A panorama of plump hens and fuzz-ball chicks chirping and scratching contentedly in the dooryard.
Breakfast eggs so fresh they’re still warm from the nest.
Your own chicken flock producing country hen eggs with sturdy shells that make supermarket eggshells seem like paper by comparison.
And to cap it all, the cheerily raucous “Aaawk-ah-awk–aawk” of a rooster to welcome the dawn of each new day.
It’s no dream.
It’s Grandma’s Hen House on Irish Mountain near Shady Spring.
Since Mary Bell moved back to her girlhood home in the Mountain State six years ago, the soft-spoken grandmother has led a serene, pastoral lifestyle that would make Martha Stewart green with envy.
And the former city gal’s chicken flock is the first step toward her dream of independent country living.
“Chickens are easy to take care of,” Mary Bell explained as she threw out some chicken feed to her friendly fowl. “When I go out to feed them, I start talking to them, and they’ll start singing. Sometimes, I think they know what I’m talking about. When they start up, I go cluck, cluck, cluck, and they go cluck, cluck, cluck…”
She added, “They seem happy. When I close them up at night, I say, ‘thank you,’ and they go cluck, cluck, cluck…”
Mary Bell’s chickens follow her around the barnyard. “They are all around my feet. I must watch myself to keep from stepping on them.”
For 26 years, Mary Bell resided in Chicago, Ill., where she worked at Kerr Glass Corp., a canning jar manufacturer. Some of the canning jars she filled with delicious strawberry, blackberry and grape preserves were made at the Illinois plant.
Still, the country born-and-bred woman wasn’t happy in the big city.
“I missed the mountains very much,” she said, peering out over the sun-rimmed ridges near her birthplace. “I’d come down on Amtrack two or three times a year. It’s beautiful country, and I missed my family who still lived here.”
Mary Bell makes her home on the mountain where her mother, Sally Bragg Meadows, was born in 1914.
From her hilltop homestead, she can scan Sandstone Mountain and the winding hollows of Abraham.
In her spacious hen house, Mary Bell keeps nearly 50 hens and a couple of roosters: Rhode Island Reds and Domineckers, poultry breeds noted for their egg-laying qualities. “They are friendly chickens, too,” she said. “They don’t try to peck me or flog me. If they are sitting on the nest, I can stick my hand under them and gather the eggs and they won’t lift a feather.”
The woman’s hen house is laden with eggs galore. “I get about four dozen eggs a day,” she said. “I have more than I can use, so I usually sell to neighbors and friends. When people heard that I had eggs for sale, they started calling on the phone.”
The hens are laying so often that Mary Bell soon will be seeking new customers. She plans to call on some local grocery store managers to see if they can handle her fresh poultry products.
Her hens, meanwhile, are well fed: cracked corn, laying mash, oyster shells, and light bread. “They are not happy until I give them bread. If I run out, they let me hear about it. So, I buy a 25-pound bag of bread at the bakery every week.”
What exactly is the secret to producing good-tasting eggs? It’s really a combination of things, according to the good-natured grandma who seems to have found the secret in her own backyard.
“It’s rare to find an egg these days that really tastes like one,” explained Mary Bell. “My own standard is the eggs my family used to gather from the hen house when I was a little girl.
“It’s not only a matter of freshness. Supermarket eggs are quite fresh, because of high turnover, but some are so lacking in flavor that you wouldn’t know what you were eating.”
She went on, “I think that feed has the chief impact on flavor, followed by the condition of the layers. Small-farm eggs taste better than the big-farm ones found on supermarket shelves. Chickens free to roam about the barnyard generally produce-better tasting eggs than hens confined to hen house cages.”
Her conclusion: hens that are happy and free from stress lay a tastier egg.
Anyway, that’s Mary Bell’s story and she’s sticking to it.
“If you want to eat a good egg, there’s nothing like getting one from your own hen house,” she said. “Especially if you have a good homemade biscuit to go with it.”
And though Mary Bell is generous with her eggs, homemade preserves, canned sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, and peppers, she isn’t about to cook one of her own barnyard fowl when company comes to visit.
“If somebody should ask me to fry a chicken for supper, I wouldn’t do it. No way am I going to eat one of mine. I’d go to the grocery store and buy one first.”
Then Mary Bell threw out another handful of feed to her fowl.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck…”
Top o’ the morning!