There is reason in roasting of eggs!
~~~ James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
In nineteenth-century America, giddy with conquest and Manifest Destiny, domestic science denizens rose up, called themselves home economists, and jumped on the bandwagon of cleanliness and right thought. The results of that movement set the stage for today’s proscriptions and prescriptions regarding eating and cooking, especially when it came to eggs.
And eggs, thankfully, seem to have survived the greatest roll-coaster ride in the history of comestibles.
Eggs began as a sought-after food. And why not? Protein for a bad hunting day, portable, and edible in raw form, too. The quick coagulation of egg protein at fairly low heat guaranteed that, as in one old recipe instructing the cook to place the egg in the coals and beat the egg shell, it then would cook well over the coals. Brush the ashes off with calloused fingers and you had a meal, if not fit for a king, at least for a plowman or even a minor lord.
Nineteenth-century authors, while writing about French cooking, praised eggs, as this snippet indicates from Household Words: A Weekly Journal (1881):
Oeufs à la Cogue Truffés—that is, ” boiled eggs truffled “—are a great delicacy, yet they originated in the carelessness and negligence of the cook of an old gourmet, the particular friend and chum of another great epicure, the Marquis de Cussy. This cook used to keep the eggs in a big glass bowl which was closed by a solid block of cork. One day her master brought her some truffles, and told her to put them carefully aside for future edification. Not knowing what to do with them, the cook hastily put them in the bowl among the eggs. The next day the marquis was breakfasting with his friend, and the banquet was opened by boiled eggs.
” Why, the eggs are truffled !” cried the marquis, after he had put the first spoonful to his month.
” Of course they are !” replied the host, hiding his own astonishment.
“But how do you manage it?” said the marquis.
“It’s very simple,” was the reply. ” My fowls are fed on grated truffles.”
Upon this the marquis did the aristocratic equivalent to putting his forefinger on his nose and closing one eye, and insisted on questioning the cook, who explained that the eggs had lain with the truffles in an hermetically-closed receptacle for twenty-four hours.
It was eventually discovered that the egg-shell is permeable, and that the pungent penetrating odour of the truffle will flavour the egg if both are carefully shut up together for twenty-four hours. One truffle will flavour six eggs, and, needless to say, will lose nothing from the contact
From the dust and ashes of a peasant hearth and begrimed fingers to the rarefied heights of truffled eggs in egg cups, a long distance lies indeed.
Yet most people in times past made do with eggs cooked in the ashes, doneness checked by the sizzle of saliva on the hot shells. Or they turned to boiled eggs, perhaps prepared in the manner of balut, fertilized ducks’ eggs of seventeen days, a street food favorite in the Philippines. No visible beaks or feathers (yet) to prick consciences, these eggs turn up everywhere. Pickled eggs and 1000-year eggs tempted palates, too, and still do. Mrs. Beeton claimed that ancient Egyptians cooked eggs without fire by means of air: they put the eggs in slings and swung through the air until they were done. Maybe. Methinks a finger alongside my nose might indicate what I think of that!
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization measured protein quality by eggs, and deemed them the most perfect food. Until …
Until, that is, the cholesterol scare thrust eggs back into the dark recesses of food taboos and forbidden foods. The story of how a perfectly good food, the egg — one of the Holy Trinity of western European farm cookery (and hence American cookery as well) of milk, flour, and eggs — sank from centuries of favor and flavor reads almost like a horror of a science-fiction story.
At least to cooks who know (and love) the lowly egg for its prowess in the kitchen.
To be continued …
© 2009 C. Bertelsen