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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.