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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.

Feeling peckish? The silkie, originating in China, looks fierce but is prized for brooding. Photo: Getty
Feeling peckish? The silkie, originating in China, looks fierce but is prized for brooding. Photo: Getty

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.