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

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

19 Comments:

Blogger BreadBox said...

Your posts are, as always, worth waiting for. And to think that you are also a fan of Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames!
No chance of Archy and Mehitabel as well, is there?

N.

11:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ye've outdone yourselve, Lassy -- and what memories your screed brings back -- of blowin' out the Emu Eggs as we sailed for Leghorn! Yep, it's a mite gluey to taste, but shiver me and pass me a bit o' your slow-cooked scrambled Emu! 'N' bless your writin'-paw! Scap.

8:06 am  
Blogger Paul said...

love this--

11:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the Hobbit riddle game:

Box without hinges, key or lid,
yet inside is golden treasure hid.

(as an aside, Tolkien pulled many of his riddles from medieval German riddles)

2:11 pm  
Anonymous Msksquared said...

What a beautiful egg!

I also had a childhood penchant for extreme egg crafts. I had a very 1970s craft book (given to my mother by her mother-in-law, and full of images of floaty feminine domesticity that were perhaps intended to inspire my mother to give up her inconvenient career aspirations and plait straw dollies instead), with a whole chapter on egg craft. Inspired by some pictures of Faberge eggs, I embarked on my own ersatz creations, lacquered in nailvarnish, and trimmed with polyester, sequins, and fake pearls. My finest hour was the creation of an egg with two doors, the shell cut wonkily using nail scissors and the hinges glued on with Uhu. Doubtless Faberge had better tools.

As far as eating eggs goes, I have loathed and mistrusted them from an early age. Apart from Creme Eggs of course, which are a marvel.

6:11 am  
Blogger Paul said...

and don't forget cadbury eggs--

7:36 am  
Blogger Sedgewick said...

Ah Syllabub! You do capture the paradoxes -- the wonder and horror of eggs -- so beautifully. Your own extreme egg craft of 2008 (emus??? who knew?) makes me want to wax philosophical; it evokes the horror and wonder of Easter's own extremities (the gore of lambs and joyous feasting on innocents) that seems rooted in some deep and ancient secret knowledge of our own eggy innocence. Bolsheviks and royalty alike teeter on an impossible edge of frailty. And even chocolate cannot save them. Whew. Over easy for me, please!

11:32 am  
Anonymous Margaret said...

I dreamed last night I volunteered to lead an emu to its home up Plum Creek. I had to untangle its leash with that of an ostrich, and then when I was about to leave, I saw that it was pouring rain.

10:25 pm  
Anonymous Jason said...

Thank you for "An Egg". Wonderful. I recently put together a post about a few egg related items, including a 19th century cookbook on eggs and a North Carolina Museum's Exhibit of Eggs.

12:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The spectacle and nourishment made for a most perfick convalescence.

To think that beyond our screams of glee and horror and that haunting eggy fragrance lie Faberge, Humpty, the good doctor Seuss, and sundry violent rites of Spring, past and future...

La lutte continue!

6:50 pm  
Anonymous B's Mom said...

My dear -- this is egg-zactly your cuppa tea -- to teach me, (I had no idea of the magnitude of emu eggs, let alone the consistency!) make me laugh, ("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.") make me hungry, (especially since it ends with fruit cake for dessert) and already wanting another one from Syllabub. B's photos, as usual, are spedtacular. Just don't go sitting on any walls, you good eggs!

9:50 pm  
Blogger Foodichka said...

Lovely blog. I'm a Russianist, and the part about the Faberge egg warmed the cockles of my heart. Mind if I link to you?

6:03 pm  
Anonymous gillie said...

I can't decide if it is the colour of the shell or the rich yellowness of the the scrambled contents which I covet most. But I have a huge green eyed monster on my shoulder. I thought our geese were second to none, but Honker and Hooter must look to their laurels!

4:54 pm  
Blogger Private Chef said...

Hi There

I just stumbled upon your blog and think it is an excellent read for foodies and especially like the photos and design of the blog.I started off as a blogger myself and realise the importance of a good clean design like you have here. I have now bookmarked it for myself to read and have added you to our new list of "all the food blogs in the world" on www.ifoods.tv which we have been compiling for the last month! Hopefully it will send you some traffic in the long run. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on food so keep up the good work and talk soon. Cheers

11:53 am  
Anonymous Kathe said...

Hello. I have learned of you from my daughter, librarian Melissa. I dreamed so sweetly last night that you had a new post, it was nestled right alongside that beautiful egg. Sorry to say, I can not tell you what you wrote about, only that it was lovely.

12:09 pm  
Blogger angel said...

Lovely, as always. Thank you!

12:13 pm  
Blogger Allie said...

Beautiful. Just beautiful. I hope you post again.

10:03 pm  
Anonymous Emu Farming said...

This is interesting! Will have to try this out sometime. Thanks for the great info.

3:35 pm  
Anonymous Make money online internet said...

Hi Syllabub!

5:43 am  

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