How can the mighty egg be simultaneously associated with such beauty and ugliness?
First, the positive stuff: In pure practical applications, the egg has wider utility than just about any naturally occurring foodstuff in mother nature—essential in cakes, mayonnaise, spaghetti carbonara, soufflés, and gin fizz cocktails alike. Zoom out to culture at large, and the egg is just as important a player: Encrusted with jewels for Imperial Russians. The funnest part of Easter. An instrument of physical comedy.
But egg’s ubiquity in our daily lives also makes it easily taken for granted. We’ve created idioms in our language that view egg in the negative connotation, synonymous with zero (when laid), embarrassment (when on the face), or risk (when placed in one basket). It’s also the preferred avatar of Twitter trolls worldwide.
Eggs are a beautiful dichotomy, a single-celled contradiction, and it’s a rich topic for the irreverent team at Lucky Peach to riff in a book-length deep dive. (Disclaimer: I’m a contributor to Lucky Peach magazine, but not for this book.)
In All About Eggs, out April 4, former Lucky Peach executive editor Rachel Khong embarks on a long night’s journey into oology. She and her team of experts (pun successfully avoided) make good on the book’s title promise: It is truly all about eggs, from lessons in biology to personal anecdotes and recipes from Filipino kwek kwek to lemon meringue pie. If it’s even peripherally egg-related, you will find it here. (Read an excerpt from the book about how to tell if you eggs are fresh.)
The A.V. Club: On the first page of the book, you claim the egg is “the world’s most important food.” How so?
Rachel Khong: This and all my other hyperbolic claims—and eggs themselves!—should be taken with a grain or more of salt. But in all honestly, what other food is even a contender? Here’s another hyperbolic claim: eggs are the Rosetta Stone of cooking. They’re often one of the first proteins a person learns to cook—at least they were for me—but they also take years to master: chefs at the highest echelon often have a signature egg dish because eggs are so complex. Eggs’ different properties of emulsifying, coagulating, and foaming make them this amazing thing to cook with. And eggs, because they’re cheap and as ubiquitous as chickens, are eaten pretty much everywhere across the globe, though a handful of cultures don’t eat eggs for religious reasons. If you are fluent in eggs, you speak the language of good food—nearly—everywhere you go.
AVC: In the course of researching this book, what single fact about eggs blew your mind?
RK: This fact elicits mostly blank stares from people, but did you know that an unfertilized egg yolk is a single cell? It’s a huge, amazing cell! If you crack the egg open and notice a tiny white dot on the yolk, that’s actually the nucleus. Which makes an ostrich yolk the largest vertebrate cell on Earth!
Another fact I love is particularly good for telling somebody over drinks or breakfast. So a chicken’s egg comes out of its cloaca, which is basically the chicken’s single hole used for… all things. Bonus fact: Chicken sex involves no penetration and is known as a “cloacal kiss.” So eggs come out of the cloaca, and so does poop. But! When the egg is moving along its last little stretch, right before it exits the chicken, the cloaca inverts like a sock so it doesn’t come into contact with any excrement. Which just comes as an utter delight to me.
AVC: Why is it that egg yolks in America, especially ones in upscale grocers, are generally paler than the sunflower-colored yolks I’ve seen in Europe and Asia?
RK: This should come as no surprise, but yolk color comes from what the chickens eat. Certain foods give yolks a more orange hue, and specifically pigments related to Vitamin A (lutein and zeaxanthin), which is in marigold flowers, grass, algae, peppers, and so on. But industrial egg producers can also feed their chickens synthetic pigments that result in a specific color yolk. The DSM yolk fan is a way to measure egg yolk color. Lower numbers are a more pale yellow, higher numbers are a more orange-y yolk. As it turns out, different countries prefer different colors of yolks. Scandinavia prefers a lighter eight to nine, England and France 11 to 12, Spain and northern Europe an orange 13 to 14.
AVC: So do eggs taste different around the world?
RK: I haven’t done extensive enough personal research, but the yolk color certainly plays psychological tricks on you. Eggs in Paris seem more delicious than the pale egg salads of Iceland, for example. Anecdotally and not scientifically, my friend Peter Freed—who told me about Chipsi Mayai, a french fry omelet they eat in Tanzania, and for which we have a recipe in the book—thinks that eggs there aren’t as good because the chickens just roam around and eat garbage. We’ll have to conduct a more scientific study. Stay tuned for All About Eggs II: More About Eggs. Just kidding.
AVC: What’s the most delicious bite of egg you consumed while writing this book?
RK: I visited Paris in 2015 for the first time and went to L’Arpège, where I had Alain Passard’s classic and widely imitated chaud-froid d’oeuf au sirop d’érable, or hot-cold egg: an egg gets emptied of its contents, and the yolk is gently poached, mixed with maple syrup, sherry vinegar, and heavy cream. It’s both hot and cold as the name suggests, and the perfect bite—as amazing as all the chefs say it is.
But I had so many comparably delicious bites while cooking and testing the recipes in this book last spring. Mary-Frances Heck, Aralyn Beaumont, and I spent an intense week cooking all the recipes in the Lucky Peach kitchen so Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford, our designers, could take pictures of them. We ate so many eggs.
Two perfect bites from that week were Michael Anthony’s tamagoyaki, a perfectly rolled Japanese omelet, and Sonoko Sakai’s more rustic tamago-no-shinzo yaki—so named because it looks like a pan-fried heart. A bite of tamagoyaki—savory, salty, sweet—topped with a little bit of grated daikon and soy sauce is so, so good, incredibly balanced and utterly addictive. I want it right now.
AVC: Do you have any particular tricks for fluffy scrambled eggs?
RK: We have two great scrambled egg recipes in the book: an easy soft scramble recipe from Caroline Fidanza of the New York restaurant Saltie, and a steamed-scrambled egg recipe from Jody Williams in Buvette, also in New York. If you like your eggs fluffy, the fluffier of the two is Buvette’s, which uses the milk wand of an espresso machine to scramble the eggs and fluffs them in the process. I realize that it’s not super practical and also voids the warranty on your espresso machine, so I get it if you don’t want to go that route, though they are delicious. If you’re doing it in a pan, cook the eggs in butter over medium heat and drag your spatula around in the pan once the eggs start to set, for big fluffy curds. The main trick is just to be sure to watch your eggs like a hawk, and to take them off the heat before they’re totally done—they will keep cooking in the pan.
AVC: The book is done, the check’s been cashed. What is your current relationship status with the egg? Everlasting love? Indifference? Can’t stand the sight of it?
RK: It might be surprising to hear, but after eating eggs upon eggs upon eggs in the writing of this book, I still really love eggs. The thing is, they are so versatile, and there are so many ways to cook them. You could have egg drop soup one day, then lemon meringue pie, then an Indian egg curry. From egg dish to egg dish, textures and flavor profiles can really vary. I could see myself getting sick of most things: bacon, potatoes, pasta, carrots. But eggs? Never eggs.
All About Eggs by Rachel Khong and the team at Lucky Peach is in bookstores April 4.