Angry Breakfast Eggs

April 25, 2012 · 48 comments

She has never slept, for as long as I can remember.

First, there was the hair, which, when I was very small, was very tall; these were the days of teasing, and to keep her updo in place, she climbed into bed every night next to my father with three feet of toilet paper wrapped around her head, a six inch tail of Charmin hanging off the pillow, blowing in the air-conditioned breeze like a Coppertone banner dragged behind a beach plane. She lay there stiffly all night, immobile and exhausted, and sat up the next morning, her hair perfect.

Eventually, it was just plain pique that kept her awake — the constant working of herself into a lather over imaginary transgressions, while my father and I and the world around her, ever the transgressors, slept soundly. When the black and white numbers on her bedside clock flipped over to 6:30 a.m. and the alarm went off, she swung her legs off the side of the bed and stood up, already furious and seething.

And then she made eggs.

A lot of eggs.

At first, when things were still good and happy, they were soft boiled, and sat in the broad end of our porcelain egg cups, their tips sliced away so that my father and I — perched side by side at the breakfast counter half an hour before he dropped me off at the school bus stop on his way to the subway — could dunk untoasted fingers of Pepperidge Farm Diet White into the runny yolk. As my parents’ marriage wore on and she grew angrier, the eggs were medium boiled, their firm yolks like thick golden velvet, with spots of remaining tenderness just barely discernible.

When I turned fourteen, my mother began hard boiling our eggs; she’d put them in a small pot filled with a shallow inch or two of water, set them on the stove, crank up the flame, and walk away. Eventually, they’d explode, their snow white glair erupting like Vesuvius through the fissures of her discontent. I’d refuse to eat them at that point, and when she came back into the kitchen, she’d grab the black plastic handle of the pot and dump its contents — the water had long since evaporated — directly into the trash.

My parents divorced the following year.

My mother still doesn’t sleep, and she still cooks eggs every single morning, even with cholesterol that hovers near the 400s if she’s forgotten to take her Lipitor.  She’s been through a passel of saucepans — the brown and white Dansk pan that followed her into the city after her divorce, and that she burned until its white enameled interior melted away into a noxious cloud; two RevereWare pans that we brought to her apartment from our basement stash— they’d belonged to Susan’s mother who had them for fifty years. My mother burned them until their insides turned black as coal. Now she uses a tiny butter warmer, big enough to hold exactly one jumbo egg.

Eggs are my mother’s mood barometer: when she’s happy, she’ll deftly separate yolk from albumen, throw out the former, dump the whites into the one tiny stick-proof pan she owns, and while they bubble and spread, she’ll lay a piece of Diet White bread right down in the middle of it, and top it off with a dollop of honey. This, she says, is her version of French toast, and she loves it. If Susan and I are staying there and she’s feeling glad, she’ll insist on scrambling some whites for us because, she says, they’re low fat and good diet food, and together we’ll sit at her dining room table, having breakfast, while the traffic rumbles down West End Avenue twenty-one stories below. Not overcooked and not runny, the eggs bear no evidence of seasoning; it’s just them and us, a piece of bread, and my mother’s favorite morning cup of hot water. If we’re staying there and she’s furious, she’ll boil the eggs until a sulfuric haze wafts out into the living room; we’ll leave while the pan is still rattling over the flame.

“I had to throw them OUT,” she’ll tell me later.

The correlation between cooking and scorn is a fraught, famous one; food created by angry people seems, somehow, to be bitter, and so attuned to their off flavors and textures am I because of my mother’s eggs that once, when a conversation with a well-known cookbook author took a sudden and surprising turn south, I had to get rid of her book, because every one of the dishes I cooked from it after our argument tasted of her rage; no matter what I did, none of the recipes worked anymore. Food cooked in anger becomes collateral damage; meat is carbonized, pasta becomes starchy mush, vegetables go limp and sad, and it’s not like you can — or even want to — revive them, to coddle or comfort them, or to save them for another meal. You simply can’t do it. If the optimum way to cook and live and run a kitchen is, as Tamar Adler says, with economy and grace — use everything, every shard and peeling and drop of fat with care, kindness, and thoughtfulness — scornful cooking results in the opposite: profligate waste and clumsy distraction.

It was six in the morning last Sunday; I lay in bed, listening to the ticking of the ignition on my Viking’s pilot light. There was the sound of running water, the clank of a pan on a burner. When my mother came to visit us last weekend and awoke in the throes of pre-dawn Bad Mood, she rifled through our refrigerator, pulled out four eggs, set them in shallow water, turned the burner on high, and cooked them until they burst with fury.

” I couldn’t sleep,” she barked from the guest bed where she’d laid back down after preparing the breakfast she decided I needed to eat, “so I made you eggs. THIS is what you should be eating for breakfast—not the heel of a baguette and a piece of cheese.”

She had been watching me that closely the previous morning; to my mother, a piece of bread — no matter how small — spells o-b-e-s-i-t-y. She was in a rage.

“But I don’t have any eggs,” I answered, suddenly remembering the half-crate of six local duck eggs that were hovering in the back of the fridge, waiting for a recipe test.

“They’re in the SINK—” she shouted from the guest room.

I walked into the kitchen and there they were, in a now-dry All-Clad saucepan, the shells cracked and broken, their whites extruding like Elizabethan collars. Susan broke one into a cup to see if the yolk was hard-cooked, and somehow salvageable; it was raw and cold. The eggs had been sitting out at room temperature for over two hours.

My mother marched into the kitchen behind me and watched Susan put on the tea kettle; I stepped on the pedal of the trashcan and tossed each duck egg out, one by one, like small grenades.

Fried Duck Egg with Toast and Truffle Salt

It doesn’t matter if it shoots forth from a hen, a quail, a goose, an emu, an ostrich, or a duck; an egg is a tender and potent harbinger of optimism. When Willem Dafoe carries a precious, stolen one to Juliette Binoche, ensconced in Villa San Girolamo at the end of World War II in The English Patient, it signifies hope and humanity. Having lost his thumbs to torture, Dafoe drops it, and we know the war isn’t yet over. Treating an egg badly — wasting it, misusing it, using some of it but not all of it — feels, at its very core, malicious, inhuman, wrong. Sad. Treat it well — poach it, fry it, boil it — with focus and attention, and it means hope.

Duck eggs, to me, are special; now that I’ve had the experience of singing to the chickens who live next door, their eggs are special too. Duck eggs are just, well, eggier; I like to serve mine on toast that’s been lightly coated with tapenade, and then carefully sprinkled with good truffle salt.

Serves 1

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 duck egg

1 tablespoon prepared tapenade

2 toast fingers, kept warm

pinch of truffle salt

freshly ground black pepper

 Heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium high heat until it begins to ripple; break the egg into the pan, cover, and cook until the edges are golden and the yolk has just set, about 4 minutes.

While the egg is cooking, spread the tapenade on the toast points. Serve the egg on top of the toast, and sprinkle with the truffle salt, and a light grinding of freshly ground black pepper.




{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jill April 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Once to fulfill a silly obligation, I baked a pie I didn’t want to bake for a person I didn’t like. It was awful, a total waste of time, effort and ingredients. I blame/credit that experience for my total inability to make a good pie for 5 years or so. I stopped making them entirely for a while, and tip-toed back in just to see. Then, after a year or so of unconfident pies, it actually became fun again. I’m not sure I would be able to enjoy eggs in your shoes–glad you can. With or without a heel of a baguette.

2 naomi duguid April 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I think this is the best post I’ve ever seen of yours, and you write some great ones. Wow. Many thanks.

3 Elissa April 25, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Oh my gosh. Thank you so much, Naomi—

4 Victoria April 25, 2012 at 4:20 pm

I think this post would make me shiver on a 95 degree day in June. It is staggering.

I wonder – but am not asking – how in the world do you and Susan recover from this episodes?

I only recently got truffle salt – a present from my childhood best friend. It’s wonderful.

5 Elissa April 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm

thank you Victoria. Susan and I just talk a lot. And then we cook, and take good care of each other.

6 Glamorous Glutton April 25, 2012 at 5:06 pm

What a fabulous engrossing piece of writing. So expressive and beautifully written. I’ll definitely be back for more. GG

7 Elissa April 25, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Thank you so much–

8 Rocky Mountain Woman April 25, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I see glimmers of my Dad in this story and it makes me sad. I was transported to your kitchen and so involved that I didn’t even hear my cell phone ringing…

Wow…I always try a glass or three of wine after encounters like this…

9 Wendy April 25, 2012 at 5:41 pm

No matter the subject, it is always a pleasure to read your posts!

10 Elissa April 25, 2012 at 5:42 pm

thank you Wendy

11 kitchenriffs April 25, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Wow. You are one powerful writer. Such a vivid, sad portrait – I felt like I was in your kitchen squirming on my chair, wanting to be elsewhere but too fascinated to turn away. I got goosebumps reading this.

12 Jennifer April 25, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Thank you! I love when my suspicions are correct. The emotions we carry infuse our creations. This is especially true with food.
Cook with Love.

13 Sharon eisen April 25, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Tomorrow morning, when i make eggs, i will have a new apprectiation of their hopefulness, thanks to you. Right on!

14 Katherine Whiteside April 26, 2012 at 9:18 am

An angry cook smears bad vibes over what should be loving gifts. Many of us certainly shared your experience as kids and swore not to pass along those sad recipes. Happy to say that your blog reminds us all to cook creatively with full and joyous hearts.

Beautiful writing. Many thanks.

15 Bee (Quarter Life Crisis Cuisine) April 26, 2012 at 11:55 am

I love your essays preceding each recipe, but for some reason this one spoke to me more. It really is true, emotion affects food! At the end of this essay my heart broke for you, throwing out the duck eggs… I also really need to try duck eggs…

16 Carrie April 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Oh, the disasters that have ensued from rage and sadness at the stove. Instead of “never go to bed angry,” people should be advising to “never go to the stove angry.”

17 Sarah April 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm

“Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken. ” ― M.F.K. Fisher

18 Marie April 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I’ll look at my egg very thoughtfully tomorrow morning. And I have truffle salt. What superb writing.

19 Elissa April 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Thanks so much Marie—

20 Diane April 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Wow! Your writing is powerful. I’ll be looking back here. And, I know firsthand about angry mothers. When I hear the adulation that most people have, I’m always sad not to have known that.

21 olga April 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I get goosebumps every time I think of that scene in the English patient. That whole movie is just stunning, but that scene always took my breath away. Funny, about eggs – I had 2 hardboiled eggs this morning for breakfast, but I am so obsessive about cooking them perfectly, I won’t eat anyone else’s except my own. Eggs are funny that way – people are so very particular about them.

22 Juhie April 28, 2012 at 6:49 pm

I think this is my favorite piece that you’ve ever written, except the first I’ve ever read from you, Journey from the Center of the Plate, which worked on me like fresh bait.

You are wonderfully observant and descriptive. Keep it up.

23 mh April 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

What astute writing, what a charmer you are! I love the bread heels, too.

There is the infamous connection between breakfast eggs and affection made by Gertrude Stein — the eggs presented to the paramour in the morning are a reflection of the previous night’s performance: hard boiled and careless at one end of the spectrum, and a perfect omelette on the other. Helen Gurley Brown gave a recipe for eggs poached in red wine, that would cause a hung-over Lothario who has overstayed the previous nights’ welcome to bolt out the door. Communication and assessment via eggs — your mother follows a grand tradition.

24 joy April 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Thank you for your beautiful words and the reminder of the deeper nourishment we give and receive through food. May all our meals be filled with love and hope.

25 Elissa April 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Thanks so much Maki—so lovely to see you here….AND you remember my mother, too!

26 Tara April 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm

This is the most charming piece of writing I have read in a very long time.

27 Elissa April 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Thanks Tara-

28 Cleo May 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm

My mother didn’t cook eggs in anger, but she didn’t like eggs or butter. So, she never could make a decent egg by any method – hard boiled could be bounced; scrambled were runny and watery and fried were a disaster. We each cooked our own eggs or let my dad do the scrambled (he had a soft touch)

What a way to start each day – scared of the eggs awaiting you and your dad. Sad.

29 Linda May 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I was so captivated by what you wrote I was lost in thought for a while….thanks so much, I needed that today. So true about cooking in anger…I have tasted that result

30 E May 3, 2012 at 12:01 am

Everyone’s beat me to it, but, Wow. One of the best things I’ve ever read, and I’m a reader. Thank you for sharing this.

31 Barbara May 5, 2012 at 4:08 am

Congrats on your John Beard win. I have discovered you blog via the tweets today. I love your writing.

32 Elissa May 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Thanks so much Barbara-

33 Elissa May 5, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Thanks E-

34 ben crumlich May 7, 2012 at 11:33 am

Congratulations on your Beard win, what a great honor, Alicia and I are so happy for you. We miss you and hope to see you at the store soon. Regards to Susan, now go a celebrate!

35 Tanisha Roka May 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm

I saw a mention of your blog on the James Beard Nominations announcements on the Huffington Post, and I thought the title was very unique. Then I read this post, and fell in love, if such a word is appropriate for such a difficult fusion of sadness and food-ness. You are extremely talented. Your writing is poignant and powerful. Thank you for your thinking-ness on the emotional well that food reflects in all of us. Beautiful.

36 Elissa May 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Hello Tanisha- Thank you for such a kind, lovely note. Much appreciated—Elissa

37 linda west eckhardt May 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm

omg you can write. and how you survived that mother is a miracle. It’s a wonder you’re not in the looney bin or in prison. But you, dear one, have taken the high ground and turn these episodes to art. Bravo. no wonder they gave you a Beard award. welcome to the club.

Linda West Eckhardt
James Beard award winning cookbook writer

38 Barbara Juman May 13, 2012 at 8:10 am

I found your blog via Dorie Greenspan. How lucky am I! You are my first mothers day gift for the day. Thanks for your sensitive and extraordinary writing.

39 Elissa May 13, 2012 at 9:13 am

Thanks so much for your lovely words, Barbara.

40 Melissa Givens June 2, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Beautiful writing! I found your blog via the JBF Awards, via the Houston Chronicle food blog. It has mesmerized me to the point of neglecting the music memorization in front of me. Really looking forward to your book *and* your posts. Congratulations!

41 Elissa June 2, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Thank you SO much Melissa—so appreciated!

42 Beth Montalvo June 16, 2012 at 11:46 am

You’ve done it again, Elissa, giving an interesting story that is beautifully written to us. Many thanks!

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