If the mince pie is an edible encapsulation of Christmas, it is not the only food with distinct associative power. Each of us hold a different compendium of culinary symbols. For me toast is home, chocolate is desire, carrot cake is Easter, ice cream is a hot, breathless Pennsylvania summer, and the list continues. Foods symbolize different things at different times, some have stronger, more permanent associations while others are weak or nebulous.
Eggs are not, in my own treasury of gastronomic symbolism, particularly evocative in themselves. Yet a boiled egg is nothing more or less than purity itself. Think about it. When you crack open and eat an egg you are imbibing potentiality, the unborn expression of life itself. Perhaps this is why eggs have long been associated with Easter. Before this vernal festival was appropriated by Christians, it signified similar notions of rebirth in many parts of the northern hemisphere. The English word “Easter” is derived from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring. The earth softens, shoots push above the soil, and birds brood over newly laid eggs.
Considered in this light, the thought of eating an egg quivers between the horrific and the beautiful. You are eating life before it has lived, body before it is born. It is a simultaneously terrible and sacred act. And on a busy morning as you scrabble towards work, it’s just an egg.
Yet no matter how frenetic my early morning dash, the wholeness and purity of a boiled egg is always a pleasure. It injects a sort of saintliness into my day, that fragile, sand brown orb. You must sink it gently into the spitting water and then watch to make sure it hasn’t cracked. Leave it boiling for five minutes (four minutes for a small egg and five and a half for an extra large one) and then fish it out and run it under cold water for a few seconds to prevent further cooking.
I discovered the virtues of the five minute egg while living in the home of a wonderful Swedish woman called Fanny. One morning I was pottering about with my usual fare of toast and coffee, when she stopped, a plump orb in hand. “Would you like a five minute egg?” she asked in her lilting Swedish accent. I nodded, intrigued.
It was genius. Five minutes in boiling water produces an egg that is a rainbow of texture. The outer rim of white is hard without being rubbery, and as you move towards the center it becomes gradually softer until you reach a molten golden core. It is important to note, however, that virtually all beauty, both visual and gastronomic, that an egg possesses relies on it being free-range and of very high quality. Most eggs you buy at the supermarket are vacuous, with pale, anemic yolks and little flavor. They require dousing with salt or dunking with soldiers to be made palatable. A good egg, on the other hand, is utterly lovely on its own. I eat mine slowly, with a tiny spoon so as to prolong that delicious, dark necessity of nourishment.