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My egg-cookery high horse was handed down to me by the chefs of my youth

John Sherman
December 18, 2017

Eggs are the stem cells of breakfast. A fresh dozen in the fridge is a security blanket of preparedness, a certainty that three to six sustaining meals are at your fingertips, from scrambled eggs to an egg salad sandwich. All is possible with eggs.

Eggs are a comfort in their simplicity. With the exception of the exalted poached egg, drowned in fresh Hollandaise and a pillow of greens du Brooklyn jour, eggs are for home and for diners, where you pay to be treated as gruffly as family. 

My grandfather made enormous, fluffy, kitchen-sink omelets filled with the palatable ends of the crisper drawer and a fistful of cheese. In retirement he developed an unusual blend of sleep apnea and insomnia that meant by the time anyone else in the house shuffled downstairs he’d been awake for a few hours already, his omelet station a one-man diner awaiting the morning rush. Before even reaching the light of the kitchen I’d hear him shout down the hallway, “Whaddya want in your omelet?” It was never a question whether I wanted one; the omelet was coming, and the only choice was fixins.

Before I’d even poured my first cup of coffee there was butter browning in the pan. My grandfather cracked three or four eggs into a bowl with a few seconds’ pour of milk and set to work chopping scallions and mushrooms and leftover ham, shouting out proposed additions on the fly to which the only correct answer was “Sure!” They were routinely delicious, of course, delicately browned like French toast on their perfect semicircular exterior and runny with cheese in the middle. For as many times as I’d eaten his food, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I never saw him crack a cookbook, and his omelets never had a recipe so much as a process, narrated like a Food Network show if you hovered close enough. 

With the exception of a brief obsession with perfecting a brunch-worthy poached egg—unsuccessful, and if there’s anything grosser than a fully cooked flagellum of egg white I’ve never produced it in my kitchen—I’ve never looked up how to cook eggs. Eggs were always cooked for me and by the people around me growing up. (I’m sure there’s a poetic egg-osmosis-mitosis metaphor to be found in all this, but I’m not a biologist, I’m a freelance writer.) My grandfather made omelets, my mother scrambled and hard-boiled, and my father flattened toads in the road. This is my full egg repertoire, handed down to me by the egg-cookers of my youth.

This type of inherited knowledge is ripe for extreme and unfounded beliefs about cooking, which I love. Standing on principle is a comfort in the more or less controllable environment of one’s own kitchen. Each of us spins a small web of personal superstitions around cooking, particularly when it comes to food made regularly, alone, and almost on autopilot. A friend’s mother used to boil water twice to use it once, which doesn’t make any sense, and which some people even think is dangerous. Apparently it was how she made pasta for decades. An aunt of mine flings spaghetti at her backsplash to test it, which is a more common shibboleth than twice-boiled water, but no more sensible than just biting it and looking at the oven clock. I refrigerated hot sauce for years until I offered a friend some and she reached for a cabinet. “You can refrigerate hot sauce,” she said, finally finding it among the salad dressings. “I mean, people do.” I do, apparently. Or did. ”People do” is kitchen agnosticism, and it will set you free. Free to leave your hard-boiled eggs in water for exactly twelve minutes, or put bread or a spoon in your mouth while chopping onions. Even the craziest of twice-boiled pasta water superstitions isn’t wrong, exactly. People do it. But who? 

More so than hot versus iced coffee, or how toasted toast should be, a difference of conviction around egg-making can be difficult to reconcile in cohabitative relationships. A boyfriend of mine hated how I cooked eggs—“low and slow” is my inherited scramble mantra—and always pushed his luck at my one-man diner, unwilling to accept my egg doctrine as written. My scrambled eggs do take what I’ll admit is a long time, but that’s simply how scrambled eggs are made. It is The Way Eggs Should Be. 

But then I once had a roommate who scrambled eggs in the microwave. I was appalled. His doctrine was 45 seconds of blasphemy on high. First cast out the egg from thine own eye, etc.

My scrambled-egg horse may be unreasonably high, but this kind of absolutism is the heart of home cooking: There is a right way and this is it, we figured it out. It’s comforting to believe and achieve the correct way to make pie crust, or Hollandaise, or eggs over easy, and moreover that the right way doesn’t belong to the bean-counters at America’s Test Kitchen but to your great-aunt or your grandmother, who’d sooner roll out her cookie dough with a can of garbanzo beans than spend $15 on a French rolling pin. But it isn’t all scrappy frontiersmanship; regardless of their complexity, or even their quality (I have eaten some sad-ass cherished cookies), family recipes are cherished for their origins. It’s not about what makes sense or doesn’t, or even what works; it’s about how it’s always been, and always will be. At least in your own damn kitchen.

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