This morning, Kevin scrambled some eggs for our breakfast. What with keeping chickens, we find that we eat a lot more eggs than we used to.
When our hens first started producing (September 22, 2009, that would be), we thought it was utterly miraculous. You’d think that two people who’d known all their lives that eggs come from chickens could take it in stride when their chickens laid eggs, but we didn’t. We carefully preserved the shell of the first egg, having blown out and scrambled the contents (one bite each). We marveled at how the eggs got bigger, commensurate with the chickens, as the months wore on. Every day, it was our little bit of excitement to check the nest boxes and tally the take.
And we ate more eggs. We scrambled them and poached them and fried them. We made omelets and frittatas. I even baked, an activity dangerous to the waistline of someone who can’t resist baked goods.
I had taken it as an article of faith – most of us do – that back-yard eggs from overindulged chickens taste better than the supermarket eggs that are the product of factory farms. But, while I certainly enjoyed our eggs, I couldn’t say for sure that they tasted any different from other kinds.
There was only one way to find out.
Last fall, we hosted an egg tasting. We invited six of our closest friend, several of whom are food professionals. We made them put on blindfolds and we spoon-fed them (and they, us) soft-boiled samples of our eggs, regular supermarket eggs, supermarket organic eggs, and fancy-pants Country Hen organic eggs.
It was not a dignified event, and at least two shirtfronts will never be the same.
The upshot? No one can tell the difference. The tasters’ comments were all over the map – each kind of egg got both good and bad assessments – and the best-in-show vote was split almost evenly among all four.
It made for a good story, and it was on the front page of the food section of yesterday’s Washington Post. From there, it got picked up by Slate and The New York Times.
The comments came pouring in, and the vast majority made one of two points:
1. Tamar, you’re a jackass because the reason you eat eggs from well-treated hens isn’t for the taste, it’s because you want hens to be treated well.
2. Tamar, you’re a jackass because I and all my friends – in fact, everybody in the world except you and your friends – can tell the difference between a backyard egg and a storebought egg.
That first one’s easy. I agree completely. In fact, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to that effect a couple years back. I also made that point in the egg tasting story, but apparently not everybody reads to the end.
That second one is more complicated.
Those of us who keep chickens, and those of us who get eggs from people who keep chickens, know that fresh, backyard eggs certainly look different. They generally have brighter yolks (because the chickens eat greens and bugs, and not just feed), and the yolks and whites hold together better and are harder to beat (because the egg is fresher and hasn’t lost carbon dioxide through its shell).
It would stand to reason that eggs with manifest visual and textural differences would also taste different, but all evidence is that it just isn’t so.
There was our tasting, in which we found that all eggs taste pretty eggy. There was the poultry scientist I interviewed for the article, who confirmed that, if tasters can’t see a difference in the eggs (the industry does tests using lights that mask colors), they don’t taste a difference either. There was also a commenter on the New York Times site who said that they did similar tests in France, with the same result.
Despite the consistent results in all blind tastings (that I know of), people just don’t want to believe that eggs from the pampered hens in their backyards taste the same as the eggs from the mistreated birds in factory farms. (If you are one of those people, I urge you to try a blind tasting yourself. I think you’ll be surprised.)
I understand why people hold on to that belief. Everyone at my tasting, including Kevin and me, wanted to hold on to that belief. The idea of backyard, free-range eggs is so much more palatable that it’s natural to think that the eggs themselves must also be more palatable.
If people believe their home-grown eggs taste better, even if that’s not true, why disabuse them of the notion? Don’t we just deny them that pleasure, to no real purpose?
There is a real purpose. Many of us who believe livestock should have a decent life are trying to convince American consumers that it’s worth it to spend a little more for eggs, milk, and meat from well-treated animals. One of the arguments, often, is that those products taste better.
If those products don’t taste better, the American consumer who ponies up the extra bucks only to find that the expensive stuff tastes just like the cheap stuff is going to feel, quite rightly, that he’s been sold a bill of goods. It’ll make it very easy for him to tell himself that people advocating sustainable, animal-friendly farms are drinking their own Kool-Aid and needn’t be listened to.
If we’re going to convince people to buy products from farmers and growers who look out for the well-being of their livestock, we have to sell the products on their genuine merits.
In short, if free-range farmyard eggs don’t taste better, it doesn’t do those of us who oppose factory farms any good to go around saying they do. What’s important about eggs has little to do with the eggs themselves, and everything to do with the chickens that lay them. So let’s just say that.