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(post, Joan Menefee)
This seems like an appropriate time of year to share the fact that I grew up disliking eggs. I was not born disliking eggs, mind you. I can recall tucking into soft-boiled eggs with an ardor and noisiness that would embarrass me now. At some point, though, I revolted against the albumen, or what we call “whites,” and decided that the yolk (why don’t we call it “yellow”?) was guilty by association. It was no help to learn sometime in grade school that an egg was an animal that didn’t quite make it onto its legs, the albumen being the food meant to nourish the fetus or yolk. Making matters worse, raw eggs are gelatinous, and if they don’t get fully cooked or incorporated, a jelly-like substance persists. I remember rejecting many plates of scrambled eggs because I could see the whites, like little outposts, perched upon the yellow cliffs. I gagged just imagining a white bit touching the back of my throat. [%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Innocent eggs."] And so, by age 14, I was an egg-hater. I remember the year exactly, because a child I babysat when I was 14 later referred to me as “the lady who doesn’t like eggies.” I presume he has forgotten all this by now, but I rolled that idea in my head for a good long time. Eventually, though, I returned to eggs. I stopped walling them off in toast and burying them in salsa. I came to enjoy the way the whites whipped into a creamy froth that baked up into meringues and macaroons. I stopped worrying about seeing white specks in my scrambled eggs. What did not change until quite recently, though, was my tendency to overcook egg dishes. At restaurants, I would actually specify that I wanted my eggs “scrambled dry.” But a few weeks ago, I followed a scrambled-egg recipe to the letter, and let the eggs be moist. As soon as I put a bite of this dish in my mouth, I remembered that moisture enhances flavor. Dryness, on the other hand, wicks the saliva out of my mouth. It prevents the taste of a food from coming through by stopping all the biochemical processes that break down food and release its oils and other flavor agents. Whatever exceptions might exist to this rule I have just invented, I remain certain that dry eggs are less flavorful than moist ones, and that I've ruined a lot of eggs over the past 20 years. I also think that any food a person is not crazy about is harder to learn how to cook with. First off, the worry that the food will somehow kill you if it is not properly prepared is stronger when you don’t trust the food. I am sure admonitions about salmonella risks have never helped my relationship with eggs. Second, tasting a food at many stages helps a cook learn about her dish’s development — when the flavors bloom, whether salt is necessary, if the oven is too hot or the pan too oily. If a cook is disinclined to taste the food, she is cut off from information about how things are going. The conclusions I drew about my own egg-cooking habits and how disliking foods (or even having a history of disliking them) can affect cooking skills made me wonder what other foods I cooked poorly because I was ambivalent about them. I realized that I am also apt to dry out chicken and venison, owing to my fear of making myself sick and a general sense of unease about the food. Dislike of a food can certainly retard our ability to cook successfully with it, but so can simple ignorance of a food. If we haven’t grown up with something, we have less of a language and facility with it. I have no problem picking up a pork chop and eating meat straight off the bone, having watched everyone in my family do this all through my growing-up years. But I have also seen people look around the table in horror when it seems they are expected to partake of this strange and untidy act. My relationship with meat formed in no small part as I felt the grease and small patches of sturdily attached meat with my tongue and licked pepper and gristle on the irregular, rough stretches of bone. This was a cooking lesson. As “the lady who once hated eggies,” I can affirm that I now think of eating as a wing of my cooking education. Tasting, which seems like such an inevitable and obvious by-product of eating, is sometimes harder than it looks.