Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Egg

Humpty Dumpty is not an egg. At least, he is not necessarily an egg. The rhyming riddle documenting his accident never specifies his species. An early illustrator decided the matter, and since then it has been taken for granted that the answer to the conundrum is not that Humpty is, as some suggest, a gun, or Richard III, or Cardinal Woolsey, but that he is a dapper, hapless egg. Perhaps we persistently depict this punch line because it so satisfyingly represents the permanent shattering that solving a mystery produces: look! We’ve cracked the code! Revealed the secret! Like a smashed egg, there’s no use in trying to pack a cracked code up again.

Eggs and secrets seem to go together. I was raised on tales of the jewel-encrusted Easter eggs made by Fabergé for the Empress of Russia across the years that turned the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Under the theme of “Things I Will Never be Given, but Should, Because I Would Know How to Appreciate Them,” my mother talked wistfully about those carved, jeweled eggs and their pricelessness. “The Violent Loss of Imperial Grandeur” was another favourite theme, so the Fabergé eggs got jumbled in with thrilling, blood-spattered allusions to Romanov executions, hemophiliac sons and the missing Princess Anastasia. The case of the woman claiming to be Anastasia, the one survivor, was of particular and abiding interest in our household.

I’m not sure if my mother was more attached to the idea of remnant royalty, or to the possibility of passing as that remnant. The woman who called herself Grand Duchess Anastasia was finally revealed to be a Polish factory worker: a posthumous DNA test betrayed the secrets of her bones. She was a peasant who tried on the crown. She made herself princess by piecing together shards of knowledge, etiquette and deportment, leading several royals to declare that whoever she was, she was no commoner. But childhood friends remembered her putting on airs and graces: she had cast the die for a royal life early on – history merely filled the cavity. At least she forced the race-obsessed Duke of Edinburgh to the indignity of rolling up his sleeve and having his Grade A cells sized up against hers.

It turns out that many of the recovered Fabergé eggs have given up their secrets, too. The first one, made in 1885, is an egg of plain white enameled gold, which cracks open to release a full, matte, golden yolk. This yolk splits in half to reveal a suede-lined nest edged with stippled gold “straw.” In this nest is a tiny hen, her feathers crafted from white and yellow gold. She is timid-looking, made nervous perhaps by the faint fissure running from her beak to her tail. This hinged incision gave access to the final “secret” of the egg – a diamond replica of the imperial crown that itself concealed a ruby pendant in the shape of an egg. As Fabergé wrote to the Emperor, the secret egg pendant “symbolises the Empress’ autocracy.” The secret and the autocracy are both long gone. Somewhere between governments, auction houses and collectors, the crown and its ruby egg vanished. The hen is relieved of her stony innards, her barrenness a welcome pause to the riddling, reiterative reproductions of eggs within eggs. And, of course, to crowns within crowns. These losses comfort me.

And yet, I know that my own daydreams expanded to fill the negative spaces of my mother’s. As she rehearsed how one might escape from Bolshevik bullets while stuffing as many Fabergé eggs as possible into a handbag, I mused on the ways and means of turning Bolshevik. I wasn’t sure if there were any Bolshevik hangouts in my hometown of Orpington. If so, they were not in evidence amongst the ironmongers and tobacconists on the High Street. So instead, I bought a man’s old, black overcoat from a charity shop and slouched around in it, trailing after my mother through Marks and Spencer’s. I thought some Bolsheviks, out for a Sunday afternoon down the shops, might recognize me as one of their own. They would take me in and train me. Thin, fiery-eyed intellectuals with ruined smoky voices. But they never turned up. Instead, my youth was apprenticed in other ways, one of which involved extreme egg crafts.

Every Easter my mother brought out a Tupperware full of white plastic moulds in different egg sizes, patterned like the crazy paving favoured for driveways and patios in the suburbs. My job was to polish the insides of these moulds scrupulously, until the plastic became glossy. Then we melted bars of “cake cover” chocolate over a double boiler, and using a child’s paintbrush, we coated the inside of the moulds with chocolate and left them to dry. If my glossing had been sufficiently diligent, the brittle half shells would pop out of the moulds. If I’d missed a spot, the resulting chocolate rubble went back into the double-boiler for another go around. The mimics of eggs were lined up to undergo secondary transformations into other Easter characters. My mother’s pièce de résistance was a chocolate egg cradle complete with chocolate bunny baby. One half of the egg was placed on its rounded back and tucked, attached with a dab of melted chocolate, inside its upright other half, which was hoisted to form a canopy. A flat bunny, pressed out from another glossed plastic mould, was tucked inside the cradle, its bunny ears resting on a fondant pillow, its bunny body draped with a fondant blanket. The edges of everything were then piped with icing and trimmed with sugar flowers. There was also a 3-dimensional rabbit, with a body made from a large egg, topped with a head made from a small egg, balanced sideways. This gentleman was given a piped orange carrot, some spectacles and a pair of splayed chocolate feet. Other eggs were simply piped together, a name iced on the outside and a flat bunny trapped inside – another doomed “secret,” revealed only when its recipient smashed their gift.

These chocolate bunnies and eggs were always dried on a designated window ledge to harden them up, until one year the sun broke uncharacteristically through grey English skies and we woke to find twenty-five slumped and sagging egg-creatures, cradles akimbo and secret bunnies half protruding from egg bellies. I was in favour of distributing that batch - driving around and knocking on doors, smilingly handing over the grotesque, faintly phylogenic revelations as our meaning of Easter. I was over-ruled.

This year, however, another opportunity for egg wonders (and perhaps horrors) presented itself. My local Fair Foods market announced that they would, for two weeks only, be selling Emu eggs. The first week I fell afoul of stiff competition to secure one of the first 40 eggs. I was told I would have to wait for the emus to lay some more. I waited. And thought of those enormous top-heavy birds with their knock-kneed bare legs folded under them. The next week, I got to market early enough to have my pick of the crop. In a round wicker basket, lined with wispy white and brown feathers, lolled a clutch of huge and wondrous eggs. Glorious in two-tone stipple of aquamarine overlaid with teal, they were the shape of a rugby ball and the size of a newborn’s head. I selected my egg. The shell felt as reassuringly thick as a teapot. Wrapped in brown paper, I carried it home.

Apparently emu eggs have less water content than other eggs, making them a little fluffier when cooked, and one emu egg is equal to about 10 chicken eggs in volume. I decided that scrambling my egg would showcase its fluffiness and allow us to taste its idiosyncrasies. I also thought I should retain a little greenness to the breakfast, to memorialize the shell and Dr. Seuss too. So I baked a batch of rosemary olive oil bread, and procured some parsley. The size and strangeness of the breakfast demanded a guest and delightfully, one arrived in the form of a friend who had undergone a small medical unpleasantness and needed recuperation in our guest room. On waking, we greeted her tartan pajama-d self with a real rise-and-shine plan: drilling two holes in an emu egg, blowing out its viscous contents, and then eating them! Post-operatively delicate though she may have been, our guest was game.

B fetched a hammer and a small brass nail. Balancing the egg in a drinking glass, I tapped a hole in both of its ends, and then B began. Blowing out an emu egg requires two hands, and two full cheeks of air. B looked like the north wind, and blew so hard her eyeballs hurt. We passed the task back and forth, partly because it was such hard work, and partly because watching the results was so disgusting and so compelling. The viscous drip from the egg’s other end soon became a gelatinous torrent that delighted and appalled the audience. Whenever the blower stopped to take a breath, a bubble or two would emerge at the blowing end and respirate slightly. We three looked on asquint. Eggs, we were forcibly reminded, are strange. They hint at prehistoric monstrosities and futuristic invasions. They bulge with vile potential and tell again exactly how brutal our eating habits are.

Although foundational to much cooking as an agent of rise and an efficient protein, an egg is also an implausible gustatory proposal, hated by many. It is too premature, too mucosal. A friend of mine was once forced by her primary school teacher, who hated her Gujarati vegetarianism, to stand in front of the entire class and choke down an egg. An egg is well cast as an instrument of such hateful regime-formation. Those of us who overlook or relish the grisly aspects of our animal-product diets speak of how “I like my egg.” We are particular about eggs and hold on to how those particularities define us. Perhaps this is because, in England and the U.S., we encounter eggs in the morning, when we have a chance to reinvent ourselves – but most mornings this is a chance we dismiss. The nameless, bewhiskered Everyman of Green Eggs and Ham, when invited by Sam I Am to taste a new egg dish, doesn’t welcome it. Indeed, he resists most strenuously and across many miles of uncomfortable travel before exhaustedly altering his tastes.

Perhaps that pestered, droopy-eared creature in his battered top hat is an Englishman. I say this because, in my land, we are made uncomfortable by joyous Sam I Am-ish expressions of choice and liberty such as “Sunny Side Up!” or “Over Easy!” When I first moved to the U.S., I listened, amazed, to these happily, openly coded exchanges in diners. The customer announced himself to the waitress, who then relayed his identity without judgment to the line cook: “Over Easy!” In England, we have opinions about eggs. Englishmen look askew if you peel, rather than slice open your boiled egg . . . or vice versa. There are camps, not choices. Nevertheless, there are delightful variations, once you’ve gotten through the shell. I had a fastidious uncle (a dyed-in-the-wool egg peeler) who introduced my brother and me to a magical supper called Egg in a Cup. Easily prepared by little fingers, Egg in a Cup consists of filling a large and amiable mug with torn up pieces of bread, small knobs of butter, a splash of milk, salt and pepper and the scooped out contents of a soft boiled egg. The elements are less important than the joy of the jumbled form, and the pleasure of the meal having a handle.

Eggs must be treated gently. I very lightly whisked my emu egg, incorporating its pale yolk with its water-clear “white, ” salted and peppered it, and then splashed in a little Jersey milk. In my largest sauté pan, I melted some butter over not much heat and then poured in my voluminous, single egg. All proteins benefit from slow cooking. So I cooked the egg lazily, allowing large curds to form without any agitation, occupying myself instead by slicing up the herb-flecked bread and toasting it.
Towards the end of the cooking, the curds broke up into smaller scrambles, and it felt like stirring porridge. Once plated and tasted, we all agreed that there was something gluey about it – which B spurned outright, but our invalided guest and I found compelling. I had expected a strong and savoury flavour, like a duck egg, but this egg was mild and determinedly creamy. It had a lounging, debauched quality and was so rich that it could have served 20. It seemed like the kind of thing to be fed to the survivors of an all-night party – mangled by drink and dancing and compromising situations, we awaken – a bleary Lumpenpolitik – to the grand nourishment of one green egg, sans ham. Put together again by a shared breakfast: no need for king’s horses nor king’s men.

Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degr és te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit d’un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes

Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames
Discovered, edited and annotated by Luis d’Antin Van Rooten

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