Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Egging you on

An over-easy take on the mighty oeuf

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Regard the egg. En français: oeuf . And from that: oeuvre , meaning, one’s work, life work, especially if you are an artist, as in, hey man what’s your oeuvre?

For so many centuries and in so many cultures the egg has been such a powerful archetype loaded with pretty cosmic ideas – the seed from which any number of manifestations will spring; birth, rebirth and repetition; nest, womb and home; prosperity; and even the cosmos itself should it not be included in the above – that its iconic role these days comes off like a goofy joke.

Regard the egg: great Shakespearian actor reduced to an opening act at Yuk Yuks.

For unless you’re a painter or sculptor whose oeuvre happens to be "egg", the poor thing has pretty much been relegated to its annual cheesy Easter role as gooey sweet, foil-wrapped treat or yellow/purple, possibly cracked orb smudged with the fingerprints of the little hands that dyed it.

Compare that to the Cosmic Egg which rises to the surface of primeval waters where it is incubated, at least in Hinduism, by the goose Hamsa. Or the Shinto primal egg, which split into two halves, the lighter one turning into heaven and the heavier one into Earth. The Incas, the Dogon people of Mali, Celts, Finns and Egyptians have all held great and fantastic beliefs about The Egg.

But other than at Easter, time of spring and renewal and the above-mentioned kitsch, most of us these days don’t give a second thought to eggs as we zip them out of the cardboard carton and scramble, whip, beat or otherwise fold them into submission in some food form or another. About as cosmic as we get is wondering whether avian flu virus can be transmitted on eggshells.

But eggs – and by eggs I mean the common bird-lain variety – are pretty cool, mysterious things. And they certainly don’t need to be silk-lined, jewel-mounted Fabergé types to garner our attention. (By the way, these famous creations, made by the jeweler, Fabergé, for the nobility of Imperial Russia, were simply plain old goose eggshells dressed to kill).

Big egg shooters and tough factors

Most of us at some natural history museum or swap meet or another have held or at least ogled ostrich eggs, admiring their beautiful thick shells and impressive size. This king of eggs is usually about 7 inches long and 6 inches wide, containing the equivalent of two dozen chicken eggs. (Sympathies to the gal on the TV show "Fear Factor" who had to drink the raw contents of a whole ostrich egg. Yuk 2 .)

But it would have been worse for her had it had been the raw egg of the now-extinct elephant bird of Madagascar. Although they weren’t much bigger than ostriches, elephant birds laid eggs almost double in size.

As giant as an ostrich egg is, compared to the bird’s body size, it’s the smallest. Vice versa is true for hummingbird eggs, which capture the title for smallest eggs, but largest egg-to-body ratio.

If you’ve ever supervised a bunch of kids dying Easter eggs, even hard-boiled ones, you’ve probably caught yourself saying be careful, be careful a lot. After all, these are eggs. But eggshells, at least those on birds’ eggs, are really quite tough, providing decent protection from predators and other hazards in birdland.

Our universally held misconception that eggs are fragile, like so many others in our engineered world, comes from the fact that domestic chickens have been selectively bred to produce larger and larger eggs.

In fact, your average domesticated chicken egg today is two to three times larger than that of its original ancestor, jungle fowl native to Southeast Asia and India. But since the amount of shell material a chicken produces hasn’t increased over time, it gets stretched thinner and thinner over the increased mass of yolk and albumen (egg white), resulting in the fragile shell we’ve all quietly cursed when one breaks in the egg carton on the way home from the store.

Eggs in our faces

Harold McGee points out in his book On Food and Cooking that eggs, like their plant-based equivalents, seeds, along with milk are among the most nutritious foods on earth for one reason. They are all intended to be food and support developing life forms – the chick embryo, the young seedling and the calf, respectively – until they are able to find other nourishment and sustain themselves.

Given their high nutritional value, it’s a bit surprising that we have no records of eggs being eaten in the western world until Roman times. Until then the main "chicken" of interest was the cock, for sacrifices to gods, for divination and for cockfights (the name of the arena, cockpit, continues to designate a centre of power and control). Kind of unfair, I’d say, given that hens by comparison seem like superbeings, using a reproductive effort to produce eggs that is 100 times greater than that of humans to produce a baby.

When it comes to chemistry, the minute an egg leaves a hen it begins to transform in ways that aren’t so great for cooks. The acidity/alkalinity both in the yolk and the "white" changes. The amount of "thick" egg white decreases while the "thin" egg white increases, which makes for a runnier egg – one more likely to suffer a broken yolk when you try to flip it in the frying pan. And you thought it was all your fault, when you might just have old eggs.

You should try to use up eggs as quickly as you can. While they deteriorate quickly at room temperature, they do age even under refrigeration, and can absorb fridge odours through their shells, especially if they aren’t kept in the egg carton.

Try the freshest eggs and milk you can in this high-octane 2000-year-old Roman recipe from McGee’s book and you’ll be able to ski or board all day:

Egg-cake made with milk

Take four eggs, a half pint of milk, a cup of oil and so mix them that they make one body (I warned you – this is an ancient Roman recipe). Throw a little oil into a thin pan, make it boil, then pour in your preparation. When it has cooked on one side, turn it onto a dish, moisten with honey, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who prefers things over-easy.