A recent article announces the marketing, by a large food chain,of ''hand-gathered eggs from free-roaming hens.'' These eggs come from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and are priced at a dollar more a dozen than other eggs. Apparently, the theory is that eggs from penned-up hens cost less to produce, and the consumer will like the idea of eating liberated eggs enough to pay the extra money.
If this proves to be true, I wish that my aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm in Frederick County, could still be alive to cash in. They had the most deliriously happy hens you could imagine.
These chickens were a curiosity and a delight to my sister and me. As young children, we were sent to visit these relatives each summer. The farm was a constant source of amazement, fun, and learning. One of our first chores was to be allowed to gather the eggs. In those days, hand-gathering was the only way. We would take a basket, gingerly creep into the chicken house while the hens were outside looking after their daily business, and put our hands down into the straw nests to find the freshly laid eggs.
One day we neglected to take a basket, so we gathered up our skirts into a pouch, put the eggs into the skirt-fronts, and trudged down the hill to the house, eggs spilling out of the sides of our makeshift carryall. By the time we got to the kitchen door, we had lost most of our precious bounty.
But, back to the happy hens: These girls had free run of the whole place. They would be let out of the chicken yard in the morning so that they could scratch around in the grass. The henhouse gate was left open, but they never seemed interested in going back in until one of the adults would coax them in the early evening by going into the fenced area with a bag of corn, pouring it into the feeding trough, and calling, ''Here, chick-chick'' over and over.
It didn't take much persuasion. The chickens would come from every direction, squawking and flapping, crowding up to the trough and pecking away at the grain. Whereupon, the gate would be firmly shut and latched, penning them up for the night to keep them safe from predators.
Of course, the flock was ruled by several fatuous roosters. They had the responsibility of keeping the hens happy in their own inimitable way, and performing the daily rite of the wake-up call.
Once or twice a year, when certain hens decided it was time to raise a family, our aunt would put a shiny, smooth china egg into the broody-hen's nest, and we would not gather the eggs she'd lay. Somehow, the faux-egg motivated her want to sit on the nest all day instead of going out with her friends. This would go on for about ten days, during which time she would leave briefly several times a day to have a snack and a quick aperitif, and return before the eggs could get cold.
Those ''broody-hens'' looked happy when the eggs hatched and tiny, fluffy balls of yellow down peeked out. If the weather were cold, the chicks would be brought into the kitchen in a cardboard carton and placed behind the wood-burning cookstove until they were strong enough to resist the chilly temperatures. We knew they were happy because they kept up an incessant chirping day and night, loud enough to wake the dead!
Within the flock, chick-rearing was a community activity. Chicks were free to follow any motherly hen. They were taught to peck at insects or tender plants and were supplied daily with fresh water and plenty of corn. Naturally, the juveniles matured into happy egg-layers, with such a warm, supportive start in life.
Only two things caused unhappiness. First were the mysterious social forces that caused one fowl to be chosen as the ''peckee.'' Once this tacit choice was made, the others pecked it unmercifully until all the feathers would fall out of the targeted portion of its anatomy. And, second, of course, if a hen slacked off and went on strike, reducing egg production, she would soon appear as the entree on the dinner table.
Yes, the old country folks just naturally raised happy poultry, and they would surely laugh about the higher price for hand-gathered eggs from free-roaming hens. Since their hens were stress-free, perhaps the people who ate those eggs were somehow fortified to withstand their own stresses. So maybe Lancaster County eggs are worth a try.
Virginia Johnson writes from Baldwin.