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    Some of the recently hatched, colorful chicks that were on display at the fair. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Eggs, chicks, and a question about ducks

It was that time of year again – time to help judge the crafts and homemaking entries for the Northeast Florida Fair. Had a year gone by so quickly? But there we were, a carload of gals from Fernandina and Yule, all ready to serve.

This year the five of us already knew what entries we wanted to judge. I chose photography – the only craft I know. Others chose yarn arts, plants, and other areas they were familiar with.

After a brief introduction by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science extension service organizers, we 30 or so volunteers were sent off to our various stations. Our job was to evaluate the entries and award ribbons, mostly blue ones, since we were instructed to be lenient and forgiving.

Once the judging was finished and we were all well fed with catered barbeque and homemade desserts, the group dispersed, but we five gals didn’t leave right away. Although the fair was closed this Monday, one exhibit in our area was up and running. We gathered around the chicken and egg display and were delighted to find that one egg in the incubator was in the process of hatching. While I have some chick-rearing experience and three of the others came here from rural areas where chickens are a regular sight, one gal is from the city. This might have been her first time seeing a chicken hatch. Her excitement was contagious and we all enjoyed the natural show with her.

As we gathered around, transfixed, I couldn’t help but think about my own chicken hatching experience when I was in high school. As a suburban kid I was not around farm animals, but I decided to learn about chickens for a biology project. My father helped me procure fertilized chicken eggs, and, using his engineering skills, he rigged up a hatchery with a heat source and thermostat. Every few days, for much of the 21-day incubation period, I opened up an egg. A friend and I drew sketches showing the stages of embryo development. But when the chick embryos became more recognizable as baby chickens, I stopped opening up the eggs and let the rest hatch out instead. I kept those chicks in our basement until they got way too big and some started crowing. Time to go back to the farm!

When I was in Cambodia, I came across a street vendor selling “balut,” nearly hatched duck eggs cooked in the shell and a regional delicacy. I watched the vendor setting up her display, with each egg carefully opened a bit to show the cooked bird inside. Based on my long ago high school project, these duck embryos looked to me to be about 18 to 20 days old, just about ready to hatch before they were boiled as food. Like many others I’ve shown those photos to, I was appalled at the thought of eating almost-hatched baby ducks. But then I started thinking about it. When is it okay to eat a duck? As an egg? Certainly, yes. As an adult roast duck? Yum yum!

So, why would it be so disgusting to eat a baby duck still in the egg? Whatever the reason, eating baby ducks that are still in the shell is indeed problematic for many of us, but it is part of the regional cuisine of Southeast Asia.

I’ve talked to former U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines who said eating those baby duck eggs is a rite of passage for new volunteers. Eating them has also been featured in various reality television series like Fear Factor, Bizarre Foods and Survivor.

I have to admit that I did not even attempt to eat one when I found them in Phnom Penh. It was just too graphic for me to see the bills, feet, and fluffy feathers of a baby duck. I love eggs, I love roast duck, but I’ll leave the balut eating to people in Southeast Asia.

At the fair, my friends and I were happy to enjoy the little chick leaving its shell for a life on its own, even though we knew that it was most likely destined to be killed for food somewhere along the line. There was something about that cute baby chick that triggered our “ahhhh” reflex and not our salivary glands. It must be a cultural thing.

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