Photo by Kat Kinsman

Vinegar makes it bloody delicious

Kat Kinsman
November 28, 2018

A dead giveaway that the culinary opus La Cuisine de France: The Modern French Cookbook was published in 1964 is that the recipe for assassin's eggs is simply a list of ingredients and directions. Mapie, the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t write a clever headnote for oeufs a l'assassin, tracing a possibly apocryphal lineage to Louis Pierre Louvel getting peckish the morning after bumping off Charles Ferdinand d'Artois outside a Paris opera house. She didn't gin up an anecdote about a beloved aunt attempting to spook les enfants with tales of a local boogeyman. There's not a morsel of the sort of backstory that seems de rigueur in contemporary cookbooks, especially for a recipe with such a provocative name. It's just fried eggs and vinegar—and it's bloody delicious.

I was unfamiliar with Mapie (born Marie Pierre Adélaïde Lévêque de Vilmorin and known by that nickname even after marrying the nephew of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and becoming a countess) until a couple of exceptionally fancy friends of mine threw a birthday dinner at their home featuring a lavish spread of cassoulet, cream-drenched potato pie, crepes suzette, and a host of other indulgent wonders. The source of several of the dishes, the proud cook told me, was La Cuisine de France, a compendium of 1500 French recipes meticulously adapted by the journalist and food writer to suit the needs of American housewives. Perhaps that translated collection (she wrote several others in French) was meant to ride the wave of culinary Francophilia generated by the 1961 publication of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but more likely it was drowned out. Mastering and La Cuisine were both written by ebullient, knowledgeable women but Julia was a native English speaker and Mapie relied on a translator. La Cuisine was largely lost to the tidepools of eBay and the cookbook shelves of kitchen fusses like my friends.

When the cook allowed me to rifle through his much-loved copy I fixated on the extensive section on eggs. I'm a sucker for an outre egg recipe, especially a throwback like the intriguingly named "night life eggs" (chopped-up hard boiled eggs with onions, egg yolks, milk, cheese, and lemon juice on toast with tomato) or Julia's anxiety-inducing oeufs en gelee, and La Cuisine hatched a world of possibilities. Maybe a brandied stuffed egg could anchor my next brunch, as could the chicken liver and wine-filled Eskualduna omelet. Scrambled eggs with a healthy helping of Cinzano would be a bold start to any day, and a green-dyed, ginger-zapped, Bechamel-doused "egg delight" sounds like a hoot—and a subsequent nap. But the unexplained "assassin's eggs" assured my purchase of the book, especially since I couldn't easily find anything about the dish online.

Photo by Kat Kinsman

That had some to do with my poor command of French (je regrette), but also that assassin's eggs seems to be more of a technique than a standardized dish. In the text that goes with an egg-themed art show, there’s a story about legendary chef Pierre Gagnaire making "des œufs au plat "à l’assassin" back when he was a young, broke apprentice. He would salt the whites of the egg and deglaze the frying pan with blood-dark, old red wine. Nouvelle cuisine star Roger Verge extolled the pleasures of "fried eggs with wine vinegar" in The Cuisine of the Sun: Classical French Cooking from Nice and Provence (1981), noting their particular appeal after a long night of dining and drinking. Some friends of his separated, salted, and cooked the whites, he said, then slid the yolk on top. Others allowed for various butter cooking times. He refrained from any morbid allusions, as did the "fried eggs with sizzling vinegar" in Deborah Madison's Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets (2002) and Bertrand Auboyneau's "fried egg with a spoonful of vinegar" in Michael Harlan Turkell's Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar: With Recipes from Leading Chefs, Insights from Top Producers, and Step-by-Step Instructions on How to Make Your Own (2017).

Alain Chapel sunk the knife in and twisted it. His La Cuisine c'est Beaucoup Plus que des Recettes (1980) explained that "Le sang de l'assassin est le nerf du plat."—or that (per a Google translation) "The blood of the murderer is the nerve of the dish." Nicolas Fontaine, too, went straight for the jugular, making his L'oeuf au plat assassin du Gaya in a video for Le Fooding, deploying not just balsamic vinegar, but beetroot, Campari, sherry, and rum to convey the intensity of the act.

Mapie, while cleaving to the "assassin" title in both French and English, eschewed any particular violence in the actual cooking. Though the recipe is categorized in the "shirred eggs" section of La Cuisine, the instructions are to fry the eggs (very fresh, she insists) in an ocean of browned butter, season them with salt and pepper, flip them over to finish cooking, then transfer them to a non-metal plate. Pour a little wine vinegar in the remaining butter, boil it briefly, then pour it over the eggs. The result is a deceptively simple dish that comes out guns blazing. Heat-sweetened, sumptuous butter laps up against rich, molten yolks, but it's tempered by the light sting of fresh pepper, crunch of salt, and a bright, brilliant flash of wine vinegar. Assassin's eggs by any other name might be just as satisfying, but in Mapie's hands, this recipe is simply killer.

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