Not So Fresh Eggs

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Ah, spring! You know it’s here when drugstore shelves fill up with marshmallow eggs and pink Peeps. But few people realize that real chicken eggs used to be as seasonal as their candy imitators. Even fewer know that the egg was once a speculative tool as controversial as credit default swaps are today.

“Not even a quant, at first glance, can tell a good egg from a bad one.”

The egg’s seasonality made evolutionary sense, since chicks hatched in spring stood the best chance of survival. It also made sense to eat, paint, roll, and otherwise revel in eggs when they were most abundant and cheapest. In mid-19th century New York, there were 72 times more eggs arriving on markets in May than in January. But people didn’t eat them only in spring. Instead they used varnish, butter, and liquid solutions such as waterglass to keep eggs edible for several months. Some methods claimed to keep them “fresh” for up to two years.

For generations, people kept eggs in their barns and cellars. With the invention of mechanical refrigeration in the late 19th century, storage became a major industry. By 1904, the United States had more than 600 refrigerated warehouses, most of them in cities and many of them several stories tall. Boston’s famous Quincy Market had cold-storage space for 150 million eggs.

Early cold storage suffered from uneven temperatures and bad circulation. Quincy Market’s discovery of eggs with a “fruity flavor” (blamed on apples in the next chamber) was typical of the industry’s technical difficulties. These contributed to the persistent price gap between cold-storage eggs and those few marketed as “strictly fresh” in fall and winter.

The source of controversy, however, was not the technology so much as how it could be used to deceive and cheat consumers. Unscrupulous merchants stored eggs without candling them, then blamed the rotted ones on the warehouses’ faulty refrigeration. Grocers bought cheap warehoused eggs and sold the best as “fresh” and the rest as “storage” (which added, of course, to the latter’s bad rep).

Eventually, the cold storage industry tightened up its quality standards. But this didn’t address the widespread belief that the industry encouraged immoral speculation. The merchants, known as “egg gamblers,” bought cheap in spring in order to sell dear in winter. It was speculation, of course, but was it immoral?

When food prices skyrocketed from 1909 to 1910, merchants’ claim that they helped make off-season eggs more affordable did not hold much water. Instead, newspapers charged them with hoarding and price-fixing.

Word spread of an “egg trust.” Several states passed laws mandating labeling and time limits on cold-stored foods. A similar bill reached the U.S. Senate. In the winters of 1912 and 1913, the New York Housewives’ League and other women’s groups organized egg boycotts and “trust-busting” discount egg sales.

Once World War I started, Americans had bigger things to worry about; but the stigma attached to cold storage eggs persisted into the 1940’s. The problem was that the egg’s opacity made it all too convenient a vehicle for deception — rather like some of our modern investment tools. Not even a quant, at first glance, can tell a good egg from a bad one.

What put an end to egg gambling? That’s the subject of the next post.


mapgirl

This is one reason why you don't see Grade B eggs anymore. The older an egg gets, the more it will be downgraded.

Modern refrigeration and chicken farming allow for fresh eggs to be laid all year round.

I found this out while researching what a 'poulet' was. (FWIW, it's a young hen that lays a lot of eggs. A hen is an older female chicken and has drastically reduced egg production.)

djknoop

Easter's symbols of rebirth, eggs, chicks, baby rabbits, lambs and the like are simple enough to understand in the Christian tradition but I'm always surprised when people fail to understand that it is much more than that. Eggs and baby animals were some of the very first fresh food that pre-industrial populations would have after a long winter, and would in many cases be the only food available. Spring was known as the "staving time" for most of man's history (in temperate climates) because much of the previous year's harvest and stores would have been consumed by March and April. Thus, as soon as you could begin to move around outdoors in the daylight you'd begin looking for eggs and game to supplement your diet. Thus the Easter tradition of egg hunting is more mimicry of our starving ancestors than many would like to think.

This is also why ham is the expected meal for Easter lunch. The salted, smoked, cured ham would be one of the last items left in the larder.

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ktb

Hmm, poulet is actually the French word for chicken- specifically the meat or possibly a male chicken (poule for female, coq for rooster). A "pullet" is an American word for a female chicken < 1 year. They become hens after that.

EJ

Will you be discussing the sustainability issues with "farmed chickens" (transportation, fossil fuel use, disease, jobs, feed, concentration of ag businesses)?

KJ

several years ago while serving with the Canadian Air Force in the very high arctic, all our eggs arrived dipped in wax to preserve them and make them a little less delicate for travel.

coast to coast

Pasturized Eggs in the Shell are now available for those of us who love our eggs Sunny Side Up without having to worry about the risk of Samonella the whole time while eating them. It also allows great tableside theatrical standards as Caesar Salad and Steak Tartar.

Bob Richmond

When I was eight years old, in 1947, my parents rented a house (we were in College Park, a suburb of Atlanta, that year - I was an Army brat) that had a chicken coop with a fenced yard in back of it. My father bought a dozen chickens, with the arrangement that if I took care of the chickens, I could sell whatever eggs my mother didn't cook for breakfast.

I sold all the eggs I had to the neighbors, very readily. My mother only let me charge market price, so I vividly remember the price of eggs that season - anywhere from 70 cents to $1.05 a dozen.

What mystifies me is that, more than 60 years later, that's still about the basic price of eggs. Yet we've had about eightfold inflation since then. And how much increase in the suffering of the chickens who produce those cheap-cheeps?

mfw13

One of the things I have noticed, at least here in Seattle, is that a lot of people are starting to raise chickens in their backyard.

I buy fresh organic free-range eggs from one of my students every week that she and her brother raise in their backyard.

I get great-tasting eggs and they get some spending money and small-business experience.

Alexandra Hamilton

Wow. You seem to be an eggspert in, well, eggs. What would an egg-bubble have looked like when it crashed?

chickenchic

A pullet is indeed a young hen who may or may not have started laying. Her eggs are smaller than a medium egg and are called pullet eggs.
As the daylight wanes in autumn, mature hens will naturally enter a molt when they replenish their feathers and their energy to lay eggs for a brood (if the eggs are fertilized) come spring. In modern farming we avoid the molting process by tricking the hen with artificial light. A hen past her laying years is a 'spent hen'. She usually ends up in the stew pot--hence the term 'stewing hen'. The french word "le poulet" corresponds to the English word "chicken". La poule is a hen and le coq is a rooster.

J Greene

Our chickens are laying at least ten eggs a day and we're scrambling for recipes so as not to waste them (in addition to giving them to neighbors and friends), so I can really relate to this. ;)

Jennifer

Maybe I'm missing something here, but don't hens lay eggs year round? I live in Vermont, where the winters are brutal. But even in the winter, with a hen house my neighbors' hens do produce some eggs.

mariann

The eggs most people eat today are from hens crammed, with 5 or more other birds, in tiny, barren cages stacked in huge, dark warehouses that stink of the ammonia rising from the manure pits below. Their beaks are seared so they won't kill each other in the close quarters. They must lay their eggs, meant to be an extremely private act, where they sit. They are killed, often by brutal means, after a couple of years. One approved method is to stuff them into a wood chipper. Even when they are sent to slaughter, they are not covered by humane slaughter laws. There is no oversight, and no vet care. That's the way it really is. Really.

michelle

If you get your eggs from your own chickens, or a neighbor, fine. But if you buy them from the local supermarket -- ick.

Surely by now everyone knows the horrors of factory farming and the miserable lives these birds live because of human greed. And then there's the damage to the environment and rural communities these egg factories cause. I guess American agri-business is the best argument for going vegan!

Jumper

It wasn't only eggs. "The Jungle," opened the nation's eyes to the garbage they were eating as part of exploitation by the wealthy. Adulterated food was so common that even in the 1920s, home chemistry manuals for boys, (in a time of rigid gender roles, chemistry wasn't considered a girl activity), included a full section on detecting adulterated food.

From news reports, seems we, the Chinese and Mexicans have managed to turn the clock back 100 years. Ah yes, the glorious McKinley years, Republican robber baron benefactor. .

Eric M. Jones

One of my wife's patients gave her a dozen REALLY great eggs from free-range backyard chickens. They layed eggs of weird colors and sizes, and were covered with mud and doodoo.

Now, when I say REALLY great eggs...it is impossible to describe how good they were compared to store-bought eggs. I would have paid $10/dozen for them. Alas, the supply disappeared when my wife's patient was cured.

juan

Rasing your own chickens for meat and eggs is something people still do a lot of here in Nicaragua. even though our country produces a lot of great quality export beef, the average Nicaraguan eats beef seldomly, due to its price. Therefore chicken is probably our number 1 protein source. There is nothing quite like super fresh eggs and fresh, never frozen chicken meat. Also, most are free range chickens that only get grain as supplement to what they can forage for themselves, as feed is too expensive for average family incomes of 50 to 100 USD a month.
As a small kid, I would be mesmerized and slightly dissturbed at the sight of my can-do gandmother deftly chasing down chickens in her yard and then proceeding to snap their necks. An hour latter the poor thing would be a tasty part of our noonday meal. For Virgin Mary day (7th December) up to 100 relatives would show up and grandma would dispatch about 20 chickens to their respective coops in the sky. I and other cousins would help guttling, feathering and dressing the birds.

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Bill Henner

Hi Susanne, Your article brings back memories of great stories of egg futures trading. I am a third generation commodity trader in Chicago. My grandfather was a member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in the days when it was known as the Butter and Egg Exchange.

Thanks,

Bill Henner

Lynda Browning

Many breeds of chicken do lay eggs year-round; however, egg production greatly slows in the winter due to a decrease in the number of hours of daylight. (Pullets or hens need at least 14 hours of daylight for peak production.)
Pasteurized eggs in the shell? (http://www.safeeggs.com/) No thanks, I'll keep eating my unrefrigerated homegrown eggs. I eat sunny side up all the time, and haven't had any trouble yet. Sometimes all of this effort we put in to circumventing nature does more harm than good. Unwashed eggs will keep just fine without refrigeration, thanks to the hen's protective bloom (http://www.georgiaeggs.org/pages/bloom.html). In many other countries, eggs are in the unrefrigerated breakfast section -- right next to the cereal.

The safest egg is the one that came from your own chicken. And remember, there is such a thing as an egg that is too fresh -- just try peeling a hardboiled egg that was laid the day it was cooked.
Lynda
http://farming101.wordpress.com

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Christine Collyer MacDonald

Like Bill Henner my great-grandfather and grandfather and their offspring were butter and egg traders and founding members of the Butter and Egg Board which later became the Chicago Mercantile. I plan to share this article with my children (and grandchildren) along with the other genealogic information I am compiling for them. Thanks!