Finding the perfect Mother’s Day gift.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 5/6/10.] Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 9, and like all good sons, I’ve been completely blindsided by this fact. At this point in my adult life, you’d think that I would remember. In high school and college, it was easy to overlook any holidays that required giving without the guarantee of getting something in return, but now that I’m older and more mature, I find myself less willing to justify my forgetfulness. If I can remember the date of the final episode of “LOST” (May 23), I should be able to remember the day that honors the woman who gave birth to and raised me.

Now, in the back of my head I know that Mother’s Day has become one of those bogus Hallmark holidays, like Valentine’s Day, that is pushed on consumers as a way to make us spend money we don’t have on things nobody wants, but I’m willing to put my politics aside for one day to take a moment to say, “Thanks, Mom.”

So the hunt for the perfect Mother’s Day present is on. As I stated above, I’m not one who buys something for the sake of buying it. I’m not going to stick a bow on some cheap knickknack that will just sit on the mantel collecting dust. That’s lazy and uninspired. Fortunately, Rutland has no shortage of options for the discriminating gifter.

Seriously. Take a moment to step back from our box-store boulevard, and look around: clothing boutiques, restaurants, crafters, specialty foods, galleries, florists – all locally owned and offering distinctly unique gifts that you can’t get anywhere else. (It’s also worth noting that the first outdoor Farmers’ Market is Saturday, May 8, which itself is cornucopia of Mother’s Day gift ideas.)

Still, if your mother’s anything like mine, she probably says something like, “You don’t have to buy me a thing, dear” or “It’s the thought that counts” every time you fish around for a lead. But you’d best read between the lines, my friend. It may be the thought that counts, but a crummy present is a good sign that you’re not thinking very hard.

This year, my mission is compounded by the fact that I have yet to deliver on my mother’s birthday present, which is about a month overdue. While this has gone largely unnoticed by her (unless she is secretly crying herself to sleep every night), I feel like a slouch so I’m hoping to use Mother’s Day as my chance to make it up to her – no last minute trips to Mr. Twitter’s for one of their huge hanging plants (a lifesaver back in high school, I might add).

I’ve been keeping my ears open, listening in the hopes that she might give me some ideas like she did for Christmas when I scored a slam dunk with the glass cheese board I bought from Mark Leeson at the Winter Farmers’ Market. I’ve considered returning for one of his olive trays or sushi plates, which I know would be well received, but I want to change it up a bit.

Then, the other day it became clear what the perfect, most thoughtful and unique gift would be: a chicken. A live one. You see, lately my mother has become very passionate about local food, and as a result, increasingly concerned over where her food comes from.

To that end, she’s been talking a lot about chickens – getting her meat locally, sourcing her own eggs, keeping them in the yard. It’s part nostalgia (my grandparents had chickens and horses when she was a child), and part politics – a desire on her part to return to a way of eating and living that makes more sense to her.

For Americans of my mother’s generation, the industrial agriculture machine brought with it the promise of easier access to a wider variety of cheaper foods. For many, this was a welcome change from the decidedly less accommodating and expedient means of procuring and preparing food previously available. As the American lifestyle became more hectic and fast-paced, the time required to prepare healthy, balanced meals seemed like a frivolous luxury. Why bother cooking when you’ve got KFC and Easy Mac, right?

Thankfully, my mother never believed the hype. When I was growing up, TV dinners were verboten. Fast food was a rarity that was not carried beyond the Happy Meal age. Homemade meals were customary, and attendance at the table was typically mandatory.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until recently that she began to question the status quo of our country’s food system. The more she reads and learns, the more she has resolved to make more healthy and responsible food choices.

Still, she is quick to note that being a localvore is nothing new for her.

“We didn’t have to be reminded to buy local when I was growing up,” she often says of her childhood when a trip to the farm stand was commonplace. Indeed, as a child, I remember her taking me to Williams Farm for asparagus in the spring or down to the Farmers’ Market on Saturdays before it was the hip downtown scene it is today.

But back to the chickens.

Having little knowledge of where to even get a chicken, let alone how to properly care for one, I realized that I was going to need some professional help. So I took a ride up to Boardman Hill Farm where I knew Greg Cox would be able school me on chicken culture.

I knew a little going in it. I was looking for an egg bird. While the idea of raising a bird to eat seemed both practical and delicious, I’ve known my mother long enough to know that she will never have the heart to eat something she would likely treat as well as the family dog.

Greg informed me that most of his birds are dual-purpose, which means that they are suitable for both eggs and meat. This way, my mother could raise a bird to eat should she be so inclined. And according to Greg, raising the bird was preferable. You can get grown chickens, but he advised me to get chicks. Older birds tend to be worn out in terms of egg production.

Plus, as he noted, “Growing something up is part of the experience.” (An experience that requires patience – it takes around five months before they’ll start laying eggs.)

I also learned that ideally you want to have several birds and a rooster. I kind of knew this, but hearing it from Greg drove the point home. A chicken produces one egg per day so if you’re looking for a steady supply of eggs, you’re going to need a couple-few.

Next, was the care and housing discussion. Building a basic coop is easy – a doghouse might even do. Early on, the chicks need to be kept warm in an incubator. Greg gave me a quick description of how you can build a simple one from by hand. Other pets must also be taken into consideration. Your dog will treat these poor birds like its personal playthings unless you keep it away, and if you’re in a rural area, other predators like foxes will no doubt be sniffing around. It’s smart to keep your chickens in a safe area, and keep a close eye on them, especially when they are young.

The more I learned, the more daunting and expensive this was becoming. I began to realize what I already kind of knew: chickens don’t make good gifts. You don’t just spring one on someone; there are preparations that need to be made, conversations that should be had. For example, I hadn’t even considered where my father might be on the issue.

So while a chicken would have made a thoughtful and creative gift, I knew I had to back off a bit. I decided that maybe I should test the waters to see how just how committed she is to this whole chicken thing. Maybe, she needed something get her motivated.

A book, perhaps.

Admittedly, a book is a rather unexciting gift, but I had one in mind that I hoped would pave the way for a deeper exploration of her interest in raising chickens: Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” The bestselling book details a year in the life of the author and her family as they attempt to eat only locally grown foods.

The book is a good start. It might not carry the same surprise that a live chicken at Mother’s Day dinner might have, but it’s something I know she is interested in and will appreciate.

Eating well is a gift that my mother gave to me. Through her, I learned that food and eating is important part of family life that should not be forfeited for time or career or anything else. The act of cooking is a powerful, fulfilling and creative experience that instills respect for food and a passion for life.

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