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Monthly Archives: August 2009

Something To Crow About

Verve magazine is an exceptionally well produced, Western N.C.-based publication by, for, and about women. Yours truly was mentioned in the July/August 2009 issue. I’ve printed the article in its entirety below. 

Chicken Fracas-see

by Joanne O’Sullivan
photo by Rebecca D’Angelo

Each week, Karen Cruser can give you several dozen reasons why eggs from well-fed backyard chickens are better than those produced in big commercial henhouses. The “rainbow eggs” laid in the backyard of her Asheville home not only look like nothing you’ll see in most grocery stores, but they also pack a flavor that can only be achieved when chickens eat mixed greens, apple peels and other healthy tidbits. In each recycled egg carton she sells at Earth Fare’s West Asheville location, Cruser places a dozen little gems that range in color from bluish-green to light army green to beige, but all have the same rich flavor. Overheard during a meal made from her eggs: “This must be what omelets taste like in heaven.”

Known locally as The Egg Lady, Cruser has been “chickening” since a neighbor gave her a hen and a rooster for Christmas in 1972. Although she was several decades ahead of the curve, she’s hardly alone today in her dedication to a higher standard of eggs than those offered in most grocery stores. A perfect storm of economic downturn and increased interest in local food and sustainable living has spurred a dramatic uptick in the number of backyard chicken enthusiasts nationally, and Cruser is now just one of many women in the Asheville area who count chickens among their chief passions.

When you think about it, it’s a logical progression. Raising chickens lets those who are not willing to buy the whole farm get one Wellie-clad foot into the world of agriculture without leaving city life behind. Female chickens are relatively low-maintenance: no crack-of-dawn wake-up calls like those emitted by their male counterparts, roosters; no bursting udders demanding to be milked round the clock. And yet, they provide green-minded individuals a little more challenge than, say, a row of lettuce, and a little more warmth and interaction than a hive of bees.

And then there are the eggs. According to a recent Mother Earth News study, free-range organic eggs have one-third the cholesterol of those from big commercial chicken farms, and a quarter of the fat, while providing two-thirds more vitamin A and three times the vitamin E. Cruser says what goes into the chicken makes all the difference in the egg that comes out. While the “rainbow” colors of her eggs are the result of each breed’s genetic programming, the large, saffron-colored yolks and thick egg whites can be attributed to her chickens’ all-natural diet. “I spoil them,” she says.

Candler chickener Ashley English concurs that special treatment results in happy chickens and high-quality eggs. Her five chickens are coddled, she says, living in a retrofitted dog run she and her husband call the “chicken palace” and eating raisins and parsley, among other healthy foods. “I hug and scratch them and give them lots of attention,” she says. In return, her “girls” produce four or five tasty eggs per day in the summer and two to three in the winter. A relative newcomer to chickening, English has had her flock for about a year, but has already written a book manuscript about her experience to provide other newbie chickeners with tips on getting started.

If Asheville City Chickens, now known as the “chicken club,” is any indication, she’s got a big audience hungry for just that kind of information. Started last year by Asheville residents Cathy Williams and Jenny Mercer, the organization has more than 400 members in its Facebook group and more than 100 on its listserv. Williams, Mercer and their tech guru Josh O’Connor send frequent Tweets to local chickeners about topics of interest. Around 40 people showed up for their first Chicken Meetup last May. Chickeners (who showed up sans chickens) discussed the new city regulations and how to get started chickening while sharing stories about their own flocks.

Mercer’s run-in with local animal control regulators and Williams’ interest in animal welfare issues were the original impetus for the group: both wanted to promote “responsible and humane ownership of chickens” within the city. Once they started to organize, they found they had a much larger community that shared their goals. With the help of some great communications and marketing tools (including their insider’s-joke bumper sticker motto “We Still Lay”), the group spent the better part of a year preparing to lobby Asheville’s city council to loosen restrictions on backyard chickens. When the issue came to a vote in late April this year, 120 chickeners showed up to voice their support. The group now has 47 chicken-raising members. The measure passed, and now chickens can be legally kept in Asheville within ten feet of a chickener’s home and within 50 feet of property lines (as long as permits are secured and regular inspections take place). The other caveat: no roosters.

With their legal victory behind them, Williams says the group will focus on other kinds of support for urban chickeners, such as starting a buyer’s co-op for organic feed. One of the primary challenges for group members, she says, is convincing neighbors that the birds won’t be a nuisance or a health hazard. In fact, Williams says, “backyard flocks are the answer to preventing disease in chickens.”

The group gives members tips on how to approach neighbors “in a way that instills confidence” and prevents conflict. Williams says that before she brought in her own flock, she and her neighbor had a frank discussion about worst-case scenarios, arriving at solutions for each. It didn’t hurt, she says, that they negotiated a little “eggstortion”: a regular supply of fresh eggs to sweeten the deal.

Cruser thinks it’s wonderful that there are so many new converts to chickening. Now that she has grandchildren to compete for her attention, she’s cut back the size of her flock from 250 to 135, but her remaining hens produce about 16 dozen eggs a week. Earth Fare store manager James Saldutti reports her eggs sell out almost immediately. “She’s got quite a following,” he says. Those who want to take a crack at producing their eggs can go on Asheville City Chickens’ own “coop tour” this summer to get ideas, or read English’s book Homemade Living: Keeping Chickens With Ashley English, which will be published by Lark Books in April 2010. Ready or not, urban chickens may be coming soon to a backyard near you.

For more details on Asheville’s “chicken club,” go to To read Ashley English’s blog, go to

Cherry-Chomping Winner!

Alright, everyone, it’s showtime! The winner of this month’s Small Measure Can-Do giveaway is Evie! All 47 entries were plugged into a random number generator and Evie’s entry takes the cake, ur, the marmalade, this month.

Thanks to all who entered. I adored reading your preferred means of cherry-chomping immeasurably! 
Mark your calendars for September 7th. I’ll post that month’s delectable canned good then. 

*Image from here

Made For Sharing

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fortunate enough to have some truly magnificent lady friends here in the mountains of North Carolina. I was again reminded of this last night, when, in the company of a group of both new and long-established lovelies, we laughed, conspired, cackled, imbibed, and chowed down. 
Liz White, costumer-extraordinaire (she makes wedding dresses, too, AND she has 14 chickens in her urban backyard!), opened her home for a girl’s night-in. We all brought a little something to nosh on, while Jen whipped up exquisite cocktails (ginger brandy-need I say more?). Meg, Alisa, Nicole, Jenny, Kelly, Janell, Sara, and co. all offered up their special something or other. 
Me, I brought rosewater, cardamom & pistachio rice pudding. It’s my go-to pudding of choice; it couldn’t be easier to make and it combines all of my favorite flavors in one pot. Invite your favorite ladies over, whip up a pot of this pudding, and enjoy the easy laughter that comes from good times with inspiring friends. 

Rosewater, Cardamom & Pistachio Rice Pudding
*Recipe from here. Keep in mind that this is a traditional Indian rice pudding, meaning it will be both lighter (i.e. more liquid) and less sweet than western rice puddings. In my mind, those are assets, not drawbacks.

The Goods:
1/2 cup uncooked white basmati rice, rinsed 
1/2 gallon 2% or whole milk 
5 green cardamom pods 
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar 
1/4 cup slivered blanched almonds 
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom 
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, plus more for garnish 
1 tablespoon rose water

The Deal:
-Boil rice and 2 cups water in a medium pot over medium heat for 5 to 6 minutes, or until rice is about one-quarter of the way cooked. Drain well and set aside. 
-In a saucepan, bring milk and cardamom pods to a boil over medium heat. Add rice and cook for 40 minutes, or until rice is soft and milk is very thick. (Stir occasionally at first and then constantly when the milk begins to thicken, after about 30 minutes, to prevent the ingredients from sticking to the bottom of the pan.) 
-Add sugar, almonds, ground cardamom and nutmeg and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and set aside. Stir in rose water. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with grated nutmeg, if you like. Serve warm or chilled.

*Image from here.

If You Build It, They Will Come

I have a visitor. While it should come as no real surprise, given that I live way at the end of a dirt road, in a forest, surrounded by a 350 acre nature preserve of more forest, I have to admit that I wasn’t quite prepared for my visitor. To begin, I wasn’t properly dressed, which is so important when greeting new guests, I’ve always maintained. Specifically, I was wearing my bee suit, like so. I was also wearing knee-high rubber boots. 

When my visitor arrived (we’ll call her “Maude”, or, on the chance that this might be a male guest, “Seymour”), I had just finished working in my bee hives. I was enjoying the late afternoon summer breeze and waning sunlight. Suddenly, my dogs were in hot pursuit of something, dashing up the mountain. I lumbered after them, rappelling myself up a steep embankment, grabbing onto skinny, slippery tree branches for support (still in my bee suit, plus gloves, mind you). 

When I reached the top, I saw them chasing a black, rather large creature towards me. I thought, “Oh, they’ve found another dog to play with.” This quickly morphed to “Oh, that’s a wild boar,” immediately followed by “Oh, &#%*, that’s a bear!” And so, against all the advice I have ever heard about proper bear-greeting etiquette, I fled, in holy terror. Fled is actually an inappropriate descriptor; trudged, plodded, and clumsily, heavily ran are much more fitting descriptions of my attempt to high-tail it back up the hill to my house. Like I said, I wasn’t properly dressed for receiving company. 

The long and short of it is that, yes, we have a bear. Where there are bees, and corn (our landshare farmer has corn planted in the field below), and forests, it is entirely likely that there will be bears. Black bears are really rather benign, as far as bear dispositions go. Nonetheless, its presence necessitated a trip to the Tractor Supply store last Monday to pick up all the fixings needed for electric fencing. Our friend, the mighty of strength and generous of spirit Lance Graves, came over that evening and tricked out our new fortress in no time. On his way out, he said the bear crossed the driveway, and, to his experienced eye, probably weighed 250 lbs.. 

The lesson learned from this experience is that urban (and especially rooftop) beekeepers have it made. Also, an ounce of prevention (and some common sense about living in an environment that bears share) is worth a pound of honey. Oh, and don’t try running in your Wellies; it just brings all those dreams where you’re trying to run and can only creep along frighteningly to life. 
*I didn’t stick around long enough to grab a snapshot of Maude (or Seymour), but the photo above seems pretty accurate, if memory serves me correctly. 

Big News

I don’t know if I could be more thrilled to share with you an exciting bit of news. As of today, I’ll be hosting a weekly column, every Friday, over at Design Sponge. Entitled “Small Measures,” it will feature bits of this and that related to treading a bit more lightly on the planet; much of what I already do here, only with a whole new group of readers to get to know. 

Please check it out and let me know what you think! And a HUGE thanks to Grace Bonney, Design*Sponge’s go-getter extraordinaire, for the opportunity to join your team. Next time I’m up in Brooklyn (or you’re down my way), we’ll clink glasses, real-time! 
*While a good number of you already know me personally, for those of you that I’m only just getting acquainted with, feel free to learn a bit more here