I’m making French bread to go with breakfast eggs from Cleo the chicken. I’ve never worked with yeast before. It breathes, it stretches, and it smells like a sleepy lover–how could you not say good morning to such a substance? Tim makes fun of me when I wake up my dough with flour and water, and chat to it about the night it’s had, and show it the moves I learned last night watching Saturday Night Fever. But I’m in the city today, where there are no chickens to shimmy with over tinned sweetcorn. And it’s less crazy to talk to spores and birds than to screens and cars, no?


Because the internet is all about telling the world what you had for breakfast…

Farm Breakfast


three chickens in a shirt pocket

“They’re so busy,” I say. It’s Friday night at the end of winter, and the action on Tim’s kitchen floor is better than the movies. We sit on the sofa, chins on knuckles, and we stare at the chicks. They patter around the bare floor, and from time to time they hoist themselves up on a log of firewood to peck for insects.
“Yeah, but it’s the busy of a badly-run restaurant kitchen,” he says. “Lot of activity, lot of bumping into each other, but not much is getting done.” He’s the naturalist, always more precise in his observations. Able to tell a hungry cheep from a happy cheep within a few hours of owning chicks. And they love him for it, in their way. When he teases them by lifting his feet so that he’s no longer in their plane of vision, their peeps get shrill until his boot returns. The Boot of Worms. The Boot of Warmth. The Boot of Life.

“Birds, birds, birds, birds, bi-irds,” he says when he enters the cabin, and from their bathtub home they twitter with excitement. The Boot! The Boot is back! To Tim they are animals first, but to me they are females. I call them “Girls.”

Tim started with three chicks, bought from the Rural Supply Store as concubines for the ranch rooster. They are a self-assured eight days old when I meet them, clattering up and down the cardboard that lines his bathtub, scrabbling at their feed. A wall heater keeps the room at blood heat. A steady drip tops up their water bowl, and an Ikea desk lamp warms the small cardboard hutch at one end of the bathtub, where they cuddle at night. When they hear Tim, they stop pecking and start peeping. He greets them, and they let themselves be picked up–two in one fist, one in another–and carried out to the garden.

This grass place, it’s a wonderland. There is dirt; there are stones; there are things that crawl and things that buzz and things that scurry. Everything has to be investigated immediately. They are immensely busy, heads down, but they come when Tim calls them by tapping a fingernail on the flagstones to draw attention to a slow-witted worm. That’s how their mother would teach them where to peck.

At first they stay close to the cabin, and even when they explore, they stick together, peeping a constant call and response. When one loses sight of the others, her trills get higher in pitch and volume. She doesn’t peck again until her calls have been answered and she is reunited. But when she finds something good–or something that might be good–she tries to get away from the others to investigate in peace. The others give chase, flailing after her, and she as she heads them off the worm, or twig, hangs from her beak. It looks like chick soccer.

It’s when they are sleepy that I love them best. They want, more than anything, to be taken under a wing, but there are no mother wings in their hatchery world. Tim’s shirt pockets are a warm and crowded substitute, and after some formal complaints they enjoy being stuffed in there to doze while he fixes motorcycles or visits Sal. I peer into the pocket and think of being under the duvet with my two small sisters, at an age when they were all bird bones and soft, sweaty hair. How annoying they were, and how comforting, with their doggy toddler smell. The chicks seem to have the same regard for one another.

When it’s too late at night for pockets, he sets them down on the kitchen floor to run around before bedtime. When they get tired they huddle in a fluffy scrum and try desperately to get under another chick. Is that so much to ask? They stagger, slit-eyed, up against another’s belly, and butt until they’re underneath. But the comfort never lasts. Their bodies are too light. The top chick topples off, and the bleary one is exposed again. These negotiations go on and on, a shifting dune of exhausted fluff.

The following day, Tim goes to town to buy three more chicks. He brings them home in a bucket with a window screen for a lid. Next to them, the older babies look like hulks, and I begin to feel sorry for all the toddlers who get stuck with younger siblings.

It takes a few days for the chicks to learn to drink. At dawn, the small ones reach up to pluck at the tips of the blades of grass. I don’t understand why, until Tim points out that they’re sipping dew-drops. Most birds can’t swallow as we do; they don’t have a peristalsis mechanism. They rely on gravity to drink, tipping their heads back and glugging like a Spanish farmer with a wineskin. When they’re just a few days old, a dish of water is beyond them, and so they reach for dewdrops. Later, when they see their older sisters drink from a bowl, they understand, though they can’t yet work out the physics of reaching in. They step into the dish and together they arch their necks to glug, beaks open, like the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

Now that they can drink, their digestive systems kick in. They leave little pesto droppings on the kitchen floor.

I don’t want them to grow another inch.

“Bonsai chicks?” I say to Tim, hopefully.

I have a narcissistic prejudice in favor of one of the small ones, a dappled brown Americauna. Because she has mouse-colored fluff, I believe that she is smarter, more resourceful, and finer of feeling, than, say, the butterball blonde Rhode Island Red who always has dried shit stuck to her behind, no matter how often Tim goes after her with the nail scissors. I name my favorite Helen, after Helen Mirren, another cool and brave brunette. None of the others has a name. Tim says that since he hasn’t felt inclined to name the rooster, he doesn’t see why the birds need names. Then again, he can keep the six different breeds straight, and I can’t.

They practice flying, vaulting over a few feet of grass or up the kitchen steps. When an airplane flies overhead, they freeze and fall silent. A born fear of aerial predators, maybe, but it’s also their response to any loud, new sound. When the rooster crows from his henhouse thirty yards away, they freeze again.


I sit on a tree stump and watch them for hours, chewing my bottom lip to hold in tender sadism. I want them to suffer, in tiny doses, just so that I can rescue them. After an hour or two in the weak March sunshine they start to shiver, and let themselves get caught. Their bodies are warm but their legs are chilled. Even the Leghorn, who wears ridiculous chaps of dirty white fluff, has cold feet. I feel Helen’s heart banging against matchstick ribs, and I want to squeeze her little body like an ortolan.

The rooster, for his part, is perturbed by their arrival. He was barely grown when Tim’s neighbor rescued him from the side of Highway 17, and he’s been alone for more than a year. These strange but familiar creatures have stirred something in his rooster heart. He seems to have a rusty memory that he is a patriarch by rights, born to lead and breed. But he doesn’t yet recognize the chicks for the sexy pullets they could turn into, and they are too small to be left alone with him. Since they were taken away, he has fallen into a rooster funk. He still crows, but then he puts his head down and stalks around his house, clucking in a low voice as if questioning himself.

Tim notes that when the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons first came out, in 1946, most of the audience would have known a rooster personally, and would recognize his pompous, ridiculous magnificence from life. These days, the references go the other way. Most chickens are industrial workers, as are we, and they’re usually in a KFC bucket by the time we meet. As I watch the chicks, I compare them to Furbies, or anime characters, or the clay birds of Chicken Run. All of them are objects designed with the cues that make us love infant creatures–big head, big eyes–but they will never grow. We call them animated, but they have no spark of life.

These chicks are beautiful because they are alive. They have their own drives, their own chicken hopes, and they are fully engaged in every moment. They’re learning, changing, moving, and even as they startle at every rustling leaf, they’re not afraid to depend on one another. I’m glad I met them.

Natural Justice

Still life with fungus   “Yah, so I busted dese people in the campground yesterday,” said Jacques as I was stirring my Red River Cereal. Jacques is an enforcement ranger, of the variety to whom a badge and a truck represent intoxicating power. A mwa-ha-ha ranger. He dreams of reading Bermuda-shorted matrons the Miranda Rights when they fail to extinguish campfires by 10pm. Every morning he tries to impress the chicks with stories of busting tourists over Regulation 748b. Every morning we turn the heat up under our oatmeal and stir faster to get out of there.
   “Yah, dey had a big basket of mushrooms. Dey were laying ’em out on the picnic table in the campground.”
   “What kind of mushrooms?” Surely he meant the magically delicious brand.
   “I don’t know the exact type, but you know, cooking mushrooms. Dey had the butter in the pan all ready to go when I confiscated ’em.”
   “You _confiscated_ their mushrooms?”
He puffed up. “It’s illegal to remove natural objects from the rightful place in the park. Dat includes mushrooms. And techically blueberries and raspberries too. I woulda gone easy on ’em if dey had five or six, but dey had a whole big basket.”
   ” Those people are on _holiday_! They’re probably immigrants camping with their kids. They don’t even know why you took their mushrooms. That’s so mean!” we cry.
He looks hurt. “Rules is rules.”

I was still in mourning for the berries I’d left to rot on the Coastal Trail. The whole park is carpeted with fungus. Even the bears are hardly denting this year’s fine natural crop. To protest Jacques’s lumpish enforcement policy, I dragged Ranger Tim ‘shrooming Sunday morning.

We walked the private trail from Beaver Rock to Laughing Brook with the big dented stockpot that’s been sitting outside the staff kitchen all summer. He showed me the basic identification rules: the fleshy, porous boletes, the gilled agarics, the snowy purity of the Destroying Angel. We picked bone-white coral mushrooms, strewn on the forest floor exactly like dead coral. There were brown-black pigs’ ears, turmeric-stained Slippery Jacks, speckled boletus, chanterelles. We found supermarket mushrooms and a few pearl-grey oysters. Tim told stories of tripping casualties of _Amanita muscaria_ in early mushrooming days.

At the Pilot Cabin he spread newspapers on the porch and arranged our many finds into little groups. I opened a bottle of wine and sat in a deckchair while he frowned over borrowed field guides. We would do a tasting menu, we decided, sampling each set. More than half our haul was unidentifiable or else too close to scary species to risk, but that still left a fine spread. He got butter, olive oil, salt and pepper and good bread from the kitchen and we fired up the camping stove. First, pigs’ ears steamed on a cocktail strainer (inevitably, they fell into the water). Gelatinous and good, like the wood-ear mushrooms the Thais serve. Next, Steinpilz, sautéed in butter, served on toast. Yum. Oyster mushrooms in olive oil. Mmm-mmm.

I’d drunk enough wine to feel like inviting Jacques to the fungus party, but Tim had to go to work. We promised ourselves a good mushroom omelette for brunch next day instead. Tim was in charge, slicing sulphur-yellow Slippery Jacks. “Edible and choice”, according to _The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide_ “Wipe the slime from the cap and remove the tubes before cooking”. They stained his fingers and blended pleasingly with the eggs.

Forty-five minutes later I was staring into an enamel bowl and letting loose enormous rumbling belches. Tim paced the porch looking up fungus poisoning treatment in the field guides. I retched and belched again, louder than ever.
   “Can you say your whole name in those belches?” he asked. Not funny. I wanted more than anything to get the Slippery Jacks out of my stomach.
Eventually he headed to the kitchen and rushed back holding out a tall glass that looked exactly like a pisco sour. I groaned.
   “Emetic,” he said briskly, “Salt and mustard powder in warm water. Hold your nose and chug it.” I got half of it down. It immediately shot back up my nose: hot mustard solution, like the worst icecream headache imaginable. “I’m going to make more.”
   “No! No! I can’t take it.”

But I did. Two minutes after I finished the second glass, the Slippery Jacks were returned to their rightful place in the woods and I felt suitably punished for my wanton transgression. Naturally, Tim felt no ill-effects. I’ve never had a food allergy in my life, but it turns out I react badly to slimy yellow fungus in the north woods. Could be worse.

Dervala’s Recipe for Mushroom Risotto

This was my seduction dinner back in my student days. The theory, I recall, was that I would charm them with cocktail wit while conjuring earth mother images by stirring this dish for forty-five minutes. Mixed marketing message. Sadly, none of the subjects fell for it, but at least they liked the rice.

This was my seduction dinner back in my student days. The theory, I recall, was that I would charm them with cocktail wit while conjuring earth mother images by stirring this dish for forty-five minutes. Mixed marketing message. Sadly, none of the subjects fell for it, but at least they liked the rice.

Serves 2 greedy people

1 medium red onion
2 cloves garlic
8 cups good chicken stock (I make mine with roast chicken carcass, or giblety-things, simmered with sliced celery, carrot, onion, a handful of whole peppercorns, salt, and a bay leaf).
1 cup dry white wine (maybe you could use wine vinegar)
1 ½ to 2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dried porcini, morels, shitake etc., and/or as many fresh forest mushrooms as you care for. Strain and keep the soaking liquid from dried mushrooms.
1 cup Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
Salt and pepper
Light-bodied Italian red wine for the cook

In a wide, heavy-bottomed pan, sautée the onions and garlic in butter over medium heat until slightly softened (2-5 minutes). Add the rice and stir until grains are lightly coated and shiny. Turn the heat up and add the wine: let it sizzle until the alcohol burns off. The rice will start to absorb the liquid.

Back on a low to medium heat, add the chicken stock one ladle at a time. Stir constantly as the rice absorbs the stock (though you will probably find the time to make a green salad and dressing if you like). Add the mushrooms about halfway through cooking. When you run out of stock, use the liquid from the dried mushrooms. Continue cooking until the rice releases its starch and becomes gloopy, but the grains are still _al dente_. Turn off the heat, stir in the Parmesan cheese, add salt if you like and plenty of fresh pepper. Stir in extra butter if you’re as gluttonous as I am.

Serve immediately: unlike seduction techniques, risotto does not improve with age.

The Gastronomical Ramón

The office I worked at in Manhattan was in a gastronomic wasteland near Penn Station. The lunch choices on our block didn’t go much beyond Subway, Fresco Tortilla, and the place we called Dirty Deli. Ram&oacuten, then, was a great addition to the staff: our Chief Scientist cared about food. We waited for his emails proposing an expedition to some little Peruvian place that sold good ceviche, to the roti shop, or to a soul food restaurant ten blocks away. If we were meeting Ram&oacuten at the elevator at 12.30, chances were we’d eat well that day. I was happy to hear from him when he stumbled across this site last week:

Your mention of banana pancakes made me smile. How did they become the official comfort food of the budget traveler? You can always tell a backpacker mecca by the concentration of places that serve those things. Yangshuo is a good example, a small Chinese town with at least five cafes prominently featuring banana pancakes (with chocolate sauce!). But try ordering some otherwise common steamed buns at one of those places and you’re out of luck. I blame it on Lonely Planet, indispensable for logistics but awful for food recommendations.

Noting my frequent posts about food, he added a favorite quote:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?
Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about
love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow
gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But
there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for
food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we
cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that
when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger
for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”

M. F. K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me (1943)