“The color of the [egg’s] shell is an indication of the breed of the hen and has no connection with the quality of the egg or its flavor.”
–From Joy of Cooking
Even though I know better and no matter what my go-to cookbook says, I still prefer brown eggs over white eggs. I will even sometimes pay a higher price for their well-tanned shells. This is illogical. And possibly heresy since I’m a scientist that makes his living on logic. But I am a scientist who is also human; sometimes my emotional brain vetoes my logical one. I am paying extra for an experience, not nutrition.
I grew up with chickens in the yard. Rhode Island Reds surveyed the grasses for bugs and spiders along with the Plymouth Rocks and an entire assortment of other Gallus domesticus. And most of these chickens laid brown eggs. Country eggs. Eggs of the land, not of the factory. My emotional brain is a romantic one and equates brown eggs with ‘natural.’ My emotional brain can be both a fool and easily fooled.
The shell is a protective canvas stretched over the egg, and its color is determined by the peculiarities of its painter, in this case, the breed of the hen. Some chicken breeds – like the Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks of my childhood – lay brown eggs. One of my students sells me eggs from her Ameraucana chickens, which lay an egg with a slight peak-a-boo of blue. But these yard birds are not overly industrious or even reliable egg layers; seeming to lay only if 13 leaves fall in the yard and not 17, or not laying out of spite because you were short on corn one day last week. If you’re an industry and a grocery store that relies on steady and predictable egg production then you need a less fickle and moody chicken.
According to the American Egg Board, the most common commercial egg-laying hen is the Single-Comb White Leghorn. Leghorns have been the foundation of commercial egg production for over a century in the U.S. One industrious and determined Leghorn hen can lay 250 eggs. E.B. White suggested this expert layer is so dedicated that “…if she were on her way to a fire, [she] would pause long enough to lay an egg.” And Leghorns, champion of the commercial egg industry, lay white eggs, not brown eggs.
But brown eggs are romantic. They evoke pastoral scenes of cows skipping and chickens dancing with ducks on farms. White eggs come from dirty and possibly unethical factory farms. Those are city-folk eggs, not country-folk eggs. But I are city-folk now, in a way. I don’t have chickens so my eggs are mostly store-bought. Even though my brown eggs are probably factory farm eggs, I still want that connection to holding a chicken like I did as a kid or watching a hen with her feathered thighs chase June bugs on a summer evening. Brown eggs make me nostalgic for the country and I’m willing to pay for it.
Marketers know this, which is why labels like organic, all-natural, and etc. are plastered on products. Those labels come at a cost. I think when I sell my car I’ll say that’s its free-range and all-natural and increase the price by 40%.
While the color of the eggshell has no bearing on its nutrition, what the chicken eats does. Country or farm eggs – to me – often have a richer, more orange yolk. I assume that’s because their diet includes not just feed, but insects and seeds and whatever household scraps might get thrown into the yard. Which is why I am surprised to see on the more expensive, and supposedly better eggs, a label that says the eggs were laid by chickens fed a “Vegetarian Diet”. Chickens are not vegetarians. If they were, this would be exciting news to the world of grasshoppers and beetles and spiders. I can imagine a fly one day on the kitchen window reading the “Vegetarian Diet” label and misinterpreting that to mean that all chickens are now vegetarians. The fly, as busy a busybody as you’ll ever find, reports the news to hidden arthropod citizens of the backyard. Soon, backyards and frontyards and especially the barnyards erupt in ticker-tape parades. Arthropod newspapers splash headlines, “War Over: Chickens Vegetarians!”
And then as the celebrations slow and the grasshoppers and the beetles and the spiders mend whatever feuds they had before, they hear the padding of chicken feet. Their instincts make them tense, but they remember recent news. They don’t flee, they don’t hide. But they are still nervous as old terrors still haunt. A grasshopper says, “Joe, don’t worry. She’s a vegetarian. She only eats feed and seeds…Joe?” Before the grasshopper knows what happened to Joe he is in the throat of a supposed vegetarian. In the panic of his mind and as he wedges his powerful legs against the muscles of the chicken’s throat so he’s not crushed or drawn down to the crushing gravel pit of the chicken’s crop, the grasshopper feels betrayed by the fly and the egg carton. And then he realizes that, no matter what anyone says – be it fly or egg carton – chickens are birds and birds are predators. Even the soft, downy chicken will seize the juicy caterpillar in its beak and slam the caterpillar’s soft body into the ground until it resists no more and can be swallowed easily.
And this is part of the egg’s plan – to get the chicken to eat the grains and seeds and bugs and snails and worms and turn them into more eggs. To the egg, the debate of “which came first?” is nonsense. An egg cannot make more of itself so it created the chicken, a self-contained egg factory. One egg makes one chicken, but one chicken makes many eggs. If an egg could make another of itself, chickens would have never existed. In terms of evolution, the chicken is a vehicle driven by the egg. And now the egg has convinced us to take part in its evolutionary plan. It could not be more delighted that we chose to breed a chicken who dedicates its entire life to laying eggs.
I don’t mind being drafted into the egg’s army; I just wish our uniforms were brown instead of white.