Who was the first person to eat _____ and how did they know it would be tasty?
This is a humorous question that circulates endlessly with the blank filled in
with foods like: beehives full of honey, maple syrup, various sea animals,
animal milk, fermented juice (or really any fermented food), even eggs. Truly,
if you stripped a modern human of their historical and scientific knowledge and
dropped them into the wilderness, how indeed would they know any of this stuff
But that’s not how humans came to discover foods. We have a rich history of
many millennia of passing knowledge to future generations; before writing we
passed knowledge along with storytelling. Before that we were still very smart
very resourceful omnivorous animals—anything is potentially edible to us.
Some of the above foods we ate before we were even human. Probably every
omnivore and carnivore on earth eats the eggs of other animals. It’s not even a
decision—that thing came out of something edible (an animal) and isn’t running
away—I’d be a fool NOT to eat it. Sometimes there is a fetal animal inside;
Likewise our closest non-human relatives raid social insect nests to gather
the food inside. Most of the time that means worker insects, helpless fatty
larvae, and once again, eggs. But some species of insects collect and
concentrate nectar into honey, a densely caloric food that is impossible to
ignore. So of course over millions of years honey-making insects and
honey-eating animals engaged in an arms race resulting in bees that sting and
bears and honeybadgers with thick skin and fur. Humans lack sting-resistance
but are keen and interested observers of other animals. Even today humans who
don’t wear protective clothing are brave enough or clever enough to dare steal
honey from the bees, for the rare taste of pure sweetness.
In northern forests, some trees store sugar energy in their sap. Deer and other
plant-eaters are driven to eat difficult-to-digest bark to get through the
winter. Sometimes they are rewarded with sweet running sap. Prehistoric humans
made it to these forests and were not stupid, but they were very very hungry.
They probably tasted everything they saw other animals eating, and what a happy
day when they found that maple trees bleed sweet. A culture that uses fire to
cook food doesn’t have to make a huge conceptual leap to know that the faintly
sweet flow from a damaged tree can be boiled down into something spectacular.
As for the products of ferment, first there are wild-collected fermented
fruits. They might taste funny, but the fermentation process preserves them
with a fairly high calorie content (alcohol = 7 kcal per gram) that makes a
little light-headedness worth the effort. Wild songbirds get themselves berry
drunk on a regular basis, when such food is available. Once humans developed
tools for storing food, occasional seasonal abundance could be carried into
leaner times. Put all those grapes in a clay-lined basket now, and we can consume
their calories when they are gone from the vine. The magic ingredient of wild
yeasts turning fruit sugar into alcohol was not understood until modern times,
but the fact that one microorganism was keeping others from destroying our food
and extending its useful life was exploited hundreds of times across almost
Humans are mammals, meaning that for millions of years our ancestors have been
consuming milk, from our mother’s bodies. The shift to drinking the milk from
other animals only requires animals tame enough for us to take it from them.
Before animal agriculture there were pregnant and lactating female mammals
killed in the hunts—their milk would not have been wasted. Once there were
sheep, goats, mares, and eventually cattle that would allow humans to milk them,
milk surpluses were possible. Under the right conditions—and humans are smart
enough to notice remember and record those conditions—the milk would change
into something that could be eaten much later. Yogurt and then cheese were
reasons enough to make humans settle down and raise livestock full time.
And as for sea life, I simply don’t know. I still can’t bear the smell of any
water creature cooked as food, nor marine algae dried to be eaten. I’d sooner
eat a hive full of bee larvae than crack into a lobster, but my personal
preferences are those of a human with nearly limitless choices and
superabundant food. The humans who first colonized North
America did so along a very long and productive coastline. They traveled
from one supercontinent to another, fed on mollusks (that they could observe
walruses and otters eating), turtles, sea mammals, bird and turtle eggs, and
whatever fish they could catch with their technology. Modern human tastes may
be more selective than early humans, but that is a result of the ludicrous
availability and variety of foods at our hands today. Somewhere on earth at
this moment a human is eating a termite and wondering how hungry and crazy
someone would have to be to prefer to eat a salad.
Eggs are one of my favorite things - and one of the hardest things to know how to buy right. We all know the neon yellow eggs served to us at the local diner. Damn, those delicious meals of runny sunny-side up eggs on top of pancakes with a side of hash browns! Well, maybe that’s just me. The point is that those mediocre factory farm eggs are a big part of any food lover’s nostalgia file, but to be an ethical food eater we have to revamp our relationship with eggs.
When I was a kid, “cage-free,” “free-range,” “pastured-raised,” “omega 3” eggs didn’t exist. The labels hadn’t been invented. The only question was, “Do you want to buy eggs in styrofoam or in cardboard?” But now you walk into a mega super food store, like Fairway, and you get dozens of egg choices.
Do you know that feeling when you are in the grocery store, and you go to the egg aisle, and then you see lots of eggs, and then you just stand there dumbstruck for 15 minutes debating which to buy? I know I can’t be the only one. It’s an almost impossible task to know what all the labeling means! And that’s how my fascination with eggs began. What used to be a dreaded moment for me in the egg aisle is now completely engaging. In a way, eggs were my gateway to my investigations into farming and sustainability.
It started when I began reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. Four days later I was a vegetarian. Not for moral reasons but for ethical ones, I gave up meat cold turkey. But, as compelling as his book was, I still wondered what that meant for my egg and dairy consumption. I did not want to give them up, and didn’t feel compelled to.
In the meantime I went to Whole Foods to buy my eggs. But I continued to find myself staring blankly at the choices in the egg aisle, feeling perplexed as to which eggs I should buy. Some of them even had inserts in the carton with a picture of a chicken. “Is this the chicken who laid these 12 eggs?” I would wonder. It couldn’t be.
So then, an amazing thing happened. I met Jonathan Safran-Foer at a book signing and I got to ask him about what he decided to do about eating eggs, and what to do about buying them. He said that he’s basically vegan (though he was reluctant to label himself), and the only way to really know that you can trust your eggs is by going to a farmer’s market, meeting the farmer, and then going to the farm. His answer was not an easy one to swallow. While I agreed with him, and wanted wholeheartedly to do this, I knew realistically this would not become the predominant practice of the average urban dweller. But, I made the first leap and started buying my eggs from the farmer’s market. Which at least cut out having to sift through deceptive labeling.
Ultimately, I went even farther into the investigation and started working on farms, getting first-hand experience with chickens and their eggs. I personally think chickens are way under-appreciated. People tend to belittle them because they’re not emotive like goats or sheep, BUT, really, they are awesome. The importance of buying eggs from farms that put their chickens out to pasture, meaning letting them out in the grass to run around and eat bugs and take dust baths, is vital. Once you see chickens outside living this way, you will be able to tell if a chicken is happy. And of course you want happy chicken eggs.
Still, I do not believe that it’s realistic for everyone to visit their egg farm, nor should they have to. Truth be told, some small farms don’t allow visitors, in order to reduce the chance of bringing in diseases from livestock at other farms. Once I went to a farm in the Catskills, and before I could walk onto their pasture I had to rinse the soles of my boots in bleach water. So the concern for spreading disease is definitely a thing that animal farmers have to worry about. So what do we do then?
While there is no perfect solution (unless you decide to raise your own), I think there are two principles that we, the consumer can use to measure the trustworthiness of our eggs. The first is that the birds roam freely on pasture. And the second is that the birds eat weeds and bugs on pasture, as well as either locally-grown, non-GMO, or organic feed. Basically, when you make sure your chickens are getting both of these things you are ensuring that the eggs you eat are coming from birds that have a chance to be their birdy-selves.
Now that I work for Quinciple, I see that there are a lot of people doing all the hands-on research in order to help urbanites know what they are buying. Quinciple’s strategy is to vet all the farms for you, which I think is quite a service. Kate Galassi, co-founder, has spent countless hours visiting different farms and building personal relationships with the farmers that Quinciple partners with. This week, in the Quinciple box there are ½ dozen eggs from the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative located in Lancaster County, PA. Co-ops are great because they allow farmers a certain amount of financial power that they wouldn’t have on their own, while still allowing them to tend their small farms. One of the great things about Lancaster Farm Fresh is that even though the eggs come from a number of different farms, each carton is labeled the farm that raised those laying hens. There is also a set of bylaws that clearly state what practices the member farms must adhere to including not using any antibiotics, hormones, or GMO feeds, and all the animals must be fully pasture raised. This farm co-op is a great example of the kind of transparency we as consumers deserve and need.