Wednesday, 8 July 2015

"A shop egg of ambiguous character" and Other Eggy Thoughts from a 19th Century Food Writer

"All the sand egg-glasses give at least a minute too little for proper boiling, and it is the use of these delusive instruments, or the fatal impression which they tend to spread that three minutes is full time for the boiling   of a new-laid egg (possibly it may be for a shop egg of ambiguous character, if such a think is to be boiled at all), which so often implants a kind of despair in the minds of' very respectable cooks as to the art of boiling eggs."

Thus begins a piece of food writing appearing in The Australasian, worthy of a berth in a food edition of The New Yorker. It is by far the most brilliantly written piece on any culinary subject that I am yet to turn up in a colonial Australian newspaper (although as you will discover in a moment, us Australians can't really take credit for it). It is clear the author has thought long and hard on the topic of the egg, and then turned their not inconsiderable descriptive powers to producing a beautifully-crafted treatise on the topic. Despite my best researching efforts, the author remains anonymous, which is a pity because I would very much like to 'meet' them in the historical record.  

Egg-based humour from Punch, which at the time loved mocking servants even more than it loved mocking women.
EGGS-PLANATORY. (1871, November 16). Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 - 1900), p. 4. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from

This is an edited version of a longer article appearing in The Spectator - which is now the longest-running English language magazine, and at the time was a small weekly enjoying a renaissance under the editorship of Meredith Townsend and Richard Holt Hutton. The original article was in part a review of Georgiana Hill's pamphlet How to cook and serve eggs in a hundred different ways.

(Hill deserves her own mention, as an influential but elusive figure in Victorian cookery writing, who produced prodigiously in the 1860s and then disappeared without a trace. You can read more about her here. Don't be at all put off by the criticism of her work in the article; The Spectator had just given a far more blisteringly critical review of Charles Dickens' Bleak House.)

Here is the article, as it appeared in The Australasian:

HOW TO COOK AND SERVE EGGS. - The beauty of an egg cooked in its shell consists in its individual unity; and even in the process of consumption every care should be taken not to let it sprawl and overflow like sauce or gravy.

All the sand egg-glasses give at least a minute too little for proper boiling, and it is the use of these delusive instruments, or the fatal impression which they tend to spread that three minutes is full time for the boiling   of a new-laid egg (possibly it may be for a shop egg of ambiguous character, if such a think is to be boiled at all), which so often implants a kind of despair in the minds of' very respectable cooks as to the art of boiling eggs. We have known an otherwise very estimable cook maintain that nature and education had conspired to render her incompetent to the task of boiling eggs, and this with an abject fatalism more suitable to a Mohammedan than a Christian.
The simple truth is, that she never had learned that the time requisite for boiling an egg varies inversely as its own age and directly as its size - a really new-laid hen's egg of average size requiring at least four minutes in boiling water, more if it be very big, and less if it be very small.

We doubt, too, whether the English cooks are aware of what is well known, we believe, to Parisian cooks, that a fresh egg well roasted is a far richer thing than the same egg well boiled. An egg turned round on the hearth till it is thoroughly done is perhaps served in the best form of which it is susceptible, to those at least who like rich food.

Of the other solid forms of egg, perhaps the best is the hard boiled that is eaten with salad. There is a peculiarly happy contrast between salad and egg, both in colour and edible qualities, which recommends this combination to the true artist. Salad is refreshing because it is so innutritious, but then for that reason it sung- gests browsing and purely pastoral ideas with out the balance of the most nutritious of all substances that are not positively meat. Egg mediates between the salad and the cold meat with which it is eaten, breaks the abruptness of the change to the launcher's imagination, and pleasantly stars the table with a contrast of colours which otherwise is never obtained except from fruit.

As for the artificial modes of treating solid eggs-those, we mean, which substitute some artificial compound for the yolk, leaving the white envelope in its natural form,-they appeal only to the morbid desire for surprises which marks the decadence of true art. Take this, for instance, called, we suppose, from the Morning, because the jaded appetite of an epicure is least active in the morning, and needs the most stimulus at that time: -

" OEufs a l'Aurore. - Boil some eggs until they are hard. Remove the shells; cut each egg into half, and scoop out the yolks; put these into a mortar, with some pepper, salt savoury herbs, and cream. Beat all to a paste; place some of it in each halved white of egg, and lay the remainder in a buttered dish; arrange the stuffed eggs on the top with force meat uppermost. Place the dish in a moderately heated oven, and serve when the eggs are nicely browned."
What would an intelligent hen say to that ? You might just as well put strawberry ice in the interior of a penny roll, or fill a cup with gold pieces, or excavate a history and stuff its framework with sensation novel.
In dealing, with the secondary form of egg, in which many individual eggs are made tributary to abstract egg--the omelette form,-there is more to be for artificial treatment. The individuality of the thing has already escaped, and the mixture with other alien substances is at this stage only a question of more or less.
The danger of omelette is richness and the tendency to mix freely with butter is excessive in omelette makers, and as objectionable as excessive. Egg is too nutritious to be greased. You might just as well butter your meat. The most that is permissible in this way is the very slight use of butter which is made in those little toasted " dice" used for soup. There the butter is not apparent, - it has imparted a flavour, but left no physical trail. And the following receipt for omelette will be found at once one of the simplest and best in the little book before us:

" Omelette aux Croutons.-Beat the yokes of six and the whites of four eggs; season with salt and spice according to taste. Cut some nice little pieces of bread no larger than dice; fry them in butter till they are well browned, then throw them quickly into boiling gravy or milk, or sauce of any particular flavour; mix them with the beaten egg, and fry as an ordinary omelette."
The vast use of eggs in merely enriching other substances, in cakes, puddings, soups, &c., is, we think, over- done, both in this country and abroad. There is not a viler decoction known to human art than that which is called egg-soup in Germany,   where masses of greasy yellow substance, float- ing like very putrid duckweed in a watery fluid, are offered to you at the beginning of   dinner, to destroy your chance of eating anything afterwards.
If yolk of egg is used separately from the egg at all, it should be diffused and made a sort of yeast, as it is in cakes and puddings. Crumbs of yolks are chaotic and rather revolting spectacles. But we doubt whether its secondary enriching use is not greatly overdone in modern cookery. Custard is by far its best form, because it is its most honest form ...
On the whole, we regard eggs as best in the beautiful individuality of the egg-shell, and degenerating in pre- portion as they are made subservient to other food. They have too much individuality for the work of yeast. The egg is the only unit of animal food, and has a pronounced taste in proportion to its unique character and shape. Like meat, it is scarcely well adapted for flavouring other things than itself. It has too dominating a nature of its own.
Egg in the abstract should be very sparingly used in cookery, or it will suggest itself obtrusively. Egg is admirably in a substantive form, but in an adjective form not so. Egg compounds soon revolt. - London Spectator

Recipes. (1866, August 11). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 5. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from


Tune in over the next few days for my thoughts on our anonymous friend's views of eggs. Can you really bake an egg? Just what German soup engendered such hatred? Is custard really honest? Find out in the following posts.