Monday, January 05, 2009

Eggs should not be crunchy!

I’ve never been particularly picky about what I eat…fish, organ meats, slimy greens, and yellow squash notwithstanding…but I will own up to being a bit choosy about how some foods are prepared. I don’t think my mother was truly a bad cook…she did turn out some excellent fare from time to time…but she was a lazy, unimaginative and disinterested cook, which put her offerings on the same level as those who were bad cooks.

My mother liked to fry things. She had a massive cast iron skillet in which she prepared everything from “Swiss Steak” (a round steak boiled in tomato soup until it was well done and tough as leather) to “Glop” (undrained fried, crumbled ground beef…lowest cost, highest fat content…mixed with a can of pork and beans, ladled over dry toast). On the stove she kept a kitschy little 3-piece brushed aluminium-and-pink plastic set of containers, one labelled “salt”, one labelled “pepper,” and the third labelled “grease.” I kid you not.

Anything my mother fried was fried in grease from that can. If there wasn’t enough grease, she would add a few gobs of shortening, which was always the cheapest Crisco substitute she could find. And the can was never emptied out and cleaned and filled with “fresh” grease. Only the inner lid, a disk full of fine holes intended to strain out solid bits, was ever washed. Did it get rancid? Of course. Did it make any difference? Of course not.

She seldom cooked breakfast, so her mangled version of fried or scrambled eggs seldom crossed my plate. And just as well, since she took umbrage at my food peculiarities, like cutting all the fat off a piece of meat or forking out the gelatinous pieces of pork fat from the beans before I ate them. I neither salted nor peppered my food, her efforts at the stove being more than sufficient. But once in a while we had breakfast for dinner and that was when, if I could get away with it, I would develop a horrific stomach ache just before dinner and go to bed with nothing but dry toast on my stomach.

Breakfast, at my mother’s hands, was a horrifying affair. Fatty bacon (streaky bacon, for non-Americans…and more streak than bacon) would be fried long enough to render out a good amount of grease, but not long enough to crisp the fat. Floppy slices of bacon with rubbery bits of greasy fat attached would be drained on paper, and the fat remaining in the pan would be further heated until it was sizzling and crackling. Mother then would break eggs into this seething vat of boiling grease and you could hear a roar of crackling as the cold, wet eggs dropped into the roiling fat. Grease would spatter everywhere, usually eliciting a curse or two from the cook, and she would set to work splashing hot grease all over the tops of the eggs to thoroughly cook them. The result was, invariably, tragic.

Have you ever eaten eggs you could not chew? Seriously…have you ever had eggs put in front of you that you were unable to chew? To this day I have never understood why the bacon got the benefit of a few minutes draining on absorbent paper and those eggs did not. Glistening with grease and flecked with burnt bits of bacon that had been floating in the grease, yolks runny and the edges crisp and brown, the eggs could not be cut even with knife and fork. Since the rule in our house was you at whatever Mother put on your plate, breakfast-for-dinner was a horrifying prospect. Rubbery bacon with the fat still uncooked and oozing grease with each grinding of the teeth, crisp eggs floating in a pool of fat, the edges brown and chewy, the underside a stiff, browned, almost plastic sheet, the whites overdone and strongly flavoured, the yolks undercooked and runny…it’s a wonder I can face an egg today!

Scrambled eggs were no better. Into that same overheated grease were tossed a couple of eggs that were then vigorously stirred with a fork until they were crumbly. Swimming in brown grease, they, too, were delivered to table without benefit of draining, so they sat in a slippery pool, their oily fat winking hideously up at me in the harsh kitchen light.

My mother was a person of little patience and therein laid the source of her problems in the kitchen. Whatever was not fried to cinders or boiled into limp greyness was pressure cooked into a colourless mass. Foods requiring patience and finesse never graced our table: homemade soups and stews were rare, casseroles unheard of, and roasts completely unknown. If it couldn’t be boiled, fried, or rendered unrecognizable in the pressure cooker, we didn’t eat it.

In self-defence, at the age of seven, I began to cook. And I started with eggs. I would drag a chair up to the stove, and because my little fingers had trouble cracking eggs without scatter shards of the shell into the pan, I cracked them into a cup where I could fish the shell fragments out before putting the eggs into the pan. I would take a bit of butter (margarine, actually…Mother was too tight to buy anything but the cheapest margarine in the store and then watch its consumption like a hawk) and slowly melt it in the big skillet, waiting until it was liquid but not browned. I would slip the eggs into the butter slowly and let them cook. Because I wasn’t big enough to flip an egg over with any degree of skill or accuracy, I broke the yolks so they could cook through, then delivered the egg to a plate with a piece of dry toast on it…Mother would never know I used the butter for cooking the eggs rather than to butter my toast!

It took a while to master, but I quickly realized that a really good egg had soft edges, was cooked clear through, and actually did not taste like rancid grease. It also had a lovely, delicate flavour when allowed to stand alone and not buried in salt, pepper, burnt flecks of bacon and floating in a puddle of fat. Over time, I branched out into preparing other things for myself, although I never did find acceptable ways to prepare offal or most fish. Greens, I eventually found, were often palatable in salads and yellow squash made an acceptable substitute for pumpkin in pies.

But eggs were one of my first epiphanies of self-reliance: I not only could do for myself, I was capable of doing better than my mother. I was, of course, smart enough to refrain from revealing this information to my mother lest I find breakfast for the whole family dumped on my young shoulders…I was already responsible for cleaning the kitchen after dinner each night and minding my younger, bigger brother after school…I didn’t need more chores!

My husband tells me that I am the best breakfast cook he has ever known. No matter how good the breakfasts are at our various Sunday morning places, he always says mine are the best he has eaten. And he agrees with my breakfast mantra: Eggs are not supposed to be crunchy!

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