Yes, it’s the eternal symbol of life and fertility, but an egg is also the ultimate culinary shape-shifter. Whole, it’s a smooth pearlescent self-contained ovoid, cool to the touch and hefty in the hand; a solid little round stone, perfect in its potential and beauty. Once you crack it, it’s tragicomically arrested — splat, goes the bird that will never be. What was once an austere and pristine solid becomes, in an instant, a liquid mess; the ascetic albumen and the fat yellow yolk jostle wetly in the bowl like a pair of bickering comics, Humpty and Dumpty. Then, as often as not, it’s subjected to a hard, fast fork scramble (your brain on drugs) and slid into a skillet’s hot fat, where it puffs into a sun-yellow solid disk. This is the classic omelet whose accomplished creation is considered by many chefs to be a pinnacle of culinary achievement.
My mother taught me to separate eggs by tossing the yolks from shell-half to shell-half while the whites slithered into the bowl. “If even one drop of yolk gets in,” she warned, “the white won’t whip.” That always made me nervous, the pressure to segregate so cleanly, to keep the delicate membrane of the yolk unbroken as it swished against the jagged shells. Equally perturbing was that little red splotch of blood, the “meat” spot … was that an indication of a fertilized egg? It was not, as it happened, but it still gave me the willies.
Due to their potential for becoming meat, eggs were forbidden at Lent for hundreds of years, from the time of Charlemagne, in the 9th century A.D., until 1784, five years before the French Revolution. During Lent, in Catholic countries, all the eggs in the henhouse had to be either left to hatch into chickens or gathered and saved to be eaten at Easter. For preservation’s sake, they were dipped in mutton fat or wax. Then they were kept around in jars or baskets. Understandably, people started to decorate these smooth, glossy, plain objects to make them pretty. Kids loved these painted eggs; finally being allowed to eat them again after a period of proscription made them seem even more exciting — what’s forbidden automatically becomes a treat. The ritual of hunting for hidden colored eggs increased their worth and made them seem even more festive. Thus was the prosaic everyday egg elevated to an exciting Easter delicacy.
The famous Chinese “100-year-old (or 1000-year-old)” egg is, in fact, one that has been preserved for a few weeks or months in a mixture of ash, tea leaves, lime, saltpeter, rice hulls, clay, and aromatics. In this alkaline chrysalis, the egg morphs into a dark jewel — layered as a geode, a jade yolk nestling in an amber bowl. The gray-green yolk emerges from its cocoon with a whiff of sulfur and ammonia; the white becomes a tender, flavorless brown jelly. These cured “millennium eggs” are eaten with tofu, sesame oil, and soy sauce.
In the West, eggs are routinely preserved in a briny vinegar bath. Pickled, they are a staple in pubs and bars; nothing soaks up a surplus of beer like an egg. Beet-pickled eggs turn an arresting fuchsia. When cut in half, they scintillate on the eye like tropical flowers, with hot pink borders and pollen-gold coronae.
The yolk of a hard-boiled egg, that solid, velvety, rich marble, can be crumbled over a steamed leek that has been marinated in a strong simple vinaigrette. Mix the chopped white with half a cut-up ripe avocado and the same dressing, and you have a perfect summer lunch for one.
Meanwhile, the alchemy of chopped hard-boiled egg, ground-up broiled chicken livers, minced onions sautéed in schmaltz, and salt and pepper is unparalleled in its perfection. Serve this dense, homey pâté with little squares of chewy, dark cocktail rye.
And then there’s creamy, savory mayonnaise — another magical concoction made by drizzling oil very slowly into an egg yolk beaten with a little lemon and vinegar and mustard, whisking all the while until everything emulsifies.
The whipped white of an egg is another quasi-magical transformation: from mucus-y fluid to snow-white mini-Alpine air peaks. This stiff foam, when folded into a cheesy béchamel spiked with cayenne and nutmeg, then baked in a buttered dish, emerges light and tender, but deeply rich and decadent. Or you can whip egg whites with sugar and cream of tartar and bake them into a crisp brittle meringue that melts intriguingly on the tongue and vanishes without a trace.
Nothing is better for breakfast on a raw, early winter morning than two eggs boiled for six or seven minutes, cut in half and spooned into a bowl and mixed with one piece of buttered toast torn into pieces. The runny yolk soaks into the bread, the just-firm white is easy on the still–sleeping stomach, and the cozy, childlike pleasure of lapping this warm, buttery concoction from a bowl eases you into the day. An egg (or two) is the simplest form of rebirth after a restless night.