A short history of eggs

A full carton of eggs sits alongside the stove.

Every Sunday my mother passes them around, one egg for each child, one for her and two for my father.

She cooks his first in the fry pan alongside a butter soaked slice of bread. Then the brothers each take it in turn to cook theirs. My older sister prefers to boil her egg, hard boiled, the egg yolk as yellow as the sun.

My mother scrambles the little ones’ eggs into a buttery spread at the bottom of a sauce pan.

I take my egg to the corner of the kitchen away from the others and crack it gently on the side of a tea cup. My older sister has taught me how to ease apart the shell with my thumb and finger, so that the inner skin holds like a hinge when I pull the shell back. I can then tip the yolk from one half of the egg shell to the other, letting the white slide into my tea cup.

All the while I keep a close eye on the yolk, not only for blemishes, those red blood blisters that might signify a fertilized egg gone wrong – one I will not eat – but also for ruptures. I must preserve the skin to keep the yolk and white from mixing. The yolk glistens and slips from one side of the shell to the other.

When all the white has slid away into the cup, I offer the yolk to one of my brothers to cook alongside his own. Sometimes the brothers fight over it.

Then I take a fork and a spoonful of sugar – two spoons depending on the size of the egg and amount of white I have collected – and begin to whisk.

It is a tricky business. I must tilt the cup to one side to get maximum egg white under the whisk without spilling any.

I do this for an hour or two. I do this till the kitchen is empty of breakfast eaters. I do this till well past the time when the eight o’clock, the nine o’clock, the ten o’clock Mass are over, by which time it is too late to eat.

I must fast for three hours before Mass and communion, otherwise I will be in sin.

Today, my youngest daughter tells me she is in trouble because of my eggs.
‘It’s your old eggs,’ she says. They’ve caused my allergies. Your old eggs make me the sickly one in the family.’

It is a joke perhaps, but if I am to take it seriously what is she saying? That I should have conceived her earlier, just as I should have begun to whisk my Sunday morning egg at six o’clock in the morning in order to eat it in time for the last Mass at eleven.

I did not plan to have this daughter so late in my life. At the time I called her an afterthought, almost by way of apology, but the Sunday egg became a tradition for me, however late I came to eat it.

Put off the best till last, my mother said. Always save the good stuff. Do all the hard and horrible jobs first and then you will have the greater pleasure of anticipation.

All those years ago when I came home hungry from Mass and went to collect my egg white from the fridge, it still sat in its cup like a fluffy white cloud, but the cloud no longer stuck to the sides. The cloud had come away and slid around the inside of the cup afloat on a trickle of liquid that had leaked its way out, like a rain puddle.

I think my mother is wrong. I think my daughter may be right. There is a point in taking in the best things first. If you wait too long they might spoil.

When I think of the warmth of a freshly laid egg in the cradle of my hand, the warmth of the egg that has just slipped out from its hen mother’s body onto the straw of the hen house, only to land in the cold outside air, I remember my daughter’s birth.

How she hung there upside down in the doctor’s hands, after a quick labour that had surprised us all. Her body slimy and purplish blue. In those first few moments, her first in the world, I wondered through the fog and haze of a painful labour, will she ever breathe?

And then came the cry, the loud scratching sound that is a newborn’s cry, and I could let myself think the unthinkable.

If she had left the best till last, if she had held off that first breath, then she would not be here today to complain about her mother’s old eggs.

49 thoughts on “A short history of eggs”

  1. Yes, of course, her complaint assumes that you might have made her as she is only better, when of course, it was then or never for your contribution and the father's.

    However, I do love your literary rendering of the fact that some things are best done early because they simply won't keep.

  2. Wow.

    As organic farmers with a big flock of chickens, your story drew me in. Our chickens are smart and sassy, running wild and digging in the dirt. The incredible egg is a gift from nature. Few ingredients are as precisely calibrated as an egg. Few blog entries have captured me heart the way yours does.

  3. I’ve just been writing about my daughter over on Jennifer Tinkle’s blog:

    It’s one thing I missed, my own daughter being sick. She was two when her mother left me and so I never got to sit by her bedside and tend her. Some might think I got off lucky—if she was ill when I was due to collect her I just skipped that visit—but personally I feel cheated. I never signed up to be a part-time dad and if I’d been told beforehand that my wife and I would have split up a couple of years after she was born I might not have bothered. Which would have been my loss because she’s a great kid.

    Despite my inability to remember so many things I do have a fairly clear picture of how my wife’s labour went. It lasted about twelve hours and I was there by her side for the most part; the mostly Irish nurses threw me out of the room on a regular basis when they wanted to do something they thought I’d rather not—or at least should not—witness. I was a fusspot. I wanted to know what all the machines did and what were acceptable readings and I was quick to tell them when the dials—were there dials? I can’t remember, anyway the readouts—slipped into the danger zones not that they ever batted an eye when I did.

    The birth was a natural one apart from at the very end where they had to cut my wife to get the baby out; that was scary. They also rushed the baby away before either of us could get a good look at her but I suspect that was more because of the blood; I’m sure she looked awful. I do remember, as I crossed from one side of the bed to the other (not sure why they made me switch sides in the first place) I glanced between my wife’s spread legs and there was just this … there really is no other expression for it than a gaping wound. That image stayed with me and finally made its way, several years later, into this poem:


        When she first let me look
        all I could think of was an open wound.
        Not that I'd ever seen one
        so I don't know why I should think that.
        All very Freudian if you ask me.

        I've heard sex can be a religious experience
        especially the first time
        what with all that passion and blood
        though I still don't see
        why Thomas had to push his hand inside.

        But maybe I understand a little.

    Eggs I have no special memory of other than the fact I can’t recall ever eating a soft boiled egg as an adult. We own eggcups but from the look of them they’re probably too small to hold an egg. I like the idea of the soft boiled egg but I hate having to negotiate with the egg shell; hard boiled eggs are so much easier to deal with. I also hate it when the yolk runs down the side but then I hate all manifestations of goo.

    Not sure where I stand on the notion of saving the best to last but I do eat my vegetables first before proceeding with the rest of my meal. I have no idea where this habit sprang from. Like most kids I didn’t much care for certain kinds of veg growing up—turnips, cabbage and Brussels sprouts especially—but I don’t remember being told to eat them first to get them out of the road. Now my tastes have matured and I enjoy my veg—red cabbage is a favourite—but I still gobble it down first.

  4. Reading this reminded me of the day my youngest son said, "I wish you'd made me taller Mum", and I replied, "Well, I did the best I could and you're taller than me and your dad". (We're a bunch of shorties).

    I also remember not eating eggs for several years because I liked them over easy, but it was hard to judge when the white was completely cooked, but the yolk still runny. If I cut into the egg and saw even a smidge of uncooked white, I couldn't eat it. I eventually got back into eggs by hard boiling them. No chance of uncooked white there.

  5. My mother would cook soft boiled eggs for breakfast sometimes on school days. I usually went to school hungry on those days. I hated soft boiled eggs with their runny yolks and slimy whites.

    good story though.

  6. What a delightfully sensitive and deep story. Yes, I kept saying through and through, this child (I saw you as the youngest, I don't know why) is asserting herself, she's being ridiculously assertive. Good for her. By the end, all the pieces laid out in the tapestry, you took us all around the house on this, you worked your point about eggs, about hopes, about parenting, about beliefs that are just that.


  7. Superb piece Elisabeth, as usual of course.

    My wife gave birth to my youngest daughter TWELVE years after my other daughter was born. I had no idea of this pregnancy during the first couple of months and when the news came I was NOT a very happy guy. We had what is often considered a perfect family: a boy and then, 4 years later, a girl.

    The thoughts of starting again with a new baby made me angry. My wife, however, was delighted!

    Thirty six years later we are both so proud of our youngest daughter! She is brave, beautiful and talented – and also the mother of a lovely lad and a beautiful lass.

  8. Susan Landry alerted me to this, and I'm so glad she did. Paras 1-4 are one of the finest descriptions of poverty I have read.

    The truth of the grandmother said is evidenced in the grandaughter.

  9. Our unplanned youngest got the nick-name 'prawn crackers'. The bonus with a bulk order. He doesn't see the joke and took umbrage when it was first used.

    I can never look at an egg now without being reminded of a joke about how strange things became the ordinary.
    Who was the first person to look at a chook and say "I'm gong to eat the next thing that comes out of its bum!"

    I have recently learnt the art of 'icon writing' and how to mix the egg tempera. We have to roll the yolk around in the palm of our hands until all the slippery white has completely gone and then pierce the yolk so only the pure yolk is used to mix the paint. Oh, and some vodka – strictly as a setting agent of course.
    Karen C

  10. Elisabeth, I read this yesterday and it has stuck with me through the night, for this morning it struck me that perhaps your daughter ought to think about the possibility that it was the rooster and not the hen which was the cause of her being a sickly one. After all, which came first, the rooster or the hen? 😉

  11. I day dream about such things, too, Snow. For instance if my parents had conceived me in Holland along with all of my sisters and brothers instead of in Australia how different would we be?

    Impossible to answer only to speculate : a different place, a different circumstance, a different person perhaps.

    Thanks, Snow.

  12. It's always hard to respond to such generous comments, Juliet, other than to say thanks. 'Visceral' is a great word, it reminds me of bodies and of eggs.


  13. I agree, Yvonne, the good old egg is such a well calibrated unit, especially in its shape – designed for strength and crack-ability from the inside.

    I too am very fond of chickens, which we here in Australia call chooks.

    Thanks, Yvonne.

  14. Jennifer Tinkle's blog is wonderful Jim, and the story she tells of sitting with an ill child is poignant. You may have wanted the experience yourself but had you endured it you might not feel so well disposed to the idea. I suppose it all depends on how sick the child is. I think of someone like Elizabeth Aquino and her experience of sitting with her disabled daughter – a whole different kettle of fish to your average unwell child.

    As for child birth. I've never witnessed one except on film but I've been through it four times and know something about how hard it can be from the inside. It's not therefore hard to imagine the helplessness of those close by who have to endure the experience of standing by helpless and watching. Not the medicos of course they have a role but the spouses, partners and other family members and friends who may be present.

    As for eggs these days I love a hard boiled egg, mashed with mayonnaise. It would have to be one of my favourite quick food snacks. I eat them every time my husband is away. He jokes that if I'm not careful I'll get egg bound.

    Thanks, Jim.

  15. I have more trouble with uncooked egg yolk than with uncooked white, River. But uncooked egg generally unless its the white and whipped to meringue style consistency with sugar is pretty repulsive to me.

    As for your son, it's funny how our children, at least while young, believe we can order their essentials as if at a restaurant.

    Thanks, River.

  16. I'm glad you enjoyed a tour around some of my internal world, memory and imagination, Rosaria.

    I've never seen myself as the youngest. I might have wanted to be so but no, sixth in line of nine is far from the youngest.

    Thanks, Rosaria

  17. There are seven years between our youngest and the next one up and that was quite something then, Philip but twelve years, that's a much larger gap.

    Still I bet your youngest helped to keep you young at heart, as in some ways our youngest tends to do, too.

    Thanks, Philip.

  18. You're the first here to mention poverty, John of Penal Colony, but you're right. We were poor, in a manner of speaking, though not so poor as some.

    I found out the other night from my 92 year old mother that when she too was a young girl eggs were considered a luxury, as they were when I was young. Perhaps not so much today, at least not for some. It's all relative up to a point, beyond a point poor is poor. The Irish know this well.

    Thanks, John.

  19. That's news to me, Karen , the making of egg tempera for the purpose of colour making. What is 'icon writing' I wonder?

    I have not heard the joke about eating the next thing that comes out of a chook's bum. It's amazing what you learn in the blogosphere.

    I can also understand your youngest's annoyance at the nick name 'prawn crackers', even though it may not have been intended maliciously.

    Our youngest by the way was planned at the time but not when we started out child rearing.

    Thanks, Karen.

  20. You are right, Unknowngnome: which came first rooster or hen?

    I've also heard it said that the male is the carrier of the gene that determines gender. So my four daughters need not hold me responsible for the fact that none of them were born otherwise.

    Thanks, Unknowngnome

  21. Icon writing is the art of painting religious icons. It is a lovely gentle meditative process and contradicts all the other 'rules' I ever learned about painting.
    Every step in the process is a form of meditation.
    I'm sorry I treated this post a little light-heartedly after reading so many of the other well thought out comments.
    Our first two were only born after much medical intervention and we didn't think we could go through the process again, as much as we would have loved to plan a third.
    Then, without warning . . .
    there he was!
    Karen C

  22. This post was beautiful, Elisabeth. You do such a great job of telling a story or memory and stretching it (a bit like an egg yolk) into present day.

    You have such a gift for communicating your ideas through stories.

  23. Tracy, I reckon the past and present are as interlinked as mind and body, and each as important in their own way. Thanks for recognising my efforts to bring them together through story.

  24. Your separation of the yolk from the white reminded me of my mother and grandmother doing that. I didn't like the blood clots that would be there at times. Today, egg whites come in a carton and that's what I eat. But you took me back to breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and my mother's meringue pie made from egg whites.

  25. Childhood memories can be very evocative, Syd. One person's memories so often trigger off anothers as if by osmosis.

    Thanks for doing a round trip through my blog Syd. It's much appreciated.

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