WHICH CAME first, the local, pasture-raised, free-roaming chicken, or the brown, heritage-breed organic egg?
Most of us eat chicken and eggs regularly. The question is, what are we getting for our money? Where have those chicken and eggs been, and what are your options if you want to branch out from the mass-produced varieties that dominate most supermarket offerings?
Whether you're a newly minted locavore, or a longtime proponent of the buy-fresh, buy-local movement, the notion of supporting smaller farms and producers is gaining popularity, driven by everything from creative chefs to the Food Network's nonstop foodie programming. For goodness' sake, even Walmart is on the buy-local bandwagon, proof positive that the movement has gone mainstream.
So what does that mean when it comes to chicken and eggs? Simply put, eggs hatched and chickens raised in a humane, natural farm environment - as opposed to a huge commercial factory farm - taste better, pack a bigger nutrition wallop and aren't toxic to the environment.
Yes, buying sustainably raised poultry and eggs costs more - on average, $2 to $3 more per pound for chicken, and about the same per dozen eggs - but, as illustrated in the recent documentary "Food, Inc.," cheap food can be a misnomer. That 69-cent-a-pound fryer or 99-cent carton of eggs may bring with it a slew of hidden costs that are damaging our health, the farming industry and the environment.
Cheap food can mean that a farmer somewhere is getting a raw deal, animals have been subjected to poor and inhumane husbandry, and consumers are eating food that may be bad for their health.
On a nutrition level alone, research supports this, showing that meat, eggs and dairy products from pastured and grass-fed animals have higher omega-3 fatty acids, more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, and lower cholesterol than product from factory farms.
Giants like Tyson and Perdue may beg to differ. But what is indisputable is taste. Just ask a chef.
"Pasture-fed is a whole different animal than what you have in mass production," said Steven Waxman, chef-owner of Trax Cafe at the Ambler train station. "It's about what the animals are fed - the fact that they aren't pumped full of antibiotics. They can eat insects like they're supposed to. They aren't stressed by being crammed together in little cages. They taste like chicken.
"You can't make that taste in a pen. It has to come from the earth, by eating food soaked in sunshine."
Waxman buys his chicken from a few farms, including Pennypack Farms in Horsham. "They're a little leaner. The meat is firmer. The dark meat is a little darker. It's the chicken your grandmother remembers."
Farm-raised chickens and eggs are showing up on menus all around town, at restaurants including Supper, where Mitch Prensky buys chickens from Story Hill Farms and Griggstown Farms and eggs from Lake Meadow Farms.
"They're eggier," said the chef, and ideal for dishes where eggs are the stars of the show.
Patrick Feury, chef/co-owner of Nectar in Berwyn, buys six dozen eggs a week from a farmer in Coatesville who raises Araucana chicken, a heritage breed that produces blue eggs with a vivid orange yolk, a sign of immune system-boosting beta-carotene.
Jennifer Carroll, chef de cuisine at 10 Arts by Eric Ripert in Center City, uses D'Artagnan chickens raised at Eberly Farms near Lancaster.
"I try to give my clients the un-Perdue breed of chicken," said the Philly native, who remembers visiting Pennypack Farms on family outings when she was growing up in Somerton.
"I want chickens that grow naturally, eat an organic diet [and] aren't injected with any antibiotics. Commercial chickens are bred for parts. They grow big breasts by eight weeks. What they don't have is a full, intense chicken flavor."
Carroll sees the rediscovery of eggs as a big trend in the culinary world. And it's true, a sunnyside orb adorns everything from salads to pizzas and burgers at many area bistros.
"Eggs have always been versatile. But farm-raised eggs stand up so much firmer and have a fresher, more flavorful taste," said Carroll.
Wait a minute, you may be saying. I forked over extra bucks to buy free-range chicken and eggs at my local supermarket. Isn't that the same thing?
Maybe - depending on the brand.
Stores such as ShopRite and Costco offer brands like Coleman antibiotic-free organic chicken, one of the product lines of a huge operation that maintains facilities around the country, including Fredericksburg, Pa.
"Our chickens are raised with 100 percent organic vegetarian feed," said Coleman COO John Bogart. "We don't pump in liquid to add weight after the birds are processed."
Yes, this costs more.
"But there are ways to make that budget stretch," said Bogart. "People are eating out less and are definitely interested in a better product on their table at home."
But what makes a product better, a frustrated shopper might ask, staring at all those kinds of eggs in the supermarket cooler.
"Labeling is so confusing," said Dennis Reil, a farmer and poultry manager at Pennypack Farms, where members pay a $20 annual fee to shop for poultry, eggs, dairy, produce and meat in the on-site Local Foods Market.
"Forget 'natural' [on a label]. That means absolutely nothing," he said. Same goes for "free-range," a label that irks farmers in the sustainable movement.
"All it's come to mean is that chickens have access to the outside. This usually means one door that opens to a little chain-link-enclosed dirt run," Reil said.
At Pennypack, where whole broilers go for $3.50 a pound, older stewing hens are $1.50 a pound and eggs are $4 a dozen, chickens are raised on honest-to-goodness grass and spend most of their lives outdoors, protected from predators by movable fencing.