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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser