Who among us hasn’t dreamed of quitting the rat race, retreating to a small town and looking after a couple of curious geese, a raft of mild-tempered ducks and a flock of charismatic chickens? For country-life bonus points, insert into this scene a companionable, adorable corgi.

The queen and chronicler of this particular – and charmingly photogenic – farm and coop is Lisa Steele, author, blogger, television and social media presence, and newly minted cookbook writer. Steele’s latest book, her seventh, “The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook,” is out thismonth from Harper Horizon; her previous books concern how to keep backyard chickens and ducks.

At the same time, Steele’s TV show, “Welcome to My Farm,” which previously aired on Maine’s NBC affiliate, has been picked up by American Public Television and will begin airing nationwide in April, just as egg season is reaching its peak. Chickens are triggered to lay by the lengthening days.

“We moved to Maine for the peace and serenity,” says Steele, a pleasant, 50-something woman, in the introduction to the show as the state’s quintessential lighthouses, lobster pounds and farm fields roll by. “We wanted a simpler life, and to step back in time where there are still corner stores and your neighbors know your name.”

POULTRY PERSONA

Steele began her online life with chickens in Virginia in 2009, some six years before she and her husband, Mark Steele, moved to the Bangor suburb of Dixmont following his retirement from the Navy. Homesteading was on the rise. Steele, whose background – but certainly not her heart – is in accounting (“the most boring job on the planet,” she said), wanted goats. Her husband “counteroffered with chickens,” she explains in the introduction to her cookbook.

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Lisa Steele is putting out her first cookbook, all about eggs, after writing several books about raising chickens. Photo by Tina Rupp/Courtesy of Lisa Steele

Steele was no stranger to the birds. She is, she likes to say, a fifth-generation chicken keeper, tracing the poultry line in her family back to her great-great-grandmother in Finland – her grandparents sold eggs and meat, other relatives kept backyard chickens for their own tables. As a girl, Steele collected eggs, fed kitchen scraps to chickens and was terrorized by Bojangles the rooster. As an adult, when chickens reentered her life, Steele discovered she’d picked up more barnyard chicken-rearing know-how than she’d realized.

Steele’s contribution to the family poultry lineage has been a real 21st-century extension: She narrates her flocks’ every cluck and cackle. At first, she merely posted fetching photos on Facebook. Then she started a blog.

“It was purely a hobby,” she said. “I fell into it and liked it, and a lot of people were responding to it.”

When another blogger told Steele that companies would pay to place ads on her blog, “the accountant in me – a light bulb went off.”

Today, she and “the girls” are also in print and on television, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and Pinterest, with some 660,000 Facebook followers, more than 100,000 Instagram followers, and 1.7 million monthly views on Pinterest. The chicken coop, with gingham curtains, Shiplap and charming rustic signs, seems made for these mediums.

“It’s like having a she-shed but having chickens living in it, and there is nothing wrong with that,” said Steele, herself pink-cheeked, blue-eyed, and often clad in gingham button-down shirts and neat blue jeans.

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She also sells products for backyard keepers: coop kelp, brewer’s yeast, flock flax and poultry probiotics. Steele’s followers praise her accessibility, relatability and her natural approach to chicken-keeping.

“If there is something you don’t have a full picture of her on her website, you can message her and she’ll tell you,” said Joan Hendrix, a Virginia resident and backyard chicken keeper who has followed Steele on social media for years, once driving from Arkansas to Tennessee just to meet her in person at an event. “This person?” Hendrix said. “She’s the real deal.”

Lisa Steele’s chickens. Steele writes and posts about the birds on social media and in six books. Asked what makes a good chicken keeper, she said, “Someone who doesn’t want to go on vacation. Ever. You have to be there every morning and every night. You can’t go out to dinner and decide not to lock your chicken coop until you get back because someone (a hawk, a fox…) will come and eat your chickens. It’s consistency. That’s the most challenging part.” Photo by Tina Rupp/courtesy of Lisa Steele

MEET THE FLOCK

But have you met the girls, at the moment 18 chickens, 10 ducks and those two geese? The flock, which Steele likens to “a little society or community,” includes Violet, a lavender Orpington; Abigail Adams (rooster John Quincy Adams has been re-homed); Mean Kate (“Nobody likes her and she likes no one,” Steele said) and Charlotte, a solid black Australorp. “She’s very calm. She just seemed like a Charlotte,” Steele said. Her favorite is Miranda, a stylish white-and-gray chicken named for Miranda Priestly, a character played by the stylish white- and gray-haired Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

On Instagram, the birds resemble sitcom personalities. “And just like that, Miranda found her way out of the pickle she had inadvertently gotten herself into,” Steele posted recently with a photo of the speckled chicken looking watchful but ready for whatever lies ahead.

“Eating snow? Nope, no one here has been eating any snow. Why do you ask?” she posted alongside a photo of two ducks with snow-covered bills.

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“Waiting for the boss to show up and unlock the conference room so they can start their 2 o’clock team building meeting,” Steele ascribed to a photo of the ducks assembled outside a small outbuilding, their faces and postures alert and expectant.

On TV, too, the birds have star power. “Chickens are great TV,” Steele said. “It’s almost like they can do no wrong. If they jump off the table and run around the studio, the studio guys love it. A lot of time the host will ask, can they hold one. The host is usually a woman with a nice dress on. I guess if the chicken pooped on them, that’d be bad behavior. Other than that, they can’t do much wrong.”

Although Steele describes her chickens as “my bread and butter, so to speak,” she has come to prefer the ducks, and the geese best of all. All are layers; she keeps no meat birds. “People say don’t name them,” she said, “but you still look them in the eye every day. I eat meat. I am not vegan or vegetarian, but there is no way I could do it myself.

“My followers would be devastated if I said I’d killed and eaten one of my chickens,” she added. “I couldn’t even imagine.”

OK, so why the pecking order? Let’s start, as Steele did more than a decade ago, with the chickens.

“They are like little fussy Victorian ladies,” she said. “It’s always, ‘Too hot, too cold, it’s raining, it’s snowing, the day is too short, I can’t lay an egg.’ I feel I constantly disappoint my chickens. I just always feel like I am falling short because they never seem like they are happy.”

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By contrast, the ducks are chill. “The ducks are always one step away from a pool party with Bob Marley going in the background. They are so easy-going. The ducks love rain. They love snow. They don’t mind the heat. They love each other.”

Though Steele has kept geese – big birds that come up to her waist – for just a few years, they’ve stolen a piece of her heart.

“They are very curious,” she said. “They’ll come over to meet the UPS guy or the heating oil guy. They are a lot of fun. A hawk is not going to carry your geese away. A hawk would probably think twice. They are so smart. They watch you, and you can see the wheels turning. I was planting garlic one summer and Claudette was standing there with her head cocked. I swear if she had thumbs I could have handed her the trowel and she could have planted it.”

But the geese are not great layers, Steele said, producing just 20 to 25 eggs apiece each spring. As a group, the chickens lay, depending on age, 10 or 12 eggs a day from spring through fall. (On the other hand, if you’re cooking, one goose egg equals three chicken eggs.) Finicky or not, it was the chickens who made “The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook” possible; Steele dedicated it “to my chickens, past and present.”

EGGS, EVERY STYLE

When the pandemic hit the United States, Steele’s cookbook was beginning to come together, and she was excited about maybe spending a little more energy in the kitchen and a little less in the coop. She had written six poultry books, including a children’s book, a book on gardening with chickens and a book on raising ducks, and she was running out of steam. But her publisher wanted her to change course and pump out yet another chicken book because the potential audience – newly worried about the food supply as the pandemic raged and seeking quick self-sufficiency instruction – was exploding.

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“It was crazy. My book sales were about double what they had been, almost immediately. You can almost tell the day COVID sunk in. My blog readership doubled,” Steele said. “To have actually profited from (the pandemic) is kind of hard to wrap your head around,” but for lifestyle/homesteader writers and social media influencers, “it was kind of a shot in the arm.”

Lemon Fried Eggs from Lisa Steele’s “Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook.” Photo by Tina Rupp/Courtesy of Lisa Steele

Steele had set her mind to writing a cookbook, though, and she and her publisher parted ways. Her idea was to show readers the basic ways to prepare eggs – scrambled, fried, poached, etc. – to offer solid recipes for essentials like deviled eggs and quiche, and to encompass classic egg-heavy sweets like lemon meringue pie, crème brûlée and angel food cake. She owned a big collection of egg cookbooks, and none of them hit the mark for her.

“Any kind of book you write, you need to decide, does the world need this book?” she said. “And I think that it did.”

For “The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook,” Steele relied heavily on recipes there were regulars in her rotation. That didn’t preclude nerves, though, when it came time for the recipes to be photographed. The photo shoots were in Connecticut. Steele made the 650-mile round trip twice, carting some 400 of her own eggs for the recipes, and watching anxiously as the food stylist, prep cooks and photographers fussed. “I kept having nightmares that none of the recipes work, even though I’ve made them a million times before,” she said.

Her “eggspertise,” as she has joked, is apparent in the cookbook, which opens with solid sections on egg size, temperature, safety, preservation and more. And while the standard recipes Steele envisioned abound, there are also some more unusual ideas, such as frying eggs with lemons, salt-curing eggs, preparing scrambled egg hand pies, and making DIY sprinkles and marshmallow Fluff. (Steele grew up in Massachusetts, homeland of Fluff, and hopes the recipe will help cooks from elsewhere discover “the magic of the fluffernutter sandwich.”)

WHAT’S NEXT

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A memoir? Some emus? A line of egg timers? Steele doesn’t have a five-year plan. It’s more of a “windy path,” she said, with twists and turns as unexpected opportunities arise.

She is thinking about raising quail because the eggs are “so adorable.” She’s worried because the birds live just two years (chickens live up to 12 years, assuming you don’t eat them when they stop laying, which Steele doesn’t). “You just get attached to them and they die,” she said of quail. “I don’t know if I can handle that.”

She’d like to write a second cookbook, too. But she is not straying far for subject matter. “I think I will stick with eggs,” Steele said. “Honestly, it’s hard to find a recipe that doesn’t have eggs in it. I definitely have more ideas.”

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Crispy Lemon Fried Eggs

From Lisa Steele’s “The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook.”

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Makes 2 servings

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon, cut into thin slices, seeded
4 eggs
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, for garnish

Heat a large cast-iron skillet or frying pan on medium-high. Once the pan is heated, add the oil and the lemon slices.

Give the oil a few seconds to heat up. Once the oil starts to shimmer, carefully crack each egg and slide it out of the shell and into the pan, among the lemon slices. Hold the shell close to the oil to prevent spattering.

Sprinkle the yolks with a pinch of salt and cook, tilting the pan and using a spoon to baste the tops of the eggs with the olive oil.

Cook about 2 minutes, until the whites are puffed and set and the edges are browned and crispy. Remove the pan from the heat (or if you prefer a firmer yolk, flip each egg and cook until the other side is done, about 1 minute.)

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Slide the eggs onto plates, pour the lemon oil over the tops and season with salt. Use the lemon slices from the skillet as garnish.

Rum Plum Breton Photo by Tina Rupp/courtesy of Lisa Steele

Rum Plum Breton

From Lisa Steele’s “The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook.”

Yeah, yeah we know we are still months from Maine’s plum season. Forgive us (and clip this for later). Rum Plum Breton looked so delicious, so sweet (apologies to William Carlos Williams). Plus, when we reached out to Steele to ask for the photograph of the breton, she emailed back, “I personally LOVE that Plum Breton.”

Makes 8 to 10 servings

Butter for greasing the pan
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 tablespoons dark rum, divided
4 egg yolks plus 1 whole egg, divided
2 ¾ cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
4 to 5 plums, pitted and thinly sliced (about 2 generous cups)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon almond extract
Kosher salt

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use butter to grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan and cut apiece of parchment paper to line the bottom of the pan.

Use a stand mixer with a paddle attachment to beat 1 cup of the butter on medium speed about 30 seconds, until soft. While the mixer is still running, slowly pour in 1 cup of the sugar. Beat about 2 minutes, until fluffy and combined. Scrap down the sides of the bowl, then add 1 tablespoon of the rum. Add 1 egg yolk at a time to the mixture and beat until incorporated before adding the next. Continue beating until the mixture is smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the 2 ¾ cups of flour until combined. The dough will be very soft. Let it rest while you make the filling.

Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the plums, the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, the lemon juice, and the remaining tablespoon of rum. Stir to combine. Cook the liquid 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the plums have softened but still hold their shape, and the liquid is thick and jammy. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the almond extract.

Flour a piece of parchment paper or pastry cloth and roll out about 2/3 of the dough into a 10-inch circle. Invert the dough over the cake pan, then press into the bottom about an inch up the sides. The crust will be much thicker than a regular piecrust. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of flour, then spread the filling over the dough. Roll out the remaining dough into a 9-inch circle, then place it on top of the filling. Trim as needed, then press down all around the edges to seal.

In a small bowl, whisk the remaining whole egg with a pinch of salt and brush the top of the dough with the egg wash. Lightly score the top in a crisscross pattern with the tines of a fork. Bake around 50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

Cool the cake for several hours, or cool to room temperature and then chill overnight in the refrigerator. To serve, run a knife around the outer edge of the pan, then slice the cake into wedges and carefully lift them onto individual plates.


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