Jacques Pépin is a chef, cookbook author and television personality.
When I was 13 years old, a kitchen apprentice in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, in the late 1940s, I was put in charge of a dozen hens. It was my job to fatten them on vegetable peels and leftover soup. It was theirs to peck about the courtyard and lay eggs.
By the time I was thirteen-and-a-quarter, I had learned that the hen sitting on her eggs deserved respect. While on the hunt for eggs, I was terrorized a number of times by a charging, puffed-up hen for getting too close to her nest. Her yield came at a cost.
It seems, alas, that eggs once again — at least for the time being — come at a higher cost than we had known. New research published this month suggests that high egg consumption may increase one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
It’s not the first time such a medical scare has cast a pall over eggs. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, I crisscrossed the United States 40 or so weeks of the year to teach cooking in the newly created cookware shops. At that time, physicians recommended one egg per week, preferably cooked in margarine. A “delight” along the line of a luscious egg-white omelet or scrambled egg substitute, no?
Fortunately, for the sane cook, butter and eggs will never be passe, even if some moderation proves to be wise. The egg is just too perfect.
It is unpretentious but challenging. Low-calorie but lush. No food is as democratic as the egg, and the ham and eggs of the corner diner can be as superb as the caviar omelet of Michelin’s most touted triple-starred restaurant. Eggs are the truly universal food of the world. (Sorry, pizza.)
I was raised eating them. During the Second World War, food was scarce in France, and meat graced our table scarcely more than monthly. Poultry appeared maybe once a week. But the egg saved us. We raised a few chickens, and Mother (who ate eggs daily until her untimely death a few months shy of her 100th birthday) made a sublime gratin of hard-cooked eggs mixed with bechamel and Swiss chard or spinach from the garden, then sprinkled with cheese and baked to a golden crust.
Thankfully, my teenage henhouse scuffles did nothing to snuff out my childhood love for eggs. In the ’50s, once I moved to Paris, I worked as a young chef in many restaurants. Each time I applied for a job, the head chef invariably challenged me to make a perfect French omelet. As inexpensive an evaluation as it was accurate, it was the test of culinary knowledge.
You must realize, eggs are the perfect medium for the cook to blend proper technique with taste — but they are nevertheless a challenge to control in all their diversity. From scrambled to poached to hard-cooked, from a mousse to an omelet to a soufflé to a meringue, eggs require mastery. And mastery requires the practice of many years in the kitchen.
So each time I crack an egg, memories pour out along with the yolk and white. I remember from one of my shows with Julia Child (a fellow egg lover), we cooked an ostrich egg whose shell required an electric drill to break — for a wonderful omelet with mushrooms and chives, enough to feed six to eight. Or the fillets of trout plucked from a creek in the Catskills by my wife, Gloria, flanked by freshly scrambled eggs from a nearby farm, and saturated with butter, flavored with tarragon and served with brioche and white wine — a great breakfast. Or the days alone, too, hungry and perhaps a bit grouchy, salvaged in just 2½ minutes on low heat that ended with a fat, bright, orange yolk running over ham.
A question I’m often asked is what I would have for my last meal. My last meal, I hope, will take many weeks or even months, but I know it will include plenty of eggs: quail, guinea hen, duck pheasant, chicken — all enjoyed with the greatest bread and butter and a lot of wine. But I’m not ready yet.
Until then, if you don’t like my defense of eggs, go ahead: Throw some my way.