A burly man with an impressive white beard and faded blue overalls greets me at the Farmer’s Market. “Well, hello!” says the man, whose name I soon learn is Tennessee. He extends a warm hand. “Welcome to our market, young lady,” he says. As I select my produce for the week, Tennessee pulls aside my 4-year-old daughter, Rory, and says, “Aren’t you a pretty one? Would you like a plum?” She accepts his plum with a toothy grin and seats herself on a nearby cooler, nibbling. My son, Kai, joins Rory momentarily with a plum of his own. Over the tables piled high with peaches, tomatoes, apricots, corn, and berries, Tennessee asks how much I’d be willing to sell my children for.
Kai and Rory, who agreed to accompany me because I bribed them with the prospect of freshly popped kettle corn, find Tennessee enthralling. “Have you ever seen a green egg?” Tennessee asks. Kai and Rory’s eyes widen. “Like the book?” they say, pressing their little bodies forward. Tennessee nods. “Like the book,” he says, leaning in conspiratorially and flourishing his arm over a carton containing eggs in a spectrum of colors: white, beige, brown, pale green, pale blue. “Whoa!” exclaims Rory. “Cool!”
Tennessee encourages us to take home a dozen of his fine eggs. I explain that I already have a dozen store-bought eggs at home and could never go through two dozen eggs in a week. “Aw, those eggs are old,” he says, dismissing the eggs at home with a wave of his hands. “Here’s what you do with old eggs: hard-boil them. That’s all they’re good for. Be sure to make the water very salty.” I pack up my purchases and thank Tennessee for his hard work. “Not at all, my dear,” he says, smiling. “Not at all… And don’t forget to come back next week for some green eggs!”
Kai recently started reading Green Eggs and Ham aloud to me in the car, so green eggs have been on my mind. My copy of The New Larousse Gastronomique lists several variations on green eggs, among them: Oeufs… en chartreuse (with carrots, turnips, French beans, green peas, and braised cabbage); à la chevreuse (with pureed French beans); à la chivry (with butter-fried asparagus tips and chivry sauce, consisting of white wine, shallot, chopped chervil and tarragon, velouté sauce, white stock, and butter); à la clamart (with peas à la francaise and green pea butter); and à la cressionère (with watercress puree). All of the green ingredients repeat themselves in respective recipes for hard-boiled, poached, scrambled, and omelet counterparts as well. Tarragon and other green herbs play supporting roles. Larousse recommends boiling eggs in water with well-mashed spinach in order to attain green Easter eggs without the use of artificial dyes.
Tennessee’s green eggs result from genetics: a chicken’s breed determines the color of its eggshell. I owe thanks to blue-shelled breeds like the Chilean Araucanas, who crossbred with brown-shelled chickens to create my beloved greens. Leghorns comprise a majority of white shells available today, while Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks produce brown shells. The Science of Good Food informs me that “the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of an egg, nor how it was processed.” Nutritionally speaking, an egg is an egg regardless of differences in outward appearance, though there is some evidence that free-range chickens nourished on a varied diet produce eggs that are richer in flavor, as Larousse posits.
The egg salesman at the Farmer’s Market – a boy of about ten who I suspect is one of Tennessee’s grandchildren – confided that sometimes the green eggs have double yolks, which instantly elevated them to my favorite variety. Though it may pain my physician to read this, the yolk is the jewel of my egg. I adore a soft, creamy yolk with the white barely set, whether soft-boiled, poached, or fried. Double yolks? Sweeeeet. Here is my perfect soft-cooked yolk formula for 6400 feet above sea level: Place eggs in cold water, cover. Bring to boil, remove cover, add salt, and quickly reduce heat to a gentle, almost non-simmer. Simmer for 4 minutes only. Empty pan of water and replace with lots of cold water to cool eggs. Peel off shells, cut eggs in half, sprinkle with salt, and eat immediately. You’ll lose some white if your eggs are fresh, but no matter. In this preparation, whites are the readily discarded protective armor for the glorious yolks within.
“The egg is one of the kitchen’s marvels, and one of nature’s,” writes Harold McGee. “Its simple, placid shape houses an everyday miracle: the transformation of a bland bag of nutrients into a living, breathing, vigorous creature…” A life-nurturing bundle of essential nutrients concentrated in one convenient package: shouldn’t it be celebrated as such in the kitchen? Perhaps MFK Fisher, who clearly shares Tennessee’s egg opinion, puts it best when she writes: “I decided then, and I still hold on to it, that I would rather eat a good fresh egg only occasionally than have a whole cellarful of those dishonest old ones, which in spite of being ‘almost as good as new’ would not make omelets, even, but had to be used in cakes and cookies.”
Old age is the primary culprit in egg dishonesty. As McGee explains, egg whites become “progressively more runny with time.” Additionally, a slow influx of the water present in egg whites crosses into the yolk each day, causing “the yolk to swell, which stretches and weakens the yolk membrane,” thinning the yolks “dramatically.” Runny whites may be easier to separate from the yolks, rendering them optimum for baking, but most egg cooking methods benefit from the use of fresh, firm eggs. Is there a good way to test an egg’s honesty? Drop it into a pot of cold water. A fresh egg will sink – and quickly, because it has less air and is dense. The older the egg, the bigger the air pocket in its fat end, which causes the egg to rise/float in the water. Several authors agree that an uncooked egg should be discarded if it fully floats on the water’s surface. Fisher contends that “the finest way to know that the egg you plan to eat is a fresh one is to own the hen that makes it.” I would add that it is also very fine to know the farmer who owns the hen who makes it.
I boil my store-bought eggs as Tennessee suggested. The following week, I buy Tennessee’s instead: $2.00 for one dozen, a price competitive with the grocery store.
Tennessee’s eyes twinkle as he gently opens a cardboard egg carton to reveal the small, pale celadon eggs that his chickens have laid. “You won’t see eggs like these in your supermarket,” he says. “Aren’t they beautiful?” My eyes move from his weathered, bearded face to the delicately hued eggs he presents before me. I also won’t find this sense of vitality in the supermarket, this realization that these eggs come from multiple breeds of chickens with distinct personalities who roam Tennessee’s yard plucking bugs from the soil. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but something clicks into place as I lift my eyes once more to meet his intent gaze. “Yes,” I tell him. “They are beautiful.”