Legend has it raccoons were brought to the Island as a front for hunters to, as they say, “jack” deer at night. As the story goes, if a warden caught someone hunting at night, the hunter would claim he was after raccoons rather than trying to stock up on some after-hours venison.
In the long run this ploy did not work out so well for the rest of us. Raccoons tear apart our garbage at night and, more devastatingly, they go after our chickens with reckless abandon.
Chickens are a relatively easy animal to raise, especially in confinement. However eggs that come from a confined hen should be placed in a separate category of food than those from a hen let free to hunt and peck as she chooses. Free hens produce eggs with a yolk so vibrantly orange you can’t deny their superiority over their pale counterparts typically found in stores. But giving chickens free range means doing battle with raccoons in a constant (and potentially expensive) attempt to outsmart them.
Wes Anderson, a wonderfully quirky filmmaker, personified so well this battle between man and beast in his film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In his animated portrayal a group of chicken farmers are robbed of their flocks by a family of foxes led by Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and other animals as accomplices. The stop-motion animation creates an interesting world, where foxes act as humans in a somewhat civilized way creating homes and offices in trees, sending their kids to school, and doing battle with their primal instinct to devour whatever food is in front of them (I can relate to that). My favorite scene is of a great feast of stolen food, prepared underground by a rabbit chef for various members of the animal kingdom. It gives these animals, the same ones we normally eradicate from our gardens and write off as pests, an emotionally significant relationship to food. They are grateful, as we humans are, for such a beautiful meal and aren’t malicious in stealing and slaughtering. They simply can’t help themselves.
It is hard to empathize with a raccoon when cleaning up the blood and guts left behind the morning after a raccoon has killed one of your chickens, but a little easier after contemplating their existence as wild animals and scavengers who need to feed themselves just as we do.
I guess I am an optimist in trying to come to terms with these creatures of the night that crave our chickens, just as my dad, Albert Fischer, was years ago. When I was very young, too young to have any firsthand memories, my dad raised a raccoon that had been brought home by his yellow Lab, Oban. The two animals were very good friends, the dog and Calhoun (as he was poetically named) and they were known to disappear for large chunks of time heading off on adventures together. Calhoun would come and go as he pleased, climbing in through an open window in the house and was very affectionate, though could not help biting people from time to time, drawing blood often. My dad never took ownership of Calhoun by confining him, knowing that he was meant to live in the wild. Eventually, just as dad had hoped, Calhoun did not return from one of his long adventures.
My dad has no regrets keeping a raccoon as a pet, but he would not do it again. Lately, he has taken to raising chickens and as a result now even regularly traps raccoons, kills them and feeds them to the red tailed hawks that patrol his neighborhood in what I see as a peace offering with the hawks in hopes that they will spare his hens.
As spring continues to show glimpses of its arrival, with balmy sixty degree afternoons and blossoming daffodils, we begin to grow impatient for the joy of fresh, locally-grown asparagus cut straight from the ground. However, for now we must still fill our baskets at the grocery store with produce grown somewhere far away. Eggs, on the other hand, are a local treat able to be enjoyed any time of the year. They also enjoy a freedom few other foods do in the sense that they are liberated from the boundaries of being eaten at specific meals. They are the star of breakfast foods, great in salads at lunch and can play any number of roles at dinner. Their versatility lends itself to culinary exploration and expression with endless possibilities.
When serving eggs to friends or family, the first step is to find the very best available. If you do well here the rest is easy. I like to serve them simply; soft cooked and halved as an appetizer. Cook them using the recipe that follows (adjusting the time depending on your preference for runniness of yolk), slice them in half and let the eggs bask in the glory of their own orange beauty. I am happy giving them a sprinkle of sea salt and a crack of fresh pepper and calling that a day for seasoning, but anything is possible. A drizzle of homemade Caesar salad dressing (made with egg yolks) with an anchovy placed on the cut yolk is salty and delicious, as are pickled vegetables, with thick hunks of your favorite cheese.
There are as many different options as you can dream of and if you are short on ideas take a break from your kitchen and watch The Fantastic Mr. Fox. There is a rabbit in that foxhole who can really cook and might teach you a thing or two since he is played by Mario Batali (look at the clogs).