Reading the Fridge Classics: Eggs
the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human . . . it had eyes and a nose and mouth and, when she had come close . . . she saw clearly that it was Humpty Dumpty
Crack an egg and it oozes symbolism. It's so dripping with meaning – fertility, birth, secrecy, fragility – that it's hard to know where to begin. It also represents a fairly mind-boggling natural phenomenon; better not to think too hard about an egg before eating it.
Yet what a loss, to be among the squeamish who allow their minds to linger on eggs' biological purpose and end up unable to stomach them. For eggs are an affordable and versatile staple – each one a little self-contained meal. Every culture except Jains, some Hindus and those following a vegan diet eat eggs. According to a 2017 study, China has the highest global egg consumption per capita with 22.9 kg, followed by Japan and Mexico.
Fertile ground for metaphor, eggs find their way into innumerable myths and proverbs. Ancient civilisations in India, Egypt, Greece and Phoenicia believed the world was hatched from a cosmic egg – to the Greeks, an Orphic egg (often portrayed with a serpent coiling around it) containing the hermaphroditic deity Phanes or Protogonus, who then created the other gods. To signify life after death, ancient Greeks and Romans buried the dead with eggs, or left nests beside tombs. To this day, Jewish mourners eat eggs after a funeral.
Christianity adopted the associations of fertility and rebirth for its own ends, making eggs a symbol of the resurrection, the empty shell representing Jesus’ tomb. Medieval Christians were forbidden to eat eggs during Lent, and made church offerings of them on Good Friday. Today, children in the UK, Europe, America and Australasia hunt for chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday – a German tradition originating in the late sixteenth century, when Martin Luther is thought to have organised egg hunts for his congregation. In the UK, Queen Victoria popularised the tradition, painting, decorating and hiding hard-boiled eggs – an early eighteenth century tradition that continues to this day. Chocolate eggs first arrived in Germany and France in the early 19th century, and on British shores in 1873.
Eggy aphorisms abound. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. One of Aesop’s fables tells of a couple whose goose laid a golden egg every day. Assuming her body held a lump of gold, they killed her but found nothing untoward – fruitlessly sacrificing long-term prosperity for short-term gain. If, for example, the UK government fails to support the creative industries through the current rocky times, they could be accused of ‘killing the golden goose’ (the arts contributed £111.7 billion to the economy in 2018).
Although illustrations invariably depict Humpty Dumpty as an egg, this could be a later interpretation of the English nursery rhyme – which may in fact refer to the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1483. Lewis Carroll’s Alice encounters Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, and his egg-shaped physique causes her much confusion:
"Humpty Dumpty was sitting, with his legs crossed like a Turk, on the top of a high wall – such a narrow one that Alice quite wondered how he could keep his balance – and, as his eyes were steadily fixed in the opposite direction, and he didn't take the least notice of her, she thought he must be a stuffed figure, after all.
'And how exactly like an egg he is!' she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.
'It's very provoking,' Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke, 'to be called an egg – very!'
'I said you looked like an egg, Sir,' Alice gently explained. 'And some eggs are very pretty, you know,' she added, hoping to turn her remark into a sort of compliment.
'Some people,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking away from her as usual, 'have no more sense than a baby!’ […]
'What a beautiful belt you've got on!' Alice suddenly remarked. (They had had quite enough of the subject of age, she thought: and, if they really were to take turns in choosing subjects, it was her turn now.) 'At least,' she corrected herself on second thoughts, 'a beautiful cravat, I should have said – no, a belt, I mean – I beg your pardon!' she added in dismay, for Humpty Dumpty looked thoroughly offended, and she began to wish she hadn't chosen that subject. 'If only I knew,' she thought to herself, 'which was neck and which was waist!’"
Alice is walking on eggshells (pun intended), for Humpty seems as emotionally sensitive (inclined to the hump) as he is physically fragile. He, like all eggs, is fundamentally mysterious. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the first task in the Triwizard Tournament involves finding a golden egg. J.K. Rowling's eggs conceal a secret which must be unlocked not by force, but by wit and wizardry. Aided by Cedric Diggory and Moaning Myrtle, Harry discovers that the eggs emit an unearthly wailing when opened – unless underwater, when the voices of merpeople are discernible. For the second task, Harry realises he must find the merpeople in the lake at Hogwarts.
Eggs are as magical as their past and future selves, birds. To us landlubbers, what could be more otherworldly than the power of flight, and the gestation of new life within a shell? Whether laid by battery chicken, golden goose or fairytale dragon, each egg seems miraculous. Lockdown has seen an unnerving spate of domestic 'virgin births' from supermarket eggs. In what must be a PR curveball for Clarence Court (which has emerged as the favoured brand for home incubations), intrepid punters have been successfully hatching chicks from Waitrose-bought eggs. Most of us prefer not to think of our breakfast as scrambled embryos, but this trend has surely reemphasised the facts in the public consciousness.
In truth, we are all so hooked on the taste and convenience of eggs, it would take a good deal to put us off. Whether consumed poached at a leisurely brunch, hardboiled on a nerdy day trip, or as an omelette, frittata or tortilla (depending which country you’re in), eggs are the answer at any time of day. Their gluey texture also plays a vital role in baking, binding cakes and adding a sheen to pie crusts – and I, for one, am a sucker for a Pisco Sour, or any cocktail involving egg white.
My favourite ways with eggs are:
Quiche: there's no arguing with a rich, creamy filling cocooned in shortcrust pastry. My favourite is Quiche Lorraine but I’ve got a lot of time for veggie and fish iterations too.
Omelette: as versatile as it is speedy, the French staple is especially satisfying with herbs, spring onion and a heavy hand with cheddar or gruyere.
Frittata: essentially an Italian omelette finished off under the grill, this is thicker and can handle more ingredients – my asparagus and parmesan example is pictured above.
Tortilla: the Spanish version, usually involving potato and an oozing golden interior.
Chorizo scrambled eggs with guacamole: my go-to brunch favourite kickstarts the day with hot Mexican flavours, topped with lime and coriander.
Menemen: Turkish-style eggs with peppers, garlic, chilli, tomato and Greek yoghurt.
Cocktails: Gin Fizz and Pisco, Whiskey and Amaretto Sours all use egg white.
Poached eggs with smoked salmon and avocado – a failsafe weekend breakfast.
A boiled egg and soldiers is always very soothing.
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