Written for Daily Hive Toronto by Lindsay Burgess. Lindsay is a Toronto-based food, drink and travel writer, and the former digital editor of Foodism Toronto. She takes her coffee black, her music loud, her wines local and her chocolate salted. @lindsburge
It hasn’t always been illegal to keep chickens in Toronto.
“It wasn’t until 1987 that the bylaw was put into action,” says Signe Langford, author of the Taste Canada-nominated cookbook Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs.
The bylaw she’s referring to is Chapter 349 of the Toronto Municipal Code, which prohibits the keeping of animals deemed unsuitable for life in the city. Blacklisted creatures include elephants, crocodiles, tigers, wolves – and chickens, naturally.
Despite the possible penalties – a $240 fine and the risk of critters being seized and impounded – Langford says that Toronto has a thriving community of mavericks quietly bringing back urban agriculture.
“There is a kind of hub called Toronto Chickens,” she says. The site is both a blog and a resource for city-dwelling chicken keepers. It also has a Facebook page – a closed group, because “we’re all a little bit nervous of getting busted.”
But today’s urban homesteaders generally know the risks from the outset.
“I’d been waiting and it just seemed like [the laws weren’t going to change],” says Langford. “So I just decided to do it anyway.”
Langford was working as a chef when she first started planning her backyard flock. Setting up was no easy process – nor was it cheap.
“I couldn’t afford to build anything new, so I retooled a garden shed that I had,” she says. “Getting the feed, the [coop], the fencing that’s required, you’re looking at about $1000 to set up.”
And the costs just keep on coming. “There’s nowhere in town to buy feed and such,” she says, “so I have to drive out to the country.”
Her point? “These are the most expensive eggs I’ve ever eaten,” she laughs. “You might go into it thinking, ‘ooh, best eggs ever, I’m such a foodie.”
And there’s something to that.
“You can taste the terroir in a good egg,” says Langford. “The flavour, it’s just night and day.”
She describes the eggs one of her girls laid during a particularly lovely summer: “The yolks just tasted like roasted dark chicken meat. It was like the distilled, concentrated essence of chicken.”
But more than just the supply of fresh eggs, she suggests, there’s a real companionship to sharing your garden with a backyard flock.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she says, “but sometimes I think it’s kind of a girl thing. You know, it’s you and your ladies and you kind of understand each other.”
Backyard hens also change the ecosystem of your household. “If I don’t eat it, the ladies do, and then they just recycle it into eggs for me. There’s no waste.”
That’s a clear draw for homesteaders concerned about food security.
“It’s not sustainable,” Langford says of the food industry, and in particular, its focus on producing cheap consumer products. “So that’s all going to come home to roost, as they say…”
Signe Langford’s Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden, with 100 Recipes is nominated for a Taste Canada award in the single-subject cookbook category. Winners will be announced on November 14.
Says Langford: “I’m up against some pretty stiff competition… But for my first book out, it’s pretty cool to be honoured in that way.”
The book has already been recognized as Canada’s best single-subject cookbook in English in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, and was a finalist for the INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award (cooking category).