Feeling peckish? The silkie, originating in China, looks fierce but is prized for brooding. Photo: Getty
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Why Henry James went to work on an egg

This culinary powerhouse is so easy to prepare that to accuse someone of not being able to boil one is a grave insult.

In this season of miracles, it seems somehow appropriate to have six of the genuine article sitting pretty on the kitchen counter. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi once described the egg as “the most perfect form of creation”, yet we usually take this most basic of foods for granted – indeed, familiarity seems to have bred contempt in my neck of the woods, where they are now in vogue as messy missiles among the school holiday crowd.

But whether you want to throw an egg or eat it, you can’t deny the cleverness of its natural packaging. If you fancy performing a miracle of your own this Easter, put a box of eggs on the floor and try walking across the contents; keep your feet flat; you should also still be able to have them for breakfast afterwards. (And if not, look on the bright side – you can make an omelette, et cetera.)

Until shoppers in the 1970s got it into their heads that brown eggs, like brown loaves, were the healthier option, most British eggs were pure white. In America, brown eggs are often still the pricier, “gourmet” choice.

Actually, the colour of an eggshell usually has nothing to do with how the chicken was raised and everything to do with the colour of the bird’s earlobes (yes, chickens have ears!) but sadly the breeds that lay blue, green and pink eggs still have reddish-brown ears.

Whatever their colour, that sturdy shell keeps eggs fresh for weeks. Ignore the date stamp and stick suspect bad eggs in a bowl of water instead: the older the egg, the larger the air pocket at the pointy end and the more likely it is to float.

With eggs around, you are only minutes away from a decent meal. Not only are they an excellent source of protein and minerals such as iodine and selenium, but they contain almost every vitamin you’ve ever heard of, as well as a few you probably haven’t. Add a tomato for Vit C and you’re sorted.

Best of all, this culinary powerhouse is so easy to prepare that to accuse someone of not even being able to boil an egg is a grave insult. (But should anyone accuse me of this, I would observe pedantically that one should simmer, rather than boil it; quite apart from the risk of cracking the shell as it bumps around the pan, boiling makes eggs rubbery.)

Indeed, for all the wonders of gastronomy, there’s not much to beat a freshly laid egg, as the novelist Henry James observed after a trip to Bourg-en-Bresse.

“I had an excellent repast,” he wrote, “– the best repast possible – which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable.

“The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed. ‘La plus belle fille du monde,’ as the French proverb says, ‘ne peut donner que ce qu’elle a;’ and it might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can reasonably be expected of it.”

That said, a dizzying multitude of possibilities lurks inside that humble shell, from the deliciously greasy egg sandwich to the airy elegance of a well-turned soufflé. The egg can take the credit for every rich custard, feather-light meringue and fluffy cake you’ve overindulged in; unsurprisingly, there are few cultures anywhere around the world that eschew its many pleasures.

But although I’ve had meatily foetal duck eggs in Vietnam and jellied, brown “thousand-year” eggs in Hong Kong, you still can’t, to my mind, beat an egg simply scrambled with butter. And all this joy for less than 20p a free-range pop! It makes those chocolate versions look like a bit of a rip-off.

 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder