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  • July 5th, 2019

EGG ME ON

By Joel M. Vance

 

A long time ago, I wrote most of the manuscript on eggs figuring that there would be massive interest in buying a book about something that is so common to everyone—we eat them for breakfast, we even began as a form of egg inside our mommies. I had just read a book about peppers and figured that if a writer could profit from writing about jalapenos, I should be able to make a buck from writing about the morning scramble.

 

So far, the nation’s book publishers have disagreed with me, but I did collect a massive amount of information on eggs, including countless bits of trivia by which I could (and you can if you want) bore people to insensibility (either that, or convince them that you are way past time to be committed to a mental health facility).

 

So here, for your information or as evidence to be used when the man in the white coats come for you, are many tidbits of egg trivia. It’s been a slow week, it’s summer hot, and I think I’ll take a nap.

 

Samuel Butler, back in the 1600s, referred to something being “like nest eggs to make clients lay.”   “Nest egg” as used today means a savings account (or in cooking to describe stiffly- beaten egg whites into which the yolk is deposited for baking), but in the chicken world, it means an artificial egg to encourage a hen to lay in a preferred nest, rather than in a hidden spot.  Doesn’t much matter what color, size or shape it is, as long as it is roughly like a real chicken egg.

 

                One pigeon fancier experimented with different colors, shapes and sizes.  He first put black dots on the eggs, then red.  Didn’t matter.  Then he used other colors, applied in stripes and dots.  Same thing–pigeons accepted them as if they were real pigeon eggs.  He then tried a white Christmas tree light bulbs and a ceramic cylinder.  “They set it,” he said, “but with less enthusiasm.”  Pigeons have brooded small oranges, table tennis and golf balls and quail eggs, as well as eggs from chickens and even from a goose.  No wonder a cowbird egg doesn’t puzzle them.  The researcher said albatrosses will brood a milk bottle and recalled seeing a newspaper photo of a chicken brooding a nest- full of walnuts.

 

                Darning eggs are another egg-shaped device.  Drop a darning egg (often of wood) into a sock with a hole in it and it makes mending easier, either toe or heel.

 

                There are few egg quotations, but Shakespeare always is good for a quote on almost anything and eggs are no exception: “They say we are almost as like as eggs,” says Leontes to Mamillius in “A Winter’s Tale.”  Of course, if you consider the ostrich and the bee hummingbird, that simile breaks down bigtime. Cervantes also used the simile: “He is like one as one egg is like another.”  But either could have said, “We’re as alike as peas in a pod,” which someone else did.  Cervantes also adjured against keeping all your eggs in one basket. 

 

                The modern variation of the quote is: “Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket!”  And the corollary is that if you do put all your eggs in one basket…don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.  Robert Burton, who died in 1640, said someone was “going as if he trod on eggs,” which is the beginning of today’s “walking on eggs” cliché to describe someone proceeding very carefully.  Samuel Butler said, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.”

 

                A couple of more modern philosophers, Ambrose Bierce, the irreverent author of The Devil’s Dictionary, and humorist Dave Barry, also have explored eggs.  Talking about “sacred” scarabs, Bierce compared them to “tumble-bug” beetles.  “Its habit of incubating its eggs in a ball of ordure may also have commended it to the favor of the priesthood, and may some day assure it an equal reverence among ourselves. True, the American beetle is an inferior beetle, but the American priest is an inferior priest.”  Bierce also libeled a favorite egg dish, custard: “Custard, n. A detestable substance produced by a malevolent conspiracy of the hen, the cow and the cook.”

 

                And Barry invoked eggs while discussing the intricacies of fish sex: “…generally when two fish want to have sex, they swim around and around for hours, looking for someplace to go, until finally the female gets really tired and has a terrible headache, and she just dumps her eggs right on the sand and swims away. Then the male, driven by some timeless, noble instinct for survival, eats the eggs. So the truth is that fish don’t reproduce at all, but there are so many of them that it doesn’t make any difference.”

        

The description of someone as a “good egg” or “bad egg” goes back at least 150 years.  There are many references to people being bad eggs from the late 1840s on (and the phrase seems to have been common then).  F. Scott Fitzgerald used the phrase “a good egg” in his 1922 novel The Beautiful and the Damned.  Next time you see the original King Kong movie, ignore Fay Wray’s screams and listen for a character to say, “He’s a tough egg, all right.”  As a teenager I was far more interested in hearing Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer character describe the various women he loved and shot, but he did talk about “those two eggs” when describing a couple of lowlifes in “Lonely Night”.

 

                Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a compendium of waspish definitions.  He said, “They say that hens do cackle loudest when There’s nothing vital in the eggs they’ve laid; And there are hens, professing to have made A study of mankind, who say that men Whose business ’tis to drive the tongue or pen Make the most clamorous fanfaronade O’er their most worthless work…”

 

“Chicken manure is extremely rich in nitrogen which is needed in all plant life. It makes an excellent addition to the compost pile, which in turn helps produce better vegetables.

 

Egg tapping is a custom practiced during Easter in many places.  The principle of the game is to hold an egg firmly and tap your opponent’s egg without breaking your own egg.  The  rules for this custom varied from country to another.  This tradition is still practiced today in southern Louisiana during Easter festivities. 

 

China ranks as the world’s leading egg-producing country, and the United States ranks second. In Siberia people believed that shamans or witch doctors were hatched from iron eggs laid by a mythical bird. Eggs are symbols of life and fertility.  Easter eggs symbolize the Resurrection and the renewal of life that comes with spring. China’s best known eggs are called “hundred year old eggs” and they are a delicacy. The Chinese have decorated a baby’s crib with egg designs to attract good luck.

 

Decorating Easter eggs is considered a fine art in many parts of Europe, especially Hungary, the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe.  To Carl Faberge, jeweler to Czar Nicholas II, egg decorating was a fine art.  This gifted artist created enameled and jewel- encrusted Easter eggs that were marvels of beauty and ingenuity.  The ancient Teutons believed that on Easter, rabbits laid eggs.  Thus the beginning of the Easter bunny.  To refuse the gift of an Easter egg was very rude.  It was the same as refusing the friendship of the person offering it.

 

An Easter egg with two yolks meant great luck and fortune for its owner.  Eggs blessed at Easter could ward off illness.  The Mayans believed the egg could free persons thought to be under the spell of the Evil Eye.  Medicine men would pass an egg back and forth many times before the face of the person believed to bewitched.  The medicine men would then break the egg, look at the yolk as though it were the evil eye, and immediately bury it in a secret spot.  The bewitched would be cured of the evil spell.

 

In olden days it was said that any egg laid on Friday would cure a stomach ache.  Easter eggs planted in vineyards were supposed to guard vines against thunder and hail.  Coloring and embellishing eggs was a custom during the middle ages in England.  Edward The First’s household accounts for the year 1200 showed an expenditure of eighteen pence for 450 eggs to be colored or decorated with gold leaf for distribution to the royal members of the household.

 

It is an old courting custom to present beautifully decorated eggs to a favored sweetheart or suitor.  Golden eggs symbolize great fortune to recipients. Chickens do not chew their food (I just threw that in case you’re getting hungry for an omelet). The food is moistened in the throat, and ground up in an organ just before the stomach called the gizzard. If a chicken is on the range, it will eat grit, hard particles like small stones. These particles are what the food grinds against in the gizzard.

 

                Does any kid today say, “Last one in’s a rotten egg!” when he’s making a running dive in the ol’ swimmin’ hole?  To be a literal rotten egg, of course, would be to smell really horrible, so a dunk in the swimming hole could only help.  How about “egging” someone on?  Does it mean you throw eggs at them to keep them in motion.  No–the word is a corruption of a Saxon word “eggian” which means to goad.

 

                Calling someone an “egghead” means he’s an intellectual, but it’s said derisively as if there is something wrong with being one.   You don’t want to be labeled an egghead, but you’d bask in the glow of being called “a good egg.”  No one said descriptive clichés have to be consistent.

 

The ostrich, the largest living bird, lays white eggs that weigh up to 3 pounds. In contrast, the Cuban bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, lays eggs no larger than peas!  Oology (the collection and study of eggs) shows us that shapes and colors of birds’ eggs are often related to protective strategies. Birds that nest in holes or other cavities, like owls and woodpeckers, lay eggs that are rounded and white so they can be seen in the dark nest by the parent. Birds that nest on ledges, like seabirds, usually have a pyriform or pointed egg to keep them from rolling out of the nest. Birds that nest in the open lay colored eggs to camouflage them with the environment.  While birds are nesting and caring for their eggs, most reptiles are busy laying and burying them. Because they are usually buried and don’t need to be camouflaged, reptile eggs are white. To hatch from their eggs, snakes are endowed with an egg tooth that they use to cut their way out of their shell.  Some eggs are incubated internally.

 

Gastric brooding frogs will swallow their eggs and incubate them in their stomach until they hatch, then the young will be regurgitated. Suriname toads deposit eggs on the female’s back where a thin layer of skin soon grows over them. When the tadpoles are ready to hatch, they burst out from underneath the skin

 

                Eggshell porcelain has nothing to do with eggs.  It refers to the eggshell-like thinness of the porcelain.  The process is Ming dynasty (1403-24) Chinese and other Chinese emperors revived the style periodically.

 

                The only famous person recognized by the Encyclopedia Britannica named Egg is Augustus (1816-63), an English painter who was “famous in his day” which means no one remembers him today.  He also was an actor, equally forgotten by stage historians. 

 

Because of its connections with new life, the egg has been touted as both an aphrodisiac and fertility insurance. Central European peasants rubbed eggs on their plows hoping to improve the crops. The French bride broke an egg on the doorstep before entering her new home to assure a large family. Back before Nero practiced fiddle pyrotechnics, his consort Livia was told to warm an egg on her bosom. When it hatched, the sex of the chick would foretell the sex of her unborn child. All went as predicted and the Emperor Tiberius (as well as an old wives’ tale) was born.

 

                The longest distance an egg, presumably chicken, was thrown without breaking is 106 meters.  I doubt the egg was thrown in a gravel pit or the length of an Interstate highway.  Maybe thrown into a pit of goose down?  What group of eccentrics would gather to throw eggs and measure the results?  Who are these people and have we seen them on an X- Files episode?  I would hope the same group (it’s daunting to think of more than one such gathering) dropped an egg 183 meters without breaking it. A couple of other records that I’d rather not think about are for the most hard- boiled eggs eaten (14 in 58 seconds) and the most raw eggs eaten (13 in 3.2 seconds, a terrifying image).

 

                Egg use in art was widespread in the early Renaissance.  Artists mixed a witch’s brew of ingredients to get colors.  Called tempera, the paint might have had egg yolks (the process often is called “egg tempera”), calves’ hooves, various oils, clay and various powders such as ground marble and gold dust.  The eggs, to provide the best paint, should come from “city hens” as opposed to those from the country.  Presumably hens from the city were more cultured, perhaps taken to art museums where they could appreciate the exquisite application of their reproductive efforts.  Country hens, on the other hand, were accustomed to pecking in cowshit and could not be expected to appreciate Botticelli or Van Eyck, much less produce refined yolks for their use.

 

                Or am I making too much of this? Don’t egg me on— I’m ready for that nap.

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