The Awesome Egg

By Karen Virag.

Scrambled, boiled, poached or fried

With a slice of bacon by its side

A child of a chicken’s brood

O, wondrous egg, the perfect food.

God forbid, but if I were going to be executed, I know what I would have for my last meal — a slightly runny boiled egg, sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, served with a side of chewy toasted rye bread. You might scoff, but I agree with the Oxford Companion to Food, which calls the egg “an astonishing and unintentional gift … and a prime resource to occidental and oriental cooks alike.” And indeed, for thousands of years, this delightful little oval has been described as the perfect food — low in calories, high in nutrition, indispensable in baking, easy to digest and quite delicious.

Cosmic eggs

As long ago as 7500 BCE people in Southeast Asia and India began domesticating jungle fowl for their meat and eggs — no lame jokes about which came first, please — and as a result of thousands of years of trade, migration and territorial conquest, chickens became one of the most common domesticated animals in the world, with a place in almost every cuisine. And where chickens go, eggs follow.

Perhaps surprisingly to North Americans, who associate chickens with cowardice and stupidity, chickens were, and still are, sacred animals in some societies — the ever-vigilant hen is a symbol of fertility (and the rooster, or cock, of virility. Need I say more?) and the egg too was an object of myth making. The ancient Phoenicians and Egyptians believed that the world was hatched from an egg (also known as the cosmic egg), and in other cosmogonies, such as ancient Greek and Hebrew, the egg was a symbol of the universe: its outer shell represented the sky, the white was the water and the yolk the earth. Eggs also symbolized life — Egyptians put eggs in their temples to ensure a bountiful river flood. As for the Romans, they consumed eggs with anything from rose petals to fowl brains and crushed the shells into their plates to prevent evil spirits from hiding there.

From Jesus to Justin

The early Christians adopted the egg as a symbol of the rebirth of man at Easter and dyed eggs red in memory of the blood shed by Christ at his crucifixion. The practice of elaborate egg painting likely stemmed from this practice as well as from the celebrations that marked the end of Lent (Christians were forbidden to eat eggs during Lent, the period leading up to Easter). Egg painting is still a popular, if somewhat secularized, practice in central European folk traditions, especially in Ukraine and Poland. Beyond painting, pancultural egg rituals related to friendship and fun abound. In Denmark and some parts of the U.K., for example, people roll painted eggs down hills at Easter; the winner is the one whose egg rolls the furthest. In the U.S. the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, in which children holding long-handled spoons roll hard-boiled eggs down the White House lawn, has been a popular annual event since 1878. At the 2010 White House Egg Roll, Canada’s own Justin Bieber was one of the star performers (it is not known if the Biebs actually rolled an egg or laid one).

Egg trivia

Most eggs have either brown or white shells, though some breeds of chicken actually lay blue eggs (for example, the Araucana, aka the South American rumpless). In any case, whether the chicken has a rump (tail) or not, the colour of the shell has no effect on the nutritional value of the egg. As for the colour of the yolk, that largely depends on what the chicken ate — eggs from hens that eat corn or alfalfa-based feed have orange-yellow yolks. Lemon-yellow yolks indicate a wheat-based feed.

Eggshells are porous and odours pass through them easily, so eggs should be stored in the original carton on a colder shelf of the refrigerator (egg cartons, by the way, were invented in 1911 by Joseph Coyle, of Smithers, B.C., for a hotel owner who was angry over a farmer’s eggs being delivered broken). If you see a red dot when you crack open an egg, don’t see red. These harmless spots are caused by the rupture of a blood vessel during formation of the egg — they do not indicate a fertilized egg. Simply remove the fleck with the tip of a knife and carry on.

To determine the freshness of an egg, put it in a bowl of cold water; if it floats, this indicates an air pocket formed by the daily loss of minute amounts of water through the porous shell, and it means the egg is old. Pitch it, though not at a politician (a form of assault called egging that could get you arrested).

Cholesterol schmolesterol

Though humans have eaten eggs for thousands of years, it was not until the 1970s that the poor egg came in for opprobrium for its supposedly high cholesterol content. However, experts now contend that total fat consumption affects blood cholesterol more than consumption of cholesterol does. The yolk of a large egg contains about five grams of fat, less than a third of which is saturated. To contrast, a cup of whole milk contains five grams of saturated fat, and a tablespoon of butter seven. More modern studies have found that the vast majority of people (excepting diabetics and those with a predisposition to coronary disease) can eat eggs every day without risk to their health. Good thing, too — eggs are a powerhouse of nutrition. The white (albumen) is almost pure protein; the yolk contains protein too, as well as fat and many essential nutrients: phosphorous; iron; zinc; vitamins A, B6, B12 and D; folic acid; thiamin; and riboflavin.

Be gentle

There are many methods of egg preparation, but remember — eggs cook quickly and at a relatively low heat. The whites of eggs begin to coagulate between 55 and 60ºC; the yolks at around 65ºC. I once watched with horror as a friend cooked an omelette over high heat for about five minutes. The resulting rubbery disk would not have been out of place at an extreme Frisbee competition. So be gentle. As a rule — don’t coddle your kids, but do coddle your eggs.

Alberta eggs

According to the Egg Producers of Alberta, there are currently 157 registered egg farmers in this province; each has about 9,500 hens, and in 2011, approximately 48 million dozen eggs were produced in this province. If the industrial scale of egg production (a topic for another day) bothers you, buy your eggs from farmers’ markets. And remember, although the word egg generally refers to hens’ eggs, there are other kinds of eggs (such as duck eggs from local producer Green Eggs and Ham) that are also available at farmers’ markets.


References to eggs infuse our language. We walk on eggshells around sensitive people; we put money away as a nest egg; if there is egg on our face, we were caught doing something we shouldn’t have been doing. When I was a kid an insult we used to hurl at each other was “You weren’t born, you were hatched.” If I had known then what I know about eggs now, I would have considered that a compliment.

Karen Virag is an Edmonton writer who tries to be a good egg (though occasionally she acts cracked).