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Bringing Eggs Home From the Range

By JOHN GOULD / April 27, 1990



LET us hold hands in a circle and extend sympathy to the Ehmans of Sebastopol, Calif., whose ``range'' chickens have been run off the market by the US Department of Agriculture. The word range seems to have vanished from the poultry scene and we can weep. When I was a boy all poultry was range poultry. When I was a boy the hen and her product tasted good, too. You didn't get a chicken pie that tasted like bouillabaisse, or eggs that suggested low tide at Higgins Beach.

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I had a pet red hen that would cackle up in the field and come running to lay her daily egg on the patent leather seat of the Sunday buggy in the carriage shed. Then she'd cackle back into the field - the range.

All farm children knew where the surreptitious hens' nests were and were expected to fetch the bounty to the house before it was too late. Bad cess to a hen that would lay a rotten egg. Chicks are put to range; they roost under range shelters; later they are brought off the range and housed. The USDA can believe me - the only good hen is a range hen.

The Ehmans of Sebastopol, their superior birds Greshamed from the market, are now members of the club. What has happened to them has happened before. Back during the war when the Office of Price Administration was handling the stateside conflict, this club began to form.

One day a delegation of poultrymen gathered in Washington to remonstrate with the OPA about some of the foolishness foisted on chickens. I don't recall who all was present, but there was Nat Thompson from Petaluma, Calif., and Andy Christie from Stratham, N.H., and others from DelMarVa and Alabama - all men whose knowledge of poultry was immense, except that they were all Republicans.

Just before he went into the meeting, Andy Christie met a re-porter from the New York Times in the corridor, and said, ``You ought to come into this meeting - I think you'll get a story.''

When the meeting came to order, the poultrymen objected that no ceiling prices had been set for peewee eggs.

One of the OPA members said, ``What are peewee eggs?''

Andy said, ``Can we conclude the OPA doesn't know what peewee eggs are?''

Whereupon: ``Well, what are they?''

Andy said, ``When a pullet begins to lay, her first eggs are small; peewees are the smallest market size of fresh eggs.''

``Well,'' said the OPA man, ``if that's all they are, why do we price them? Why not just leave them in home consumption?''

Andy said, ``You mean the farmer eats them for breakfast?''

``Isn't that a fair solution?''

Andy nodded at the reporter from the New York Times, and the reporter from the New York Times nodded back at Andy, and Andy said, ``At our egg farm at Stratham, we are gathering in the neighborhood of 16,000 peewee eggs every day. That's a pretty good neighborhood.''

Andy let that soak in, giving the reporter from the New York Times a wink, and then he added, ``That's going to make me a hearty omelet.''

The usually staid manner of the Times was stretched a mite the next morning, when it gave this omelet prominence that made the OPA look silly, and caused Andrew Christie much joy. Peewee eggs were priced. And the point was made that bureaucracy has its faults. Even range pullets lay peewees.

Some years back Sen. J. Hollis Wyman of Milbridge, Maine, got himself similarly involved. Holly's company packs a lot of food products, and Holly was never wholly satisfied with his efforts with sardines.

One year he came up with an idea, and into each can of sardines he pressed a small cube of smoked alewife meat. The alewife is an inferior herring, not widely loved for food, but if rightly smoked will make what Mainers call a bloater, and more often a Kennebec turkey, and in this cure it gets a certain seasonal play in cream in mashed potatoes.

Holly found that this smidgen of smoked alewife imparted a flavor to the sardines and, indeed, many said it made ``the best sardine packed.'' Holly kept them for himself, as gifts to buyers, and for Christmas presents to his colleagues in the Maine legislature.

Then the USDA hit him because he was putting alewife in a can labeled sardines, and this was no-no-no. By that time Holly had his special pack in production and on the market, and this was bad news.

Maybe the Ehmans of Sebastopol can study his solution and find a way to thwart the Washington bureaucrats. Holly simply had some labels printed that said, ``Choice Maine Sardines `a la Gaspereau Fum'e in Olive Oil.'' It seems nobody connected with the USDA in Washington knows that a Maine alewife is a gaspereau in Atlantic Canada.