The enigma of the egg

They are a great mystery and a great leveller; a simple thing that can be eaten a hundred ways.

E is for egg. A few years ago, the New Yorker ran a cartoon depicting a post-coital scene. A chicken and an egg reclined on a large double bed, the sheets tousled. The chicken smoked a cigarette. ‘Well,’ the caption read, ‘that solves that old question.’

‘Which came first: the chicken or the egg’ is a dilemma that has existed for as long as philosophy. And despite advances in science it still hasn’t been solved. In 2010 it was announced that chickens must have come first. Eggs can only exist because they come from chicken ovaries, and are formed by proteins found there. But history suggests that dinosaurs were around before anything that we would now recognise as a chicken, and dinosaurs laid eggs, too.

Many of us find the thought about what an egg is actually made from fairly squeam-inducing. Yet we have been eating eggs since prehistory – long before the domestication of the chicken, which is thought to have occurred around 7500 BC in Southeast Asia and spread from there around the world. By 800 BC the Greeks (who had hitherto sampled only the quail’s egg) were eating eggs from farmed chickens. They continued in popularity through the middle ages – although they were banned at Lent – and survived the age of enlightenment. Let us not dwell on the culinary grimness of the dried egg period, that popular, disgusting staple of the Second World War. Today around 6.5 billion hens produce 62 million tons of eggs for our consumption every year.

We eat them boiled and scrambled and poached and baked, in soufflés and custard and quiche and ice-cream. Eggs are in pasta and in cake, in lemon curd and mayonnaise. Even the most hopeless cook can boil an egg; even the most sophisticated chef can curdle hollandaise. They can be simple and comforting – an omelette aux fine herbes is the perfect Sunday-night supper. Or they can be refined and tricksy – think of the piles of jewel-coloured meringues in the windows of Ottolenghi.

Eggs also have a wealth of superstition surrounding them. From the Roman period until well into the seventeenth century egg-eaters were careful to thoroughly crumble the shell. Accounts vary as to whether this was to prevent a witch writing their name on it to mark them out for a curse, or to stop the witch using the hollow shell as a boat from which to call up terrible tempests. An ancient May Day ritual involves breaking an egg open to foretell your fate: one with blood in it means you will die shortly, while a double yolk portends marriage or childbirth. If an egg cracks while being boiled you can expect an unwelcome guest. Scrambled owls’ eggs cure alcoholism. Chucking a rotten egg – horror! – at an enemy is as old as animosity itself.

Eggs are also central to the Christian feast of Easter – even in its modern, chocolate-laden, schmaltzy form. The original tradition – still practiced in my childhood though probably now fast becoming extinct – was to hollow and then dye and decorate a hen’s egg. Here, eggs are reversed from their usual symbolism of fertility and instead represent Jesus’s empty tomb.

Likewise there are mentions of eggs in creation myths from China to Persia to Native America. Plato and Aristotle mention them, and so does Richard Dawkins. Jeeves gives them to Bertie Wooster as a hangover cure and Sam-I-Am feeds green ones – and ham – to Daniel. They are a great mystery and a great leveller; a simple thing that can be eaten a hundred ways. ‘An egg is always an adventure,’ said Oscar Wilde. ‘The next one may be different.’

For more entries from the Dictionary of Food, click here.


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