FOR newly hatched chicken enthusiasts, the first egg from your own hens is a small miracle. “You want to dip it in gold,” said the writer Susan Orlean, who keeps nine hens at her home in Columbia County, N.Y.
Then comes the second egg: enough for a triumphant breakfast.
But when the whole coop starts laying, she said, the supply of eggs quickly turns into an “I Love Lucy”-style conveyor belt scene, bringing absurd, unmanageable excess. Ms. Orlean scrambles them into a pile for brunch or dinner, sprinkled with Indian spices, slivered almonds and unsweetened coconut. “People will eat three and four eggs at a time that way, without blinking,” she said.
It’s not unusual for food lovers to toy with the notion of adding chickens to a thriving garden or building a rooftop coop. Now the novelty has become reality: despite coyotes, foxes and the occasional cage-break, many urbanites and suburbanites are raising their own eggs.
And many small farmers who supply restaurants with produce have been expanding into poultry, making farm eggs ubiquitous on restaurant menus. The eggs that were once scrubbed from the standard American breakfast over concerns about cholesterol have made a triumphant return as high-end appetizers, served atop anything and everything.
At the North End Grill, an ambitious new restaurant in Battery Park City, eggs rate their own section on the dinner menu.
There are no hard numbers on how many people keep chickens, but hatcheries report a boom in business in the last five years. “The recession has helped, the local food movement has helped and the green movement has helped,” said Paul Bradshaw, the owner of Greenfire Farms in Havana, Fla., who specializes in rare breeds like Swedish flower and French Marans, which lay lustrous chocolate-brown eggs that the writer Ian Fleming designated as the preferred breakfast of James Bond.
Martha Stewart made chickens fashionable in the 1990s, showcasing pale blue and green eggs from her South American Araucanas in her magazine. Although egg color does not affect taste, it is an attraction; among Mr. Bradshaw’s most desirable hens are British cream legbars, which lay bright, smooth blue eggs that sell in London’s chic food markets for 1 euro each, or about $1.30. (A female legbar chick costs $99, compared with about $2 for a standard leghorn.)
Internet commerce has made it easy to order hatching eggs and day-old chicks; Web sites, like those of Greenfire Farms and Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, have live video and gorgeous photos of birds, plumage and vividly colored eggs. “It’s my new J. Crew catalog,” said Jana Martin, a writer who lives outside Woodstock, N.Y., and started raising Buff Orpington hens last year.
Keeping chickens is legal in many cities and has taken off as part of the urban farming movement. JustFood, a nonprofit group that encourages sustainable and local agriculture, has an educational program called City Chicken, which teaches the basics to New Yorkers: since 2007, the classes have routinely filled up and the schedule is constantly expanding.
“In the spring, you can watch the color of the yolks deepen from week to week, and the taste changes, too,” said Cathy Erway, a graduate of the program who keeps hens on a rooftop in Red Hook, Brooklyn. (For those who want to keep hens inside an apartment, Mr. Bradshaw recommends the Olandsk dwarf hen, about the size of a grapefruit, which lays eggs that fry up to the size of a silver-dollar pancake.)
In the last month, backyard chickens across the country have begun laying again. Left to their own rhythms, hens slow down or stop laying eggs altogether in the winter, because their reproductive cycle is linked to daylight. For centuries, the simultaneous return of eggs and the sun was seen as a quasi-magical coincidence; it is no wonder eggs are central to ancient spring celebrations like Easter, Passover and Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which begins on the spring equinox.
At this time of year, the difficulty becomes not so much keeping the hens, but keeping up with them.
In high season, a good layer like a Rhode Island red or leghorn can lay an egg every day. Ms. Erway uses up the eggs by making lunch for the staff at Sixpoint Brewery, where she works. “I put sliced hard-boiled eggs in banh mi,” she said, referring to the French-Vietnamese baguette sandwiches, stuffed with pickled vegetables and red chile sauce. “And I’m Chinese-American, so it’s second nature for me to add an egg or two if I’m stir-frying rice or noodles.”
“You have to get creative,” said Ian Knauer, a food writer who had 18 laying hens last year on his family’s farm in Pennsylvania. For Mr. Knauer, who lives alone in Brooklyn and tends the farm on weekends with his family, that meant almost eight dozen eggs a week.
“When they start piling up, I get out the big jar,” he said. Beets and eggs, pickled together in a hot-pink brine, are a standard Pennsylvania Dutch recipe Mr. Knauer has adapted into a watercress and egg salad, using a spoonful of shallot-scented brine in the vinaigrette.
In a new book, “The Farm,” he chronicles a year of cooking with mostly farm-grown ingredients, including a simple dinner of soft-boiled eggs with peppery greens, ricotta and black walnuts from trees around the farmhouse.
The Knauers have farmed in Knauertown since the 18th century and, like most farmers, have always kept a flock of chickens. But from the 1920s to the 1950s, egg farming became specialized. Electric lighting meant that lights could be kept on day and night, so hens never stopped laying; refrigeration meant that eggs could be kept fresh for weeks and transported around the country.
By the 1970s, eggs had become a standard supermarket item with no particular season, region or source attached. Enter the real-food revolution, and the notion that raising your own food brought ethical, nutritional and culinary advantages. “Knowing you can raise your own eggs quite easily makes factory farms seem even more unnecessary,” Ms. Martin said.
For cooks like her, eggs are particularly helpful in the effort to nudge meat away from the center of the plate.
“This is the time of year when I start looking through old cookbooks to see what the farm wives would do,” said Kristin Hernandez, who keeps a dozen hens in her backyard in Austin, Tex. Her roommates are all vegetarian or vegan, she said, but even the vegans eat the house-raised eggs because they know that the birds are healthy and well cared for. “They are like pets who happen to bring us breakfast,” she said.
Although organic and free-range eggs are now widely available, they do not always taste different from the standard commercial product; home-raised eggs have noticeably better flavor and texture. The yolks of eggs from well-fed, well-exercised hens are as orange-yellow as a New York taxi. They have what Mr. Bradshaw calls “muscle tone”: thick walls and a rich, intense taste.
“The whites are never runny, and they stand up immediately when you whip them,” Ms. Martin said. “Even plain scrambled eggs are different: they have a sweetness, a freshness and a richness to them.”
Then there is the question of age. Eggs can be sold commercially for up to 45 days after they are packed, so long as they are kept refrigerated, according to Agriculture Department regulations. (Eggs keep well until washed for market, because they have a natural coating that is sterile and waterproof.)
But those who raise chickens say that the flavor — with nuances of grass, earth, nuts and of course, chicken — is at its peak when the egg is first laid, before it is refrigerated.
Jennifer Trainer Thompson, who works at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, has just published “The Fresh Egg Cookbook,” an outgrowth of keeping a dozen hens at her home in Williamstown. “I wasn’t thinking of the culinary opportunities at first,” she said. She saw the chickens more as an outdoor activity and teaching tool for her kids.
But as the eggs mounted up, she began trolling through cookbooks and consulting family and friends for recipes using multiple eggs. An ideal post-Easter recipe, from her Midwestern mother-in-law, is a breakfast casserole that calls for 18 hard-boiled eggs, baked with cheese sauce and topped with crumbled bacon. (For the best results when peeling hard-boiled eggs, start with eggs that are not freshly laid, but have been refrigerated for a week or more.) Her Mediterranean take on a weeknight dinner is poached eggs, served over thick yogurt with toasted pita bread and a trickle of hot, herb-infused butter.
For Joe Dizney, a Web designer in the Hudson Valley, living with a flock of Australorp hens has left a different imprint. He’ll break an egg into simmering beef stews and bean soups, fry a couple in butter to top sautéed spring greens like the red-veined sorrel he bought at a recent farmers’ market, and coddle them to serve with the wild mushrooms he gathers in the woods near his house.
“ ‘Put an egg on it,’ ” he said. “That’s become my mantra.”