When I made up my mind to finally answer the call of this essay you’re now reading, I knew I wanted to do something different from my usual writing projects, which is think about, write about, or do something about food… and even though I still have future plans for more of that, this piece was a much deeper dig for me than my next meal.
That being said, here we are heading into the kitchen. But first, a little more about eggs and the practical, homey things we can still learn about them.
Hen breeds and eggshell color
There are dozens of breeds and types of chickens, and according to University of Illinois extension educators, there are several classed breeds as follows, including:
· the Wyandotte and New Hampshire
· Asiatic breeds, which include the aforementioned bosom-buddy, the Cochin
· English birds such as the Cornish and Australorp
· the Mediterranean class which include Leghorns as well as an ancient breed called Hamburg
· the Continental “egg-producer” breed
· Polish breeds established in the early 16th century, who wear a very dapper crest
· French birds, including the 5-toed Houdan
· the Oriental class which includes the showy, exhibition-ranked Sumatra and the giant Malay
· Bantams, an itty bitty breed of several different varieties
· a class known as Games (with a not-so-illustrious history) (“Jerry, it’s 3:30 in the morning. I’m at a cockfight. What am I clinging to?” – TV’s Elaine Benes in Seinfeld, “The Little Jerry”)
… plus a couple Miscellaneous ornamental breeds tossed in for feathery fun.
As for eggshell color, they range from pure chalky white, warming up to several shades of tan, then all the way through dark brown, pinkish, blueish, blue-green, olive, and so on… all the colors of a neutral, muted rainbow and so very beautiful. Although some breeds are more “productive” than others in terms of egg-laying, and not accounting for egg size ranging from cute little Banty eggs to jumbo Rhode Island Reds, the color of the shell has no bearing on the nutritional value of the egg inside. Also, some breeds produce small roundish yolks while other yolks are three-quarters of the contents. I love opening a carton of farm fresh eggs to see the spectrum of colors, remembering that variety is the spice of life and diversity is natural, to coin two phrases. I have raised chickens for meat as well as eggs, and they are fun to watch as they scratch for grubs and leap for moths, while their feathers and the variety of breeds are as handsome as their eggs.
The mechanisms of egg-laying
This is how it works: A mature hen is ready for laying an egg when the retina of her eye is stimulated by twelve or more hours of daylight, making the fresh eggs of springtime an obvious, natural and welcome symbol of renewal. Firelight, being the only source of indoor light for millennia, left a huge gap in fresh egg availability during the darker half of the year. This doesn’t mean hens don’t lay any eggs whatsoever during the winter, they just become very infrequent and, thus, quite precious.
And then there are the double-yolkers, much to the joy and excitement of every child learning to crack eggs and cook their own breakfast. That’s right, a single eggshell containing two yolks, a thousand to one shot at becoming twin chicks, which is even rarer. This phenomenon happens when a hen ovulates twice in an egg-making session. Once and then once again, there are now two yolks waiting in que in the oviduct. This usually occurs in a younger bird whose reproductive system hasn’t yet settled into its regular pattern. Also, some breeds are prone to double yolks, such as the Buff Orpington. They are a special, magical treat for kids of all ages, although personally I prefer not to waste them in a pan of scramblers where you can’t differentiate one egg from the other… I want to actually see those double sunny-side-ups smiling up at me while I thank Miss Henny Penny with every bite.
Chickens can lay up to two-hundred or more eggs each year and so can some breeds of duck, while geese only produce between fifteen and thirty eggs. Ducks and geese were more commonly raised in Europe, and they still are; their eggs are of a richer, denser quality with whites that whip up like nobody’s business, making for excellent baked goods and soufflés.
Other birds’ eggs
Humans have eaten the eggs from a variety of birds including turkeys, plovers, pigeons and doves, peafowl, emus and ostriches, as well as gulls and pelicans. They have also eaten the eggs of reptiles when other food was scarce.
Third century Egyptian-Greek grammarian and rhetorical philosopher Athenaeus wrote an epic series called The Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned. This ambitious fifteen volume compendium presented contemporary issues as discussed by the physicians, poets, philosophers of the day at a certain week-long symposium. Lofty discussion aside, the gastronomy was the real celebrity of this event. Some foods were believed to be medicinal, such as mushrooms, asparagus, and almonds for example, but eggs got a bad rap, as our ancient author apparently was convinced they form a lump in the stomach which remains for some time; and for some people they do. In any case, fussy Athenaeus professed to prefer the eggs of peafowl over chickens for his own personal consumption.
Fairies, on the other hand, are said to eat phoenix eggs.
Eggs on the Homestead
Some people have saved dried eggshells to scatter amongst berry bushes, in hopes of keeping the critters away. Putrefied eggs are a common ingredient in deer repellent sprays, as anyone who has got downwind of spraying their bushes knows all too well.
In medieval Europe, while the domestication of barnyard fowl increased, indentured workers became the custodians of birds such as pheasants (whose eggs were considered a delicacy) and the common chicken. It was around this time of feast and famine that the omelet was “invented”, a protein-rich envelope for any leftover bits of meat and fresh greens one could forage. Famine was a very tangible and immediate fear during this era. For example, in France alone the population experienced ten famines during the 10th century; during the 11th and 12th centuries there were twenty-six events of extreme scarcity of food (and these people did not have the luxury of perspective nor the advantage of computers to analyze all the components of this conclusion). An average of one famine every fourteen years occurred in England also during this same time period. War was rampant from all sides as well as from within. A laying hen in the household was a true luxury that one afforded if at all possible.
Translated from the Gaelic are a curious and poetic array of “Hymns & Incantations” collected by Alexander Carmichael called Carmina Gadelica, which were recorded in the 19th century in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Many of these poems and prayers address the old gods of these nether regions, in addition to invoking the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, numerous saints, and Jesus himself, a true amalgam of the Old Religion and Christianity. For instance, No. 106 “Hatching Blessing” is a prayer written as if the speaker is reciting the charm out loud, and with every egg that is pulled from the nest and replaced by a hen, an additional egg appears.
I will rise early on the morning of Monday
I will sing my rune and rhyme…
To the nest of my hen with sure intent…
I will raise my left hand on high…
There shall then be three in the cog [henhouse].
By the end of the rune, the keeper of the hens finds the eggs doubling in number by Friday.
From Xocolatl to Chocolate Easter Eggs
The Aztec word for chocolate is Xocolatl, and they are credited with bringing the native cacao into the realm of commodity. The Maya were already cultivating cacao in Mesoamerica from as early as 600 BCE, but when the Aztec became the dominant culture, xocolatl was elevated to a food of the gods – which included Montezuma himself. The beans also became a form of currency. A chronicler of Cortes noted the sumptuous meals presented by the Aztec ruler, meals which included venison, wild boar, varied wild birds and rabbits, tortilla cakes made of cornmeal and eggs, and a drink called cacao served in gold cups. Once cacao (and gold) was brought back to Europe by the avaricious Cortes, it wasn’t long before this bitter-tasting, buttery bean became the darling of the cookery scene, while the native people were exploited and enslaved into producing cacao for trade. In spite of that, it wasn’t long before confectionaries in France and Germany took up the mantle of creating the first solid chocolate Easter eggs by hand, one at a time… sweet yet bitter, especially considering the plight of the indigenous population.
We have learned that eggs have been decorated, dyed and eaten as symbols of renewal for many centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800’s – when Coenraad JohannesVan Houten invented what is now called Dutch process cocoa – that “chocolate” was used to make molded Easter Eggs. It was in 1842 when John Cadbury introduced “French eating Chocolate”, and the proprietary recipe ratio of cocoa to cocoa butter made the manufacture of these Easter treats a smart business decision, as anyone who has eaten a Cadbury chocolate egg will attest to. The English confection house known as the JS Fry Company also produced and marketed chocolate Easter eggs starting in the early 1870’s.
Chocolate eggs are available far and wide during Easter season, but the quality is also far and wide, so consider carefully. There are chocolate eggs made to look like quail and robin eggs, chocolate eggs filled with ganache, the ubiquitous peanut butter-filled chocolate egg, as well as embossed chocolate eggs depicting ornate rabbits and garden scenes, and a chocolate egg that cracks open to reveal tiny white chocolate chicks. It’s fun to be a kid!
Another confectionery egg crafted much to the delight of children everywhere, and not necessarily as a food product, is the panoramic or diorama Sugar Egg. A nearly pure sugar shell is crafted via the magic of that very same sugar combined with the precise application of heat, and of course an egg-shaped mold. Leaving an open center for the placement of colorful, sugary bunnies, chickies and lambs, as well as various flora and other imaginative scenes, the exterior of the egg is then decorated with sugary piping and rainbow-colored sugars. Looking through the “window” to witness the bucolic happenings inside could keep a child occupied for quite a while, and considering how much sugar was probably already consumed is really saying something. There are many recipes online for making sugar eggs, as well as sources for purchasing them. It would be a messy but fun daytime activity for the kiddos to set up a Sugar Egg-making party for them.
Eggnog isn’t just for Yuletide amongst most Pagans. The word “nog” simply means “strong ale” in Old English, and does not refer to December or any other month. Perhaps it is considered a celebratory drink during this chilly time of the Winter Solstice, because of the rarity of winter eggs, and because the turning of the wheel or “yule” also represents rebirth, just like the egg.
Cork, Ireland was once the largest butter market in the world in the early 1800’s, and at Christmastime fresh “buttered” eggs were commonly available. The still-warm-from-the-hen porous shells were rubbed with butter to keep the air out, thus helping preserve the eggs for the winter months ahead.
In the Anglo-Saxon world of early Britain, sweet cakes and colored eggs were offered to Eostre, also called Ostara, maiden Goddess of Spring. This Goddess was sometimes said to take the form of a white rabbit. Possibly in imitation of this spring Goddess, rabbit-shaped loaves – each bunny with an egg in its belly – were sometimes served to children especially in Holland, the rabbit being the favored animal of Eostre.
Most of us have probably seen photos of festive Easter breads, and maybe even eaten them, all shining and golden from an egg wash, cleverly braided and bulging with colorful eggs (which were most often dyed red). One example of this tradition is the Pane de Pasque, a sweet Italian Easter bread that has colored eggs decoratively baked into the braided loaf. The word “pasque” is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word for Passover, or Pesach, and its use is sometimes an indication of a tradition that reaches very far back in history. In modern Greece, fish-shaped loaves of bread are still baked every year, each loaf featuring a colored egg placed in the fish’s “mouth”. The fish iconography or ichthys was a secret symbol during the early days of Christian converts.
Peeled eggs dipped in salted water are often served at the Passover Seder, representing not only new life but also to honor the ancestors at the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem; the actual custom is said to have originated in central Europe from at least the 16th century. The Seder meal, which traditionally begins with the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”, also includes a green herb such as parsley; bitter herbs such as romaine or horseradish; a roasted beef shank or beet (for vegetarians); a sweetmeat called Charoset (made from apples, cinnamon, nuts and sweet red wine); as well as the salted egg, which is sometimes roasted rather than boiled. Each food item is a symbolic representation of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, and these foods are eaten in a specific order. President Barak Obama held the first ever Seder meal in the White House in 2009, where staff members, family and friends partook of the reading of the Haggadah or ritual text, thus fulfilling the law or mitzvah or passing down of tradition to the next generation. The White House Seder meal did not include the salted eggs, however, only the ones in the matzah balls.
The original holiday egg tradition at the White House was initiated in 1812 by First Lady Dolley Madison, who hosted an Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn; it was rumored that this was created to bring positive attention to her unpopular husband, President James Madison. However, the first Easter Egg hunt at the White House (as compared to egg roll) was prompted by President Abraham Lincoln, who intuitively understood the meaning of this springtime symbol of renewal and hope, an especially important concept in 1862 during the American Civil War. With rare exceptions, every president and first lady has hosted a decorated Easter Egg Hunt in Washington, D.C. as a time for fun and games, but apparently, President Donald Trump found the 2018 White House Easter Egg Roll the perfect opportunity to mention his $700 billion military budget.
Colored eggs and other foods traditionally associated with spring are featured in modern-day Sabbat Suppers amongst neo-pagans and their ilk. Pork is a traditional Eostre’s Day/Easter Day food, partly because the Valkyrie Maidens of Norse myth ride a magical sow that is reborn again each morning, and together the maidens and the sow gather the battle-slain and take them to the halls of Valhalla, where they feast and drink eternally. After the sabbat feast, the saved eggshell fragments are tossed into moving water in reverence of the rivers that flow, the grasses that grow, and the return of Eostre to the land.
Eggs were often symbolically used for fertility but they were not always meant to be eaten. The ancient people of southern Nigeria have a legend that tells about the first women on Earth. These women were unable to bear children, and so the Goddess of Heaven gave them fertility eggs to keep but not to eat: straying from Her instructions meant She would revoke the gift. Over time, and because of this legend, the people decided that eating eggs resulted in infertility amongst young women.
Sixth-century Greek mathematician, musician and philosopher Pythagoras recommended against eating eggs, believing they destroyed one’s vitality, a characteristic teaching of the early Druids as well.
Amongst the ancestral Aborigine of Australia, the eggs of a traditional family or tribal bird were strictly taboo from eating. The egg was more so than even the flesh of the bird as it was believed to be the home of the totem’s life force.
Eggs were boiled to preserve them during the time of Pope Gregory I, when he decreed the Lenten fast in accordance with his acetic propensities. Eggs, meat and milk were all off the table during the forty days of Lent, so fresh milk was often turned into a variety of cheeses for later consumption.
Eggs in the Kitchen
The “white” of an egg, or albumen, is only white after it is cooked; otherwise it is clear and viscous, containing about 90% water, while the rest of it is protein. The nutritious golden-yellow yolk is only about 20% protein, but also includes water, fat and cholesterol, along with vitamins and minerals; after all, this is where the chick develops if the egg is fertilized. The proteins in the yolk denature (change in structure because of heat) at a higher temperature than the white, 150˚F and 140˚F respectively, which is a good thing to remember when making custards or other eggy foods so as not to cook them too fast or at too high a temperature. This is also explains why the white gets cooked while the yolk is still soft when cooking a fried egg.
When eggs are used as a leavening agent in baked goods, it is the air trapped in the beaten whites that help the item hold its shape, such as in a loaf of zucchini quick-bread. These types of breads are generally baked at a lower temperature for a longer time than other breads.
Even in the kitchen, eggs do not escape the superstitions and folk beliefs from days gone by. The folks at the Farmers’ Almanac came up with an Eggciting Quiz to determine your personality type. Since I enjoy eggs prepared in many ways, I wonder… does that mean I possess all these qualities?
· Poached – speedy, peppy, intelligent
· Scrambled – artistic, nervous, passionate
· Over easy – versatile, magnetic, dominant
· Sunny-side up – healthy, happy and wise
· Omelet – sturdy, reliable and conservative
· Hard boiled – persistent and dynamic, but sincere
· Soft boiled – gentle, patient and kind
I suppose if you’re out on a first date with someone and end up going out for breakfast, this might be something to consider.
Another thing to consider when using eggs in cooking is their magical symbolism. These attributes endow any and all foods with purpose and a way of achieving a goal, and it is not difficult to determine what most foods might symbolize. Eggs, for instance, bind ingredients together; therefore, using eggs as an ingredient adds the quality of combining everything into a cohesive unit, an excellent symbol for group cooperation. Perhaps you have family associations with certain foods; let that guide you when creating your own egg magic.
The following recipe is adapted from one found in the Time-Life series, The Good Cook – Eggs & Cheese. Their recipes are gathered from sources around the world, which I love. The title of the book from which this recipe originates translates from the French into “The Book of the virtuous voluptuousness”, which could possibly refer to the chard as virtue and the butter as voluptuousness, both serious food for thought. You will need a pre-baked tart or pie shell.
Herbed Cheese Tart – makes one tart to serve 6
24 ounces ricotta cheese or farmer’s cheese
5 large eggs, saving out 1 egg for the saffron glaze
1½ pounds Swiss chard (or similar greens), ribs removed and leaves chopped
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram or basil, minced
salt & pepper
¼ teaspoon saffron softened in 1 tablespoon boiling water, divided
7 tablespoons butter or lard, room temperature
12-inch pre-baked tart shell crust
Set oven at 400˚F. In a large bowl, stir up the cheese with four of the eggs so they are well blended. Add the greens, herbs and salt & pepper. Stir in half the saffron water and the softened butter with this eggy blend, mixing with your hands when it gets too thick.
Beat the last egg together with the remaining saffron water; reserve. Fill tart shell with egg-chard mixture and place in oven to bake for 15 minutes. After this time, remove from oven and pour the reserved egg-saffron mixture over the top of the tart, and return to oven for another 15 minutes, or until slightly puffy.
Let rest a few minutes before slicing, or let cool and serve at room temperature. Serve with a fruity white wine followed with sliced pears or apples for dessert.
Most people might fear the preparation of a soufflé… but not you. That’s because it is not difficult, nor is there any real secret to separating eggs and whipping up the whites. The end result will be worth the effort. This dish would be nicely complemented by a salad of fresh greens dressed with raspberry vinaigrette and perhaps some pilaf on the side.
Carrot Ginger Soufflé – makes one soufflé to serve 2
1 cup diced peeled carrots, about 6 ounces
½ cup water
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup milk, any kind
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons unbleached wheat flour
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs, such as chervil, tarragon, chives
1 teaspoon minced fresh gingerroot
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
a dabble of honey, if desired
salt & pepper
4 large eggs, separated
Heat oven to 425. Butter a 1½-quart shallow baking dish and sprinkle with bread crumbs or nut meal.
Combine the carrots, water and salt in a small pan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender, 10-15 minutes. Drain carrots, remove from heat, then add the milk. Pour this into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
Melt butter in a clean pan, then add the flour, stirring until the roux is smooth. Add the pureed carrots to the pan, stirring and cooking until thickened. Add the herbs, gingerroot, lemon juice and honey if using. Taste for seasoning.
Whisk the egg yolks into the carrot mixture one at a time. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they stand in soft peaks. Fold half the whites into the carrots, then fold in the remaining egg whites just until combined – do not overmix.
Pour mixture into prepared pan, then place in oven to bake for about 15 minutes, until puffy and browned. The goal is for it the eggs to be set but still a little creamy in the center. Serve immediately.
This piece is excerpted from a work-in-progress.
© Doreen Shababy