Rumpelstiltskin got a bad rap. Remember the story? An ordinary miller has aspirations for his daughter, so he tells the king she can spin straw into gold. The king, understandably curious about a girl with such a skill, takes the rather radical step of locking her in a turret for three days with some straw and a spinning wheel, promising to kill her if she doesn’t deliver.
She can’t, of course, and she’s on the brink of despair when a dwarfish little guy shows up and shows her that he can. Day one, he trades for her necklace. Day two, for her ring. Day three, she’s out of jewelry. Knowing that he’s got her over a barrel, he bargains for her first-born.
The king sees the gold and immediately marries the girl. Soon enough, the first-born is born and Rumpelstiltskin shows up with his claim check. But the girl doesn’t want to hand over the child. Rumpelstiltskin, out of the goodness of his heart, gives her an out. If she can guess his name in three days, she can keep the child.
The girl, now the queen, sends out a spy to try and learn the name. Rumpelstiltskin, fool that he is, dances around singing a little ditty – out loud! – about how he’s going to get the baby because nobody will ever guess that his name is Rumpelstiltskin. The spy hears him, the girl gets the name, and Rumpelstiltskin loses.
In some versions, he just disappears. In others, he meets a gruesome death. In all versions, the king, the girl, and the miller live happily ever after.
I ask you, is this fair? The miller is a lying striver. The girl is a foolish welcher. The king is a greedy pig. Rumpelstiltskin, while not a savory character, is at least on the up-and-up.
What really bothers me about the story, though, is that Rumpelstiltskin got so upset. Okay, he lost the child, but he could still spin straw into gold! Seems to me that a genuine alchemist can write his own ticket.
Which brings me to the chickens. They’re in full-out laying mode, and we get at least a half-dozen eggs a day. The input into this system is mostly dross. They do eat pellets, which are manufactured by Poulin Grain and purchased by us with hard, cold cash, but actual chicken feed seems to be less than half their diet. The rest is plants, bugs, and kitchen scraps – things that, were it not for the chickens, would have gone uneaten.
When we first got the chickens, I’d save the best of what I’d ordinarily put in the compost – apple cores, salmon skin, collard stems – and bring them out to the run. It took some time (and some advice from Jen at Milkweed & Teasel) for me to fully understand the wide range of garbage that can be turned into eggs by a flock of chickens.
For starters, there’s the fat you skim off your stock. I never throw away a bone or a meat scrap, and I make stock several times a month. When it solidifies in the refrigerator, I get a thick layer of fat on the top, which I used to throw away. Given that we have a bird feeder devoted to slabs of suet, which we buy, you’d think I could have figured out that birds thrive on animal fat, but Jen had to point it out to me.
The pie crust, I figured out all by myself. I knew they like grain, and I knew they like fat, so the little scraps that are left over after I shape a crust should go over well, I reasoned, as they are made almost exclusively of grain and fat. “Well” is an understatement. The chickens fought over them.
If they like pie crust, perhaps they like all baked goods. There were a few slices of bread with some moldy spots and, sure enough, the chickens devoured them, pecking carefully around the mold.
If they like baked goods, maybe they like unbaked goods. Circumstances landed us with a box of apple cake mix which I was not inclined to turn into apple cake (if I’m going to make an apple cake, it’s going to be the best apple cake I can make, which won’t be the apple cake that was in that box). Kevin stirred the raw mix together with some stock fat, and the chickens went wild.
It’s gotten to the point where, if we walk outside carrying something, some of the chickens will actually fly up and peck at our fingers. That we find this more endearing than annoying indicates that we’re not keeping our emotional distance.
Another indication that at least one of us is crossing the livestock/pet border is the propensity of one of us – let’s not name names – to let the chickens into the house. No, not really let … more like bring. For Thanksgiving, we’d turned our porch into a dining room by taking out the couch, putting in a large oak table we’d bought at a rummage sale, and running the wood stove full-blast with the door to the porch open. Several days after the meal, we still had a crumb-filled table. I was about to sweep the crumbs into a dish to bring to the chickens when one of us decided we could skip that step by bringing the chickens to the crumbs.
“I thought you liked it when the chickens ate the garbage,” one of us said, seeing the disapproving look on the other of us.
“I do,” the other of us replied. “But I prefer that they do it on their turf.”
I do like it that the chickens eat the garbage. I love the barnyard alchemy that turns scraps and grass and insects into eggs or pork or beef. When the feed is something humans raise for the purpose, like hay or grain, it’s not so magical. After all, if we’re raising crops, we might as well raise something we can eat ourselves, and skip the middlebeast. But if it’s a byproduct, or something humans can’t (or won’t) eat, or just plain trash, it’s like getting something for nothing, like spinning straw into gold.
“The chickens are like Rumpelstiltskin,” I told Kevin as we watched them eat up a plate of corn that had begun to ferment in the refrigerator.
“How do you know?” he asked.
I looked at him funny. “What do you mean, how do I know? Garbage goes in, eggs come out.”
“How do you know?” he repeated. “I mean, have you ever actually seen a chicken lay an egg? Maybe the chickens aren’t Rumpelstiltskin at all, maybe they’re the girl, and Rumpelstiltskin sneaks in at night.”
I snorted. Everybody knows chickens lay eggs.
“Think about it,” he said. “We’re the king because we lock them in the coop, and if they don’t lay eggs we kill them, right?”
Well … yes. “Who’s the miller?”
“All those people who tell you that chickens lay eggs.”
This is what chickens have done to the level of discourse in our house.