December of 2010, when we in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia were hit much harder than those in New England (because we’re that much farther south, apparently), we watched with some amusement as local shoppers tore around the supermarkets in preparation for the first flakes. The 2% milk, white bread, batteries, and flashlights disappeared from the shelves within hours of the forecast. Having grown up in New England, this seemed like overkill. Our house is high above a long, steep driveway with three hairpin curves. We have a very deep well (515 feet) with an electric pump. The three things we get anxious about in situations like this are toilet paper, water (for flushing the toilets), and eggs.
We try to keep about three dozen eggs in the refrigerator (usually six of them hard boiled) even in fair weather. We regularly buy our eggs at a gas station, the egg station we call it. It is run by two permanently bed-headed, extremely personable brothers who also raise the egg-producing chickens on their farm and rent out U-hauls from their gas station, which has the cheapest gas in town. This makes it a busy place, with only four gas pumps (one of which has not been working), and if you come in the afternoon, it’s usually too late for eggs. Their eggs have the most orange yolks you’ve ever seen, and the eggs themselves are often so large that they come with large rubber bands wrapped around the cardboard containers; otherwise they wouldn’t stay closed.
J fixes eggs for our breakfast every other day, and we eat them sitting at a low, collapsible table in front of a west-facing window in our library that looks out for miles across hills and cow-covered fields to peaks of Allegheny Mountains in the distance. The weather always comes from the west, and the light changes constantly the way it does over the sea. The eggs keep changing as well, a condition that J promised when—as we agreed to begin living together—I voiced some concern about the possibility of growing bored over time. I meant with one another of course, but he heard it as a thoroughgoing concern. Hence the enormous variety in the ingredients of our alternate-day eggs.
There was no breakfast as I was growing up. My mother was manic/depressive (nowadays she’d be bipolar, but without meds that doesn’t improve the conditions for anyone in the family) and, as I look back on it, I feel there must be a causal connection between those two things: her mental health and the absence of breakfast. Neither we nor anyone else I knew discussed mental health in personal terms as I was growing up in the 1950s; my mother simply didn’t have a breakfast function. My father and maternal grandmother constantly reminded us children never to upset her, because “she is so sensitive” and “don’t forget she is a Barnard graduate.”
Indeed her IQ was incredibly high and remained so throughout a very long life, despite frequent psychotic episodes, infrequent hospitalizations and occasional electroshock therapies. Each time she was hospitalized—the last time she was well into her eighties—she would be part of some statistical study about the long-term effects of mental illness upon intelligence, and each time the studiers would be amazed at the fact that her IQ remained so high. Lately it occurs to me that whenever life became stressful, my mother would simply duck out of reality, thereby avoiding wear and tear on her brain.
We did have lunch. Grade school (K-8, no such thing as middle school then) was about two miles away, and there were no school buses at the time where we lived, so we all walked, roller skated, or biked to and from, and we all went home for lunch the same way. Even my father came home for lunch. He taught at the local junior college (they weren’t known as community colleges at the time, but that’s what they really were) and went back and forth via a quiet little motor scooter that he kept stocked with small round stones to ward off the many barking dogs that followed him. Lunch was often bologna sandwiches on sliced white bread and didn’t take long.
So when did we have eggs at all? On Saturdays my father would make a huge production, attired in pajamas, bathrobe either knotted or not, and soft brown leather slippers. It was always piles of bacon and scrambled eggs and might be ready around noon. Again, more like lunch.
From the first I was consistently an “A” student at school. There were hardly any rules at home, but lots of confusion. Rules at school were clear and simple. I never had a course I didn’t love and school was smooth sailing. I quickly added chorus, orchestra, drama, and all the possible activities that kept me at school and away from home most of the time. In high school I took the public bus to a friend’s house (very early, since there was no breakfast and no one was up at my house) where I joined Marcy and her mother for cigarettes & coffee before walking the few remaining blocks to school. I became a thespian, had the lead in all the plays (rehearsing until midnight last weeks before the show) directed by a single woman named Ruth with wild curly graying red hair who walked around with her playbook drinking coffee, coffee, coffee, out of a huge thermos. By that time I began to believe that it was rather chic to forego breakfast (and sometimes lunch as well) in favor of coffee.
By the time of college it had become positively déclassé among my friends to go to breakfast at all: better to study all night, take a quick wink and a shower at dawn and drag yourself to class stretching and yawning.
All was to change dramatically when I married into a large non-religious but culturally consistent Jewish family. My mother-in-law had devoted her life to her children’s health and welfare and was a somewhat begrudging slave to her husband’s schedule. She had no pretenses about enjoying or excelling at cooking but regularly provided ample meals (often from nearby good Jewish delis) three times daily. For the better part of her married life, her husband the doctor had his office in a part of their Sheepshead Bay house, so he was very much “under foot” and at home for the three meals. Whether serving her own family or the extended family (twenty-five or thirty), she would forever admonish all present to eat—more and more—but was rarely persuaded to seat herself at the table where everyone else was eating.
Clearly I needed to fix a daily breakfast, all the more so when our first child was born before our first anniversary. Now we were three people who needed to start the day with a healthy breakfast; and in another seventeen months, four. I had always enjoyed cooking, experimenting with new cuisines and ingredient, but no experience with breakfast. This was also the time of cookbook writers such as Beatrice Moore Lappé, who urged us to eat lower on the food chain, and Ewell Gibbons told us how to eat foods that we foraged. I made oat cakes from scratch, cottage cheese with walnuts and raisins, brown bread, even home-made bagels. My kids were adventurous eaters from the first, and they never ate baby food. My daughter scarfed down caviar at the traditional extended family Thanksgiving feast when she was barely a year old, and they both ate fresh caught and cooked frogs’ legs when they were still toddlers.
As life got busier and more scheduled for all of us, I thought to make my breakfast life easier. I had always been fairly unconscious during my first waking hour. Whether I rose early or late, it was always the same—my brain and body didn’t play out their inherent interconnection well for about an hour. At some point I remembered my father’s eggs, and it turned out everyone loved eggs: eggs fried over lightly, poached (with ketchup for the other three, much to my horror), shirred and scrambled, and even boiled, soft but better hard. All things considered, this turn of events worked well, though my now grown offspring love to remind me of a few mishaps I had with the eggs. Once or twice I apparently cracked a raw egg and instead of dropping it into the frying pan tossed it over my shoulder. And the kids were standing there watching. It was first thing in the morning.
Hard-boiled eggs turned out to be more dangerous. We had all discovered that we liked them cold as well as fresh cooked. We kept half a dozen in the refrigerator, marked “HB” on the blunt end to avoid messy mistakes or assumptions. What was even better from the cook’s point of view was that they could be made in advance and didn’t have to be stirred, added to, or watched. I could do something else simultaneously, like read a book or have a conversation somewhere else in the apartment or on the telephone. Or so I thought. It was usually someone other than myself, someone coming home from school, opening the door who yelled, “What stinks?” Then we would all rush to the kitchen, where we would see the eggs exploding high in the air, bits of white but mostly yolk adhering to the high ceiling. And it wasn’t even early in the day when it happened.
Thank you Hildegard for a wonderful foray into your memorable times with (and without) eggs!
Dear readers, do share egg related stories, if you will, in the comments. XOXO Elle