Essays

Ode to an Egg

Originally appeared in Tin House Magazine; reprinted in Best Food Writing 2004 and Food & Booze

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s . . . he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them.

– Ernest Hemingway

 

The Garden of Eden was not a good book, but I was so busy reading Hemingway’s descriptions of food, especially eggs, that it took me several years to notice. Like so many things, the book begins with eggs. As newlyweds, Hemingway informs us, the Bournes eat them each morning, excited just to contemplate the manner of cooking them. The husband never abandons his joyful consumption of oeufs au jambon and eventually finds happiness in love and work. The wife begins to skip breakfast about midway through. Things turn out badly for her.

 

Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.
 —M. F. K. Fisher

 

In English the word egg is something to cup in one’s palm. On the page, the extra g, like a linguistic wink, lends the word the same oblong shape as the thing itself. Egg nestles against the curve of the tongue.

In its shell it is all smoothness and balance. Next to it, other kinds of beauty seem bony and embellished, and at times I think the nutmeg speckling on a blue egg is as much as we can hope for. Yet the egg lends its beauty generously—witness the way egg tempera allows itself to be saturated with color; the chalky aura that bathes a Vermeer, as though the painter has cast his light through a broken shell.

M. F. K. Fisher mused that the egg is privacy itself. As a metaphor for self-containment, only the oyster comes close, but its rough-ribboned shell lacks the egg’s tranquility. The oyster must clamp itself closed, while the egg simply has not noticed anyone else.

I had an excellent repast—the best repast possible—which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed … it might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can reasonably be expected of it. But there was a bloom of punctuality, so to speak, about these eggs of Bourg, as if it had been the intention of the very hens themselves that they should be promptly served.

Henry James

 

Those of us who did not grow up on farms retain some idealism about a fresh egg. I used to buy mine from a silent old man at a Wisconsin farmers market whose hand-lettered signs promised brown eggs, duck eggs, ayacuna eggs in yellow, pink, and blue pastels, and, if you would ask, the story of his unjust accusations and upcoming trial. He disappeared from the market, though his stand remained, staffed by children who looked to be about eleven, so I kept buying his eggs. They were smaller than supermarket eggs, each one about the size of a new potato. Bits of sticky hay clung to the shells, and the yolks were a rich orange-gold. I fed them to my skeptical mother and made a convert out of her.

 

I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.

—Shakespeare, As You Like It

 

A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.
Samuel Butler

 

The Oxford Companion to Food calls the egg an “unintentional gift,” which is a self-deceiving way of saying we steal them. In other animals such behavior seems especially rapacious, not to mention sneaky. The dinosaur known as oviraptor (“egg thief”) got its name when its skeleton was discovered on a cache of fossilized eggs. Scientists assumed the dinosaur was stealing them rather than warming them and christened it accordingly. Misunderstood or not, such a creature lacks grandeur. It seems poor sport to eat the unborn. The killers we most admire—the tigers, the grizzlies—are the John Waynes of the animal world. They have no need to assume the creepy delicacy of a mongoose slithering into the henhouse.

 

But we humans, sly lot, are the greatest oviraptors of all, and we will never admit it. We’ll never compare ourselves to the mongoose or the weasel, because it might turn our egg-love into something that feels prurient and deceitful. We believe we are in it for commerce or gourmandise, that the matter-of-fact hand beneath the hen is retrieving only what it’s owed, or that the pleasure in pearls of caviar bursting against the roofs of our mouths is near-godly delectation.

 

We are kidding ourselves, of course; the delight we feel at the discovery of an unexpected cluster of eggs is pure animal gratitude for protein, for succulence, for easy pickings. The beachcomber who unearths a clutch of leathery turtle eggs warmed in the sand, the diner who finds a cache of scarlet pearls upon cracking the lobster shell, and the fisherman who slices open a sturgeon to discover the black burst fruit of its roe all treat the discovery as though it were a pile of gold coins. When it comes to an egg, any egg, humans are pure avarice. Hence, the egg is an animal’s most vulnerable possession. The egg is its secret.

 

The love of eggs is a love for the tiny and tender—pinkie-sized squash, potatoes like marbles, three-week-old chickens, skinny-limbed lambs and calves— but taken one step backward. To us it feels wholesome, as though there is no kinder thing on earth than to give someone a plate of eggs, but every now and again you get a reminder of what you’re dealing with. You crack a shell and find the freak egg: the yolk sphere inexplicably twinned like a biology experiment, a bloody vein buried in the meat of the yolk.

 

Eggs are very much like small boys. If you overheat them, or overbeat them, they will turn on you, and no amount of future love will right the wrong.

Anonymous

 

As befits a thing of pure potential, the egg’s versatility is unparalleled. Americans cooking at home don’t test this versatility as much as we might, aware that—probably in punishment for our invasion—the egg doesn’t lend itself to careless treatment. Faced with gracelessness, an egg asserts itself. Whip up mayonnaise in the food processor instead of the more gentle blender and the gluey result is most likely just what the egg thinks you deserve. Subject a custard to unmitigated heat without its water bath and see how it likes that. Just try skipping the tempering of beaten yolks with warm liquid before adding them to a béarnaise and watch the egg clench its proteins like fists. You will be no more successful with a chilly egg yanked from the fridge than you will with a date you have shoved into a swimming pool. It’s no surprise we get our word coddle from the treatment of an egg. An egg demands a little respect before it yields itself, loosens up its silky insides, and draws its neighbors in.

 

But once granted a little kindness, the egg is the workhorse of the culinary world. Its greatest talent is to deliver other flavors while retaining its own. A scrambled egg’s yolky flavor is the cushion on which chives or truffle oil lay themselves. A soufflé is no spongy messenger, but the medium itself, lending its unmistakable flavor—it can only be called eggy—to cheese and chocolate alike. The whites whip up to glossy peaks more lovely and ephemeral than flower blossoms. But white and yolks are yin and yang, achieving more significance together than apart. Beaten together they become creamy and thick, a sweet butter-yellow that would cheer any depressive.

 

The best of us are fools for omelets. The insipid egg-white omelet, which strangles its filling in rubbery proteins, does not count. The real thing is delicate, spongy, light, and sunny yellow, laced with butter and a sprinkling of cheese. I have never mastered the classic tri-folded French omelet, and I remain convinced this is attributable to using the wrong pan. (I am fooling myself; I will have to work harder. The pretentious word technique suddenly seems appropriate.) Most of us have consumed innumerable omelets, but not many have had a really good one. I know I have eaten omelets that oozed strange juice, bore burned spots that stayed in my teeth like bitter leaves. The proliferation of the egg-white omelet allowed us to convince ourselves that an omelet is health food. It isn’t. It shouldn’t be. I ate hundreds of veggie egg-white omelets before admitting they resembled broccoli stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

I probably should have refused them, but, faced even with an inferior omelet, I always try.

 

An egg is always an adventure; the next one may be different.
Oscar Wilde

 

Raw, they nourish the hungover; cooked, they nourish everyone. At a potluck a few years ago, I and a dozen other wine-snob gourmands abandoned our homemade foccaccia and shrimp pot stickers and stormed the deviled eggs someone had made as a joke. The egg is childhood—urban, suburban, and rural alike. This explains why omelets, fritattas, and Spanish tortillas are mainstays rather than special-occasion dishes. Yet the egg’s seeming good nature also explains the occasional misstep, such as at a farm breakfast I once attended in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where dozens of eggs were stirred up and cooked in a huge, shallow tin bowl like a hubcap over some pallid coals and then spooned onto our plates in runny clumps. This strikes me as an experience that could have been avoided.

 

But when dealings with an egg are successful, there is nothing quite like it. When my husband had his wisdom teeth out, I gave him chicken broth with finely chopped spinach. It occurred to me to try whisking beaten eggs into the hot liquid, and in a minute they formed a loose golden net suspended in the broth. This is an age-old idea, but right then it felt like genius. I felt strangely capable and nourishing, like a farmwife, but sexy. Eggs will do that to you. Something similar happened when I made béarnaise (breaking it on the first try, whipping in more clarified butter until it gathered itself together again), except that time I felt rather cool and daring, as though I were descended from the French Resistance rather than Alsatian peasant stock.

 

The egg is sophistication and breakfast all at once. A friend who worked in a hip restaurant once served me scrambled eggs with truffle oil and porcinis at midnight on a Saturday. I was sitting at the blond-wood bar, dabbing with my toast at the soft curds of cooked egg and slicing through a fat porcini stem. Elsewhere at the bar, people were smoking cigars and drinking flights of champagne or Italian reds. I had a white burgundy because it went nicely with the truffle and the egg and as I did it struck me that wine with breakfast was not a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all.

 

“Only women order this dish,” the bartender informed me. “It’s too sexy for the men.”

 

Until then, “sexy” was never one of the adjectives I would have ascribed to an egg. The egg is drama and succor, birth and parenthood, sex and death, the start and the finish. The egg is inevitable.

 

Recipe
Eggs with mushrooms and truffles

A note on ingredients: This is as costly as you wish to make it, depending on the type of mushrooms and truffles you choose. I would gladly use fresh chanterelles, porcini, or any other exotic mushroom, but usually content myself with a mix of button, cremini, and shiitakes instead. As for the truffles, many food lovers insist that truffle oil should be shunned in favor of the real, precious fresh fungi at all costs. Such people fill me with rage and envy, but not, sadly, with truffles. I say find a good truffle oil and pay your rent on time. Lastly and most importantly, the eggs. They really must be the good ones, free-range organic if possible, the sort with bright orange, rich yolks, not the supermarket ones. Farmers markets often have these eggs, the best stand usually recognizable by the long line of people gazing dreamily toward the sky and clutching sweaty five-dollar bills. Join them.

Serves two
  •  4–5 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1–2 tablespoons cream or half-and-half, optional
  • 1 pound mushrooms, made up of any combination of button, cremini, shiitake, or other wild mushroom, washed and sliced
  • white truffle oil
  • salt and pepper

 

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then add mushrooms and toss to coat. They will soak up the fat almost instantly, but keep stirring and they’ll release it again in a few minutes. Let the mushrooms cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes or so, then season with salt and pepper, turn off heat, and cover them to keep them warm.

 

Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, just enough to blend. Meanwhile, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons butter over the lowest heat possible—some even say over a double boiler. When butter is melted and slightly foamy, pour in the eggs and cream, if using, and get comfortable. Using a wooden spoon (the sort with a flat tip would be perfect here), stir the eggs slowly and constantly. Keep doing this till the eggs have set in soft curds, which may take fifteen or twenty minutes. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat. When they are set, still tender, but not dry, divide eggs and mushrooms between two plates. Drizzle the mushrooms and eggs with truffle oil. It’s heady stuff, so go easy. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. This dish is especially good with toast and spinach sautéed in butter.