Don't chase the egg around the pot. It will only remind you of how often you run away from things.
Credit: Illustration by Jeremy Nguyen

If I can poach an egg, maybe I won’t have to leave my marriage.

The thought didn’t come to me fully formed. Whether it was an accident or not, the sudden and unbidden urge to poach an egg coincided with the realization I was thinking about divorce.

All of this was strange, primarily because I rarely cook. My husband took care of the cooking, just as he took care of the house and took care of me. In retrospect the metaphor is unsubtle: perfecting a difficult task—the hardest way to cook the easiest thing to cook—that requires care and attention. Tending to something fragile. Occasionally life is poetic, but it is very rarely good poetry.

The upshot is that I became very skilled at this one particular culinary feat and that I am now divorced. Doing one thing over and over again—poach an egg, think about leaving—is an obsessive and perhaps unhealthy way to become good at something, but it worked for me. Here are the best practices as I learned them:

It’s crucial to use fresh eggs. Using a fresh egg is how you get a tight finished product, instead of one with all those straggly bits.

Women know a lot about good eggs. We are told early and often how to look for them and the dangers of choosing a bad one. After years of ignoring this advice I had, at long last, picked a good egg. There are so few out there, and fewer as you pass various sell-by dates. When you find a suitable egg the sensible thing to do is make it yours and enjoy it. I found one, and now I was contemplating breaking it.

Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar to your poaching water.

I have no idea why this works. I could have asked my ex-husband, who has a PhD in chemistry, but I never told him about the eggs. While he still cooked and cared for me there was something both rebellious and shameful in this very small act of cooking and caring for myself. I never told him about a lot of things—how tired of being alone I was when we met, how I knew that taking refuge in another person is a selfish thing to do, how I thought about other people when we had sex. The big thing we didn’t have in common, besides the fact that he was in love and I was not, was that he had an analytical bent, whereas I enjoyed not knowing how everything works. Or, rather, I have always preferred things that work in spite of themselves to those that make sense on paper. This was a secret I had been keeping from myself.

Do not crack the eggs directly into the boiling water. Crack them into a small bowl and then gently ease them into the pot.

The knowledge that I had made a mistake in marrying this man didn’t come to me quickly. It was slow and oblique and easy to avoid confronting head-on. Perhaps the problem was that I didn’t like my job. Perhaps buying a house would fix things. It was a lovely house, after all. Perhaps the problem was, and always had been, me—which reminds me of another poaching tip: Do not stir or otherwise bother the eggs once they are in the water. Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.

(A small aside regarding egg-poaching devices or, as I call them, Coward’s Cups: they are an affront to God.)

Set a timer. Cook the eggs for precisely three minutes and not a second longer.

Everyone thinks they have a sense of how time passes, but it’s crucial to use a timer. You are never as right as you think. Three minutes goes by more quickly than you expect. Six years even quicker.

Congratulations. You may now place your poached egg on a piece of buttered toast or perhaps on a salad.

Plenty of people the world over are content with poached eggs on toast. You would be a fool to look at that and say, “No thank you, I think I’ll have something else entirely.” But you want what you want, and desire so often feels like a punishment, especially if you’re a woman.

I wanted poached eggs on boxed macaroni, poached eggs in a taco, poached eggs atop more poached eggs. I wanted to stack a dozen perfectly poached eggs on top of each other. I wanted more than anything something conceptually doomed that was nonetheless briefly meaningful in its execution—a precarious, jiggling monument to my competence that would sag and break under its own weight.

A pyramid of poached eggs. What a strange and fretful thing it is to want.

So that’s how I learned to poach an egg and also leave my marriage. I’m not sure I have many valuable lessons to take into my next relationship, but I am confident I can handle making breakfast. These days I mainly eat my eggs scrambled. I hope these instructions help.