A Brief History of Drinking Raw Eggs, from 'Macbeth' to 'Orange Is the New Black'
“It’s pure bro-tein,” says CO Lee Dixon, clapping his fellow prison guard on the shoulder. This was not the biggest or grossest reveal of this season of Orange Is the New Black, but it was reasonably horrific—the revelation that the male prison guards have been regularly convening midday at their apartments on the prison grounds for what they call “Fallujah omelets.”
A Fallujah omelet is… not an omelet. The Litchfield COs’ recipe consists of one shot of Jägermeister, topped with one raw, floating egg. This may sound like a nauseatingly inventive act of fictional bravado, but it’s in fact part of a long history of people gulping back raw eggs as a way to fortify their alcoholic beverages with some additional nutrition. For hundreds of years, eggs acted like shots of protein powder you could use to turn almost any alcoholic drink into a meal.
During the middle ages and through the 17th century in England, raw eggs were popular additions to beer and wine. Someone who was sick might be prescribed beer mixed with a raw egg, honey, and some herbs. Syllabub, a popular dessert beverage, was made from whipping raw egg whites with cream and wine, and then letting the mixture curdle overnight. A common flu or cold medicine was posset; a sort of proto-egg nog made by whipping eggs with cream, sugar, spices, and beer or wine into a thin custard. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth famously drugs the unsuspecting guards outside of Duncan’s home using poisoned posset, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff drinks posset before a date, believing that it will increase his libido.
As culinary historian Richard Foss explained to me, many of these combinations have to do with Elizabethan theories about medicine and about the humors of the body. “They basically believed that everything in the world could be divided into four different characters, which they called sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic, and the idea was that everything had a character that they could identify on these four poles,” says Foss. Since eggs fell into the sanguine category, they provided balance to beer, which was choleric.
Eggs also had the miraculous effect of filtering the beer or wine they were added to. As Foss says, “Just a little bit of egg white in something clarifies it and makes all of the particulates in it drop to the bottom. So if you have a very cloudy, traditionally made beer, when you put that egg in, it suddenly becomes more clear.”
The combination of beer and eggs carried over to colonial America, where the flip became fashionable—a frothy cocktail that’s still popular today, made from alcohol mixed with sugar, spices, and egg. In cold weather, a hot poker would be used to mix the drink, cooking the egg slightly, caramelizing the sugar, and making what Foss calls “something that’s kind of like an alcoholic marshmallow.”
In the 1800s, a glass of beer with a raw egg or two cracked into it became a reliable breakfast for physical laborers like miners in the US. As Mark A. Noon writes in Yuengling: A History of America’s Oldest Brewery, “In contrast to distilled liquors, beer was not viewed as an intoxicant in the nineteenth century.” Instead, it was considered a source of nourishment—a responsible way to consume some calories and nutrients in the morning before work or on a break between shifts. In mining towns in northeastern Pennsylvania, bars would open as early as 5:00 in the morning to accommodate the crowd gathering to order what they called a “Miner’s Breakfast”: two raw eggs cracked into a beer, and a shot of whiskey on the side. As Noon writes, “The miner would first gulp a shot of whiskey and then soothe his burning throat by chugging the raw egg and beer concoction.”
This predilection for knocking back intact raw eggs translated to the upper class, too. Jerry Thomas, the definitive celebrity mixologist of the 19th century, wrote in his 1862 bartender’s guide about the Pousse L’Amour—a drink in which maraschino, an egg yolk, vanilla cordial, and brandy are all carefully layered into a glass without mixing. His guide also includes a recipe for “Sherry and Egg.” The recipe in its entirety is:
- 1 Egg.
- 1 wine-glass of sherry.
In the 1930s, raw eggs became a civilized hangover cure that one could order on a train or at a hotel in the form of the Prairie Oyster or the Amber Moon. The Prairie Oyster combined a raw egg in a small glass with some Worchestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce. The Amber Moon added whiskey or vodka to the equation. The drink appears across modern pop culture everywhere from Cabaret to The Addams Family Values to Cowboy Bebop to Cocktail, attesting both to its popularity for the first half of the 20th century and our collective unease with the idea of the drink now.
This unease may come in part from our modern fears of bacteria. In the 1980s, several outbreaks of salmonella swept the US, affecting tens of thousands of people and scaring many more. Though salmonella cases have decreased drastically since then, Americans are largely still skeeved by the abstract idea of raw eggs. A caesar salad or a drink made with egg white or a bite of cookie dough is easy to stomach because it’s easy to forget that you’re eating a raw egg, but when it comes to the visceral reality of the entire membrane sliding down your throat, it’s impossible to forget what you’re eating.
This may explain why raw eggs have been relegated from a common morning routine to a daring act of bravado for the fearless and the fitness-obsessed. In a scene from Rocky (1976), Rocky’s alarm clock goes off, and he groggily walks over to his refrigerator to crack five raw eggs into a plastic cup. He drinks the eggs in one gulp as some stray yolk runs down his face and onto his sweatshirt. He wipes away the yolk with the back of his hand and burps.
A friend of mine, Beejoli Shah, told me that when she was a teenager, her ballet teacher coached her to drink a glass of milk every day with a raw egg cracked into it. She later found this exact recipe on pro-anorexia sites, troublingly, as a calorie-efficient source of energy. Forums on sites like NeoGAF.com are full of young men wondering if they should follow suit—wondering what raw eggs might offer to their physique or to their aura of masculinity. A user named “animlboogy” with an avatar of Paul Ryan at the gym writes self-assuredly, “I’ve done this with a half glass of Jameson’s. Breakfast doesn’t get more manly.”