport” for easy egg collection. Always a fan of the Frank Lloyd Wright design favourite, the carport, I am even more on board with the notion that every house needs an eggport. My beloved has often observed that my most romantic feelings are reserved for food, and it’s true that I go misty over the idea of nestling a freshly laid, soon to be boiled, egg in my palm. The mere sight of one of those Araucuna sea-glass coloured eggs sends me into a small swoon.
I admire the chicken as a citizen, too. I have no time for a clingy animal – I like one that has a life to live and just gets on with that alongside you. The chicken has much to recommend it on this score. The constant rummaging and wanderings off. The slightly dotty independence. The old-lady-like beady beakiness, that certain canniness beneath the cardigan. I have a sense that I would like their brand of sociality. In her youth, B was friends with a chicken, a red hen who was a refugee from a primary school egg-hatching experiment. Her brother brought the chick home and it became, like B, another unit in a large and diverse household that was a home, a parsonage, and a half-way house for people who were experiencing life’s flux, grateful for the chance to annex themselves to someone else’s family. B has many tales of these characters, my personal favourite being the bunch of Buddhist monks who lived in her basement. In the midst of this rich tapestry, the red hen and B clearly found some refuge in each other and there is a photograph of the 3-year old B with her arms clasped around the chicken, who is almost as big as herself. They are both gazing intently into the camera, like Victorians who have immobilized themselves for the technology. It is a portrait of good friends. Two runners around who are usually seen out of the corners of everyone else’s eye, and who found each other in the scratchy patches of garden they prefer.
The Eglu seemed like the opportunity to revisit such calmly symbiotic human-beast relations. Specifically designed for people with limited space, you and your chicken can choose the right Eglu to match your décor too: it comes in red, pink, blue, orange or green. If Toad of Toad Hall, that “charming sociopath,” as Alison Bechdel brilliantly summed him up in Fun Home, can have a canary yellow horse-drawn gipsy caravan, then surely our chicken comrades should be given the option of a little colour in their lives, too.
We, of course, get the pleasure of gazing on the chicken’s own magnificent palette. Not only are the colours of its plumage a sheer delight, but this is an animal with real style and both fashion-forwardness and retro-chic. Some breeds recall the era of mods and rockers, some are pure fluffy punk, others look like they have Italian leather trim – that brassy Gucci glam – and more than one kind looks like it patronises the same milliner as the late Queen Mum. If the visuals don’t appeal, the names must: Scots Dumpy; Frizzle; Cream Legbar; Gold Legbar; Speckledy; Welsummer; Nankin; Appenzeller. The red-combed Orpington Buff holds a special place in my heart given that it was first bred in my home town, but the chickens of my choice would have been the Gingernut Ranger and Miss Pepperpot. Their names proclaim a dedication to the culinary, and I feel we would have gotten along famously. “Would have,” because sadly it cannot be.
Even the Eglu needs a yard that is 20 x 30’ and mine is only 16 x 12’. Besides, in 2004, the City of Philadelphia passed an ordinance that bans farm animals from city spaces. This is truly a sad thing for the city that began life as William Penn’s vision of a “green country towne.” It turns out that this legislation may have been pushed through to try and deal with some people with full-blown “Pet Rescue” situations in their backyard, but it comes down hard on several populations. Anyone with any kind of urban farm initiative has been affected, as have Hispanic and Asian households who have a culture of chicken-keeping, and there’s no grandfather clause for someone with a beloved chicken or goat companion. It seems that there may be a loophole for anyone who uses their poultry for “educational purposes” and I have a toddler lined up for chicken and egg tutorials should I gain some more yard space anytime soon. B and I have post-ship-coming-in plans for the building of a vast roof deck, for which we have all kinds of wild-eyed dreams including a tomato farm, several fig trees and a Japanese hot tub. Perhaps, we thought, an Eglu or two would complete the scene? There is, on the other hand, the strong possibility that despite the Eglu’s “modern twin-walled polymer insulation,” rooftop Philadelphia summers might result in roasted chicken.
For now, then, I simply turn to the ladies at the Fair Foods stand, who supply me with superior local, genuinely free-range, wonderfully fresh eggs. These are the kinds of eggs that are so fresh, they come with wisps of hay attached and are impossible to peel once hard-boiled: Harold McGee explains that the albumen of fresh eggs has a relatively low pH which makes it more attracted to the shell membrane than to itself. Old eggs are better boilers. My yearning for fresh local eggs thus satisfied, the remaining loss is that faded-photograph connection to my sweetheart’s childhood, a way of floating back to the colours and flavours of the past.
But we have a thready way back to that too, a stitch that anchors us, much like that cloudy twist of albumen attached to all egg-yolks - the elastic chalazae that forms a safety harness for the yolk, allowing it to rotate but stay in the middle of its chalky house. Our version of that gentle life-line is a recipe, beloved by B, bequeathed to us by her mother, and originally shared with them by one of those temporary, passing-through members of their household. The recipe is for Tea Eggs and its author is a Mrs Sze. Mrs Sze and the other 6 members of her family were sponsored by B’s family so that they could escape Vietnam and the war. A Chinese family, who had gone to work in Saigon, they had translated themselves into an unfamiliar country already, and then, lifted out of the horror of the Tet Offensive, they found themselves living in Amherst, Massachusetts with a family of 6: the seven Szes adrift with six New Englanders. From all accounts, it was a relatively happy blend of both children and adults and the tales centre on culinary exchange. The favourite, for B, is the Tea Egg. She talks of it dreamily, and with the simplicity of a small child. This past Christmas, her mother gave us a handwritten book of family recipes. Two pages were dedicated to Mrs Sze’s recipes, written out complete with the Chinese ideograph for “five spice” and the note that “accent” (that would be the dastardly MSG) was optional.
Tea Eggs are first hard-boiled, cooled and then you gently crack the shells all over with the back of a spoon before simmering and soaking them in water seasoned with tea, spices and soy sauce. The aromatic bath seeps into the cracks, flavouring the egg and marbling it with brown lines that follow the shell cracks. The recipe calls for generic “strong loose-leaf black tea,” but when B stuck her nose into the Yorkshire Gold tea we consume most often, she shook her head. This was not the scent she remembered. Poking her beak into all our teas, memory was finally triggered by the enveloping aroma of Lapsang Souchong, and in went two tablespoons of those fermented black leaves. The eggs are beautiful in all their stages: the first, freckled underwater boil; the deep matte mahogany that their shells turn, with scraps of tea leaf attached; then there’s the wonder of the peeled egg and the remnant peel – the way that the marbled insides and outsides map onto each other.
We ask a lot of eggs. We’ve held candles to them to divine their secrets – startling the scene beneath the shell, we’ve indentured them to our symbologies, and painted them and buried them. There is much marvel in an egg, much joy in apprenticing ourselves to the art of the omelette, or the conjuring of the lightest scrambled eggs. Most approaches, it seems to me, recognize that the egg is its own entity and works best if we don’t touch it much. An omelet is tossed, scrambled egg curds should be barely disturbed (perhaps even hover over heat in a double boiler, or, some maintain, be steamed with a cappuccino machine), and eggs simply lodged in a glass jar with a truffle will assume the aromatics of that highly-favoured fungus. Even if carried on the winds of war, a tea egg is a good reminder of many things: of the “not sized, cracked” eggs that a large Massachusetts family bought straight from the farm in thrifty bulk, of the overlap of differing worlds, of the virtues of infusion, and of the fragrances that can be transported from one life to another when cracks appear.
SYLLABUS: MRS SZE'S TEA EGGS
Makes 8-20 eggs
8- 20 eggs (use the same 'broth' quantities)
1/2 cup soy sauce
4 tblsp salt
4 star anise, broken up
1 tsp five spice powder
2 tblsp dark loose tea leaves
a few peppercorns
one strip orange or tangerine peel
(I've adapted Mrs Sze's recipe slightly to make a stronger-tasting egg)
1. Hard boil the eggs by covering with water and bringing to a boil. Cover, turn off the heat, and let sit for 15 minutes. Cool completely in cold water. This loosens the shell.
2. Using the back of a spoon, gently crack the egg shells. Do not peel!
3. Put the eggs in water just to cover and add the broth ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hr.
4. Remove from the heat and place eggs and tea broth in a covered container. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
5. Eggs are best stored in the fridge, with shells on.
To eat, shell the egg and serve as a snack, or salad or soup ingredient.