How your breakfast eggs made the grade

A few days ago I was called to breakfast from my porch swing on a farm in the middle of Kentucky. Awaiting me was an omelette made from eggs that were still warm from the hens that laid them. To someone like me, whose egg consumption is limited to specimens that have been incorporated into chocolate tortes, this omelette was a revelation. Aside from its hue, which was so close to a yellow-orange Crayola that I suspected food coloring, the flavor was almost surreal in its absolute eggyness.

The woman responsible for these astonishing eggs is Leslie Bebensee, whose Kokovoko Farm in Corinth, Ky., specializes in rare farm animals. Bebensee swears that only happy chickens lay eggs that look and taste this good. "You won't find that color in a grocery-store egg. My chickens eat slugs and bugs and creepy-crawlies."

Why this sudden interest in eggs, you ask? Well, D. Michael Holbrook, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently sent me some egg literature. D. Michael Holbrook is most anxious that RFT readers wake up and smell the coffee about egg-grading. Who am I to stand in the way?

USDA grading, Holbrook explains, is "a voluntary service used by producers and retailers who understand the importance of high quality to their customers." An egg has been inspected by the USDA if its carton sports the red, white and blue shield. It seems egg packers who don't avail themselves of the USDA's third-party examiners can print the term "Grade A" on their cartons, but they can't use the actual shield. Graders ensure, among other things, that their eggs "have yolks that are round and stand high" and "whites that are firm and thick."

After hours on perma-hold with the USDA, I am still not sure how these egg examiners know what's inside an egg without breaking it, but after 10 years of raising chickens, Leslie Bebensee knows the real reason they cross the road: "Either food," she says, "or sex."

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