It started with a chicken.
I suppose to be more precise, I ought to confess that it was really the chicken population at large that did it to me. There I stood, standing in front of a glass case at the grocery store, staring wide-eyed at a veritable mountain of egg cartons. Sandwiched in between yogurt and the unsalted butter, they were speckled brown and milky white, extra-large and normal-sized, and there were a thousand different brands to choose from.
I have no explanation for what happened next, except to tell you that on most days, I feel like I am raw, walking around the planet without any skin. I am a raging bleeding heart, and quite without warning I suddenly found myself overcome with the plight of chickens everywhere. Cramped in filthy cages with little room to move, condemned to a sickly life of egg-laying day in and day out until their little chicken-ovaries dry up and they end up in a bucket at KFC. The whole thing sounded positively heinous to me, and while I had successfully navigated twenty-seven years of life without managing to give chickens so much as a second thought, without warning I became rather inexplicably stirred. Moved almost to tears, I felt deeply virtuous as I reached for a pretentious brown carton of “organic eggs”. I grinned, picturing healthy chickens happily waddling and squawking about the grassy knolls cheerfully pictured on the front of the carton. They were $1.83 more than the blood-eggs that I had been previously purchasing, but I consoled myself with the assurance that $1.83 was a small price to pay to afford chickens the opportunity to roam wild and free.
I arrived home feeling like Joan of Arc, and promptly informed Kellan that we were officially “happy chicken” people. He rolled his eyes, and decided that chickens weren’t a hill worth dying on. “Happy eggs” became a weekly purchase, and it wasn’t long before we couldn’t remember anything else.
Those were the good old days.
Several weeks ago, I found myself sitting around a brown kitchen table with friends in Amish country, PA. I was in Lancaster for a work conference, and Meredith, Isaac and Nick sat across the table from me as we chatted about life and microfinance over heaping plates of Mexican food. There was a distinct air about them—these were clearly the sorts of people that buy organic peanut butter and almond milk from health food stores that smell conspicuously of mulch and hamsters. The sorts of people that spend long weekends chained to endangered trees, and have involved conversations about the merits of 18th-century Russian novelists. They were so cool. It was clear from the moment that we sat down that at a table of French rose water macaroons, I was a shrink-wrapped, gas station Tastykake. A pearl-wearing, air-conditioning loving steak enthusiast sitting at a table with three vegetarian hipsters, and I desperately wanted to fit in.
Casually, as though I talked about this sort of thing every day, I breezily mentioned that I bought ORGANIC eggs. Because, you know, I CARED about CHICKENS.
Isaac looked at me with a sort of amused expression, as though I had just announced that I was going to be President when I grew up.
Undeterred, and quite caught up in a state of astonished appreciation for my own magnanimity, I proudly soldiered on. I really want the chickens to have space to play, you know? So I only buy cage free.
It was clear that the hipsters could take no more. They were silently exchanging incredulous, sideways glances, a delicate dance of who’s-going-to-tell-her floating through the sweet summer air.
Meredith, whom I have known and adored since our college days at UNC, looked at me gravely, as though I were the next of kin. Ashley, you know that “cage free” only means that chickens have ACCESS to the outdoors, right? Those “cage free” eggs that you’re buying from the grocery store all come from miserable, disease-ridden chickens packed tightly inside a warehouse. There’s a tiny opening in one of the walls so that technically, the chickens have access to the outside. But they’re not really cage free. What’s more, the chickens are so sick that the yolks are gray. They have to inject them with yellow dye so that people like you will eat them.
You could have heard a pin drop. I was so blusteringly indignant that I couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. After all, I had been SPENDING OUT THE YIN-YANG so that the blasted chickens could frolic in the sunshine!
Out to finish the job, Meredith grinned and asked if I wanted to know something else.
NO. NO I DO NOT. THE FREAKING GRAY-YOLKED CHICKENS AREN’T HAPPY AND NEITHER AM I.
Meredith leaned in, looking gleeful, as though she were about to share a delicious secret. She looked me dead in the eyeballs, and sinisterly whispered, The milk you’re buying at the grocery store? The cow’s udders are so infected that you’re essentially drinking pus that’s been cut with water.
I couldn’t breathe. Udder. Pus. Udder. PUS. UDDER! PUS! I had been drinking UDDER PUS my whole life and NOBODY HAD EVER BOTHERED TO TELL ME. The frantic thoughts running across my scattered mind were so terribly violent that I cannot bear to share them here, because they would make Mother Teresa drink whisky straight out of the dog bowl.
Meanwhile, the hipsters chortled unsympathetically in the background.
I called Kellan that night, and my voice sounded shrill even to my own ears. He could barely understand a frantic word that I said—did someone kidnap you? Are you in a trunk? I finally managed to eek something out about udder pus and miserable chickens and I have to find a local farm, and Kellan calmly mentioned that maybe we should do some research.
Um. I already did some research MY FRIENDS TOLD ME SO.
And so June finds us in search of a local farm, and drinking VERY expensive milk in the meantime because I CANNOT POSSIBLY HANDLE UDDER PUS.
Did you know about this? Bueller?! What else am I missing? Clearly, this is dire.