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24 february 2016

Like many of the books in Reaktion's wonderful series on animals, foods, and natural features, Diane Toops' Eggs has a section on its subject in art. Eggs have indeed been favorites in still lives and symbolic paintings. Yet they have also been one of the materials of art. Egg tempera is a venerable method of painting, notes Toops: "Egg yolk provided the medium to fix pigment over two millennia" (116).

I'd add to that observation the 19th-century discovery that egg white could fix photographic images. Albumen prints, unlike tempera paintings, were by their nature a mass process and led to huge worldwide demand for eggs. A chicken egg doesn't yield many photographs, so suppliers ravaged remote islands for albatross eggs (as I learned in Graham Barwell's Albatross) driving the big birds into endangered status.

Eggs have their industrial uses today (especially in medical research and pharmacology), but most of us are just interested in eating them. I eat about a dozen a week, scrambled or in the form of an omelette. I also bake with eggs and, lately, have been turning out several quiches a week too. I never seriously cut back on my egg intake, even at the height of the national conviction that eggs were lethal cholesterol bombs. Aside from simply liking their taste and texture – not all people do – I find the egg irresistibly convenient. You crack 'em, you whisk 'em, and not long afterwards you have breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Toops presents the egg as a paradox of strength and fragility. She claims that it's nearly impossible to break a chicken egg by squeezing it in one hand – a claim I don't particularly feel like testing. Yet of course birds sit on eggs, so their strength is great proportionate to their size, and the egg-shape has evolved to provide the maximum structural stability for the area it encloses. A determined human with a hammer has a hard time cracking an ostrich egg. If we were action-figure-sized, a hen's egg might present even more of a challenge.

Toops demonstrates that eggs have been eaten in all recorded societies and presumably many a prehistoric one. Domestication of the southeast Asian chicken is millennia past, but even long before the spread of that species across Eurasia, humans raided any nearby nest for any kind of egg. Toops even briefly considers fish and reptile eggs. Why ask if shad do it? Waiter, bring me shad roe.

Eggs marches very briskly through the growth of eggs into an enormous industry. Toops dwells longer on the growing ethical problems this industry raises. Most eggs are still laid by caged hens, and by "caged" one must understand wire contraptions not really large enough to turn around in. "Cage-free" eggs mean that the hens have only a little more freedom, and even "free-range" can just mean that there's a hole in the wall where the hens could theoretically leave their barn.

One must go up to "pasture-raised" to get the quality of egg that my neighbors' hen Dottie produces. Dottie is cooped in a luxurious pen at night but roams a large lot by day and has decided to expand her territory to our yard as well. About five o'clock every evening Dottie walks up to our dining-room window and looks in to see if we have any pecans or peanuts. Operant conditioning working both ways, we usually do and run outside to scatter them for her.

Hens like Dottie produce very few of America's commercially-available eggs. They cost about three times what a cage-laid egg does. Considering that the cage-laid egg is not all that cheap any more, it makes increasing sense to buy pasture-raised, or at least free-range eggs (which cost about twice as much as cage-raised). The difference may seem large in percentage terms, but it comes to 20 or 30 cents per egg. That is not much to pay for quality of avian life.

As foodies are slowly realizing about all kinds of foods, there probably isn't much nutritional difference between the pastured egg and the factory model. (Still less does "organic" mean much to the eater, though it may to the larger environment.) There's only so much you can do with the capacity of a hen to produce nutrients, and the hen herself filters out most toxins (unless they creep back in during processing). There often isn't much difference in taste, either. Freshness is crucial, but modern farms do a good job getting you recently-laid eggs. No, the benefit of the expensive egg is a better world for the creatures that produce it.

Toops includes several recipes, but mostly for their historical or bibliographical value. It doesn't take much detail to tell you how to make a basic egg dish. My own quiche recipe is largely improvised and quite opportunistic:

Heat oven to 425° F. Whisk together eggs, milk, and pepper. Crumble cheese into pieshell. Add egg mixture. Slice or chop vegetable. Sauté vegetable in butter if you like (good for leeks and mushrooms especially). Top quiche with vegetable. Bake for 13 minutes; turn heat down to 350° F; bake for another 39 minutes and cool.

Toops, Diane. Eggs: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.