Chicken feed, scratch, nest eggs. Why is there so much chicken-related money slang? I haven’t a clue. But then I guess there are quite a few garden-related money words: beans, lettuce, cabbage. I tend to favor bread and dough myself. But then I digress…no surprises there.
Most of us foodie types are at least peripherally aware of the rise in chicken-keeping as a hobby. I’ve noticed several small coops in my neighborhood here in the Louisville Highlands, and I often come across escapees running around in nearby parks. Indeed the missus and I nearly bought a house from a fellow who kept chickens and let them roam freely around his fenced-in yard, a big double lot. He normally kept six, but that particularly week had only five thanks to a hawk that had recently moved into the neighborhood (a small pile of feathers in the middle of the yard marked hen number six’s last known location).
Ed was his name, as I recall. I think we spent more time talking about his chickens than his house the day we met him. He spoke at length about the challenges of securing fresh eggs from free-ranging hens, since they never put down an egg in the same place twice. Of course they would have if left to their own devices, but a clutch isn’t something you want as a chicken owner, at least if you’re planning on eating the eggs.
For eggs age much faster when they’re under a chicken vs. inside a refrigerator. But there are other edibility issues as well. Eggshells, as I mentioned yesterday, are porous. Sitting on dirt, all sorts of undesirable flavors and/or odors can enter them, starting with those of the chicken’s hind end. The secret to securing a really good eating egg, therefore, is to separate it from the bird as soon as possible.
But back to clutches for a moment. According to Ed, a just-laid egg was the best for eating. A day-old egg was still very good, a two-day-old egg was fine. A three-day-old egg was sorta palatable, a four day-old-egg, well…let’s not go there. Which meant that whenever Ed came upon a clutch of say four eggs, he could be fairy certain that at least two of them were decent for eating, one was on the border and one was truly nasty. But how to tell the difference without actually tasting them? Not easy. That left Ed in the unfortunate position of having to search every corner of his yard for single eggs each morning as his hens constantly searched for new nooks and crannies in which to start (and hopefully finish) a clutch.
It was obviously an inexperienced suburbanite’s attempt at chicken husbandry. Poultry farmers long ago invented a device that would a.) entice a chicken to lay in the same place every night, and b.) eliminate the guesswork of trying to figure out which eggs were the freshest. That invention? The nest egg.
A nest egg is nothing more than a fake egg, either ceramic or fashioned out of wood. Placed in a nest, it gives a hen the impression that she’s working on a clutch. She’ll lay a real egg beside it each night, trying to work her way up to a full clutch of eight or ten. All the farmer need do is drop by the nest in the morning and take the fresh one. The hen won’t bolt the nest for fear of abandoning her clutch, so will keep laying willingly in the same place night after night.
And thus the explanation for the term “nest egg”: the bit of hard-earned booty that never leaves home (or the bank). Pretty interesting, right? I need to go back and tell Ed about those sometime. I’ll bet he needs a break.