egg1

Basket of perfect fresh farm eggs.

 

(First published in Finesse, Thomas Keller’s superb magazine, earlier this year.)

In the 1970s, the egg was bad-for-you food in America. After being a mainstay of the human diet for millennia, doctors here decreed that the cholesterol-laden yolk clogged arteries and resulted in heart attacks. Eat an egg if you must, nutritionists warned, but only in limited quantities. And after 30 years of telling us to avoid eggs and order up those egg white omelettes, the American Heart Association changed its mind—oops!—and declared that eggs, like an unjustly punished child, could once again return to the dining table.

As I began to write about the egg, I realized the egg fatwa was no isolated event. Indeed, it came to symbolize for me what was wrong with the way we think about food and how we let others decide what we eat.

Here we have this wonder food, a miracle of nutrition, deliciousness, economy and utility, perhaps the single perfect food, a gorgeously shaped shell containing all the materials needed to create life. And America’s medical establishment warned the most advanced nation in the world to stay away from it. Did France turn away from their omelettes? Italy from their frittatas? The Japanese from their tamagoyaki?

I beg people to avoid nutritional advice, avoid all food fads and diets, any and all health claims (yes, even that eggs are good for you—who knows?), and listen to our bodies and our common sense instead. How do you feel after eating an egg? I feel pretty good. If I “Cool Hand Luked” it with 50 eggs, not so much. Our bodies know. Do I like the taste of Pringles potato “crisps?” Love. Do I feel good after eating half a can? No. If we eat a variety of natural foods that we prepare ourselves in quantities that are comfortable to us, my belief is that if we feel good after having eaten those foods, our bodies are saying, yes, more please, and doing so for a reason. There are no controlled, long-term, double-blind studies about any food being good or bad for us, so even the docs and nutritionists are only making educated guesses.

The egg was one of the first foods I learned to cook. My dad taught me how to make a broken-yolk egg sandwich, with Hellmann’s mayo and white bread, the perfect Saturday lunch. The first “dish” I learned to make, in fourth grade I add proudly, was a potato frittata, an after-school snack. My other options were, as I recall, Space Food Sticks and Pop-Tarts. That frittata felt good, and kept on feeling good, whereas, well, let’s just say I gave up Pop-Tarts quickly.

The egg is good and the egg is great, and you can eat as many or as few as your body hungers for. If you start eating too many eggs, your body will let you know by not craving eggs.

From a nutritional standpoint, the egg is a powerhouse of amino and fatty acids, a dozen different proteins, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. I challenge any doctor to name a single food that gives us such a variety of nutritious substances.

Also, eggs are delicious to everyone, save for an unlucky few. Perfectly scrambled eggs—and by perfectly, I mean very gently scrambled over low heat, cooked slowly enough that most of the egg has formed delicate curds while the rest of the egg has warmed and thickened so that it sauces the curds—are a delight. Add a little tarragon and serve them with toast and champagne and they are sublime.

A wondrous dish in which the main ingredient costs pennies? Yes, the economy of the egg must be noted. Such bounty of nutrition and deliciousness should be rare, like saffron, but the egg is abundant. It should by all rights have to be exchanged for silver and gold on the black market, but instead the egg can be had with the change dug out of a sofa. Indeed, it’s the egg’s ubiquity and cost that encourage us to value it less than a quart of milk or a chia seed  kombucha energy drink.

A great egg preparation need be nothing more than poached and served on toast. And yet it is such a storehouse of power that, when appropriate craft is applied to it, it might become a truffle custard, served in its shell, with a chive potato chip rising out of it—one of the most famous four-star restaurant dishes of the past two decades.

The egg itself can be transformed in countless ways depending on how we cook it, and it likewise can transform countless other foods. The egg white alone deserves its own flow chart of the dishes it offers the cook. Its ability to capture air gives the rise and structure to cakes and soufflés. An egg white adds body to a whiskey sour. Whipped with sugar, it becomes a meringue to top a lemon pie. Bake that meringue and it becomes a crunchy confection. Fold in almond flour, bake it, and it becomes the shell of a macaron, the finest cookie ever created.

And the yolk! The yolk is very nearly a perfect sauce, as is. Put a raw yolk on a hamburger, or atop steak tartare, and it flavors and enriches the beef. Whip it with butter, lemon juice and shallot, and it becomes the magical Hollandaise sauce. Do the same with cold oil, season with lemon juice, and it is your own mayonnaise. Change the vegetable oil to olive oil, add mashed garlic, and it’s aioli.

Give an egg to an aspiring cook, and it offers innumerable lessons. The egg must be cooked delicately and so teaches the young cook finesse. Whipping it by hand gives the arm strength and stamina. The egg instructs in the way proteins behave in heat and in the powerful ways we can change food mechanically. Learn to take the egg to its many differing ends and you’ve enlarged your culinary repertoire by a factor of 10.

For the egg, as all these qualities suggest, is not simply an ingredient to be used in many ways, or served in varying concoctions, but is rather a singularity with a thousand ends.

Its shape alone, this elegant oval, simultaneously sturdy but delicate, porous yet protective, tells us all we need to know about the egg: it is nothing less than an expression of nature’s genius.

Something to consider before you crack one into a fry pan.

 

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© 2016 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2016 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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10 Wonderful responses to “Please, Consider the Egg”

  • Juniper

    I realized the sublime nature of the egg as a young child eating eggs and soldiers (toast strips.) My love for the egg has continued and as a near fifty year old I eat them just about every day. Viva Los Huevos!

  • Dana Noffsinger

    I’d be willing to bet money that most of those who don’t like eggs have only eaten them wwaayyyyyy overcooked. There is little better than an egg.

  • trakman

    The egg is exquisite in all its uses; the only thing better than that is the writing that describes it. Thank you Michael.

  • Emilee Cline

    We buy a beautiful dozen eggs from our local “Lazybird Farms” every other week. With their deep golden, glorious yolks they can’t be beat!

  • Allen

    Please forgive my intrusion and going off topic.

    Next weekend is the Kentucky Derby and a good time to try and perfect the mint julep. I review the bartender from Ritz Carlton New Orleans – Chris Mcmillian, and Mr Ruhlmans previous 3 post, as well as the comments.
    I love the ease of the aggressive mint julep, but it’s a little spicy. Not something I’d complain about, but since I only have them one time a year I strive for proper.
    I even bought the silver mint julep cup – with ridges on upper & lower part for grip so the drink stays cold.

    I noticed the bartender at the Ritz, who has probably made plenty more than me, follows a simple process:
    Silver cup, muddle mint, discard mint, add equivalent of shaved ice well over the rim, add straight bourbon, essence of mint and simple syrup – do not mix or even stir.

    The bourbon slowly melts, first sip is minty sweet. All the flavours meld and smooth out, pure bourbon takes on the other flavours.
    Spearmint, not peppermint. The goofy cups that seem like a waste of time, money and space, and to me – have a horrid association of the days of slavery, have and have nots – make all the difference, they keep it cool and attractive.
    Then there’s the process of making a mint simple syrup and adding it to the bourbon. I think the fresh mint needs to be at the forefront.

    from the original post of the bartender in New Orleans:

    “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure.
    Then comes the julep – the mint julep.
    Who has not tasted one has lived in vain.
    The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul;
    the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it.
    It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.

    “The Bourbon and the mint are lovers.
    In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered.
    The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream
    that makes the bourbon what it is.
    The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander.
    By the brook-side the mint grows.
    As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint,
    the mint bends to salute them.
    Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others.
    The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent.
    Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised.
    Among the first to greet the spring, it comes.
    Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

    “When the Blue Grass begins to shoot its gentle sprays toward the sun,
    mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook.
    It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to Old Bourbon.
    His great heart, his warmth of temperament,
    and that affinity which no one understands, demand the wedding.
    How shall it be?

    “Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are;
    mix it with sugar until it seems like oil.
    Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon –
    crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched.
    Then throw the mint away — it is a sacrifice.

    “Fill with cracked ice the glass;
    pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want.
    It trickles slowly through the ice.
    Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it.
    No spoon is needed, no stirring is allowed –
    just let it stand a moment.
    Then around the brim place sprigs of mint,
    so that the one who drinks may find a taste and odor at one draught.

    “Then when it is made, sip it slowly.

    August suns are shining, 
the breath of the south wind is upon you.

    It is fragrant, cold and sweet -– it is seductive.

    No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing,

    no maiden’s touch could be more passionate.

    Sip it and dream -– you cannot dream amiss.

    Sip it and dream –- it is a dream itself.

    No other land can give so sweet solace for your cares;
    
no other liquor soothes you in melancholy days.
    Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul,
    
no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.”

    – Joshua Soule Smith, Kentucky Colonel
    Published in the Lexington Herald in the 1880s

  • Allen

    Mint julep.
    For crushing the ice, you can use a pillow case or a crown royal reserve bag – I found it quite durable. So it is possible to recreate the Chris Mcmillian version – but his reading of the poetry is the biggest ingredient.

    Also of note, I made a nice spicy pesto out of young garlic chives, before they bloom, add a little course salt, squeeze of lemon, cheese, nuts, s&p in a motor & pestal.
    Top the pasta with a little of the purple flowers.
    A great way to welcome spring.

  • Vicki Abbott

    I never believed the anti-egg press and continued to eat 2 fresh-laid eggs every other day since II was a kid – and I’m 78 now, in excellent health. I’m lucky to have a close-by friend with 40 hens, so fresh eggs are readily available.

  • Ina Gawne

    This is such a good post! I totally agree with you on trusting your body to tell you if and when you have had enough eggs. We get the most beautiful organic eggs from a farm 8 minutes away from where we live. I have 2 poached eggs every day and I thank the farm for them from the bottom of my heart! When there is a very busy day ahead of me….I start out with a healthy big breakfast and eggs are the main attraction. Incidentally, I can remember as a child eating eggs and I would feel sick so I stopped eating them. It was not until my late 20’s that I was able to eat them with delicious relish! To me, eggs are the perfect nutritious food.

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