In the World War II movie “King Rat,” Cpl. King (George Segal) is a masterful wheeler-dealer who knows all the angles in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. In one unforgettable scene, King fries an egg for a British soldier, Peter Marlowe (James Fox), whom he is trying to seduce into his black-market schemes. Those who are going without, mostly British officers, nearly writhe with hunger at the sound of the egg cooking in a pan.
It’s a scene that has always stuck with me because it is laden with meaning on nearly every level — gastronomic, economic, moral. The sound and smell of the sizzling egg portends a delicious taste, but also an elemental experience, and a symbolic one too. Eggs represent life and rebirth. However, in the starvation economy of a brutal POW camp, the relative wealth represented by two eggs enjoyed casually by King and Marlowe, is nearly obscene. The egg is a literal and representational object of seduction.
Has an egg always had such seductive power?
Although the earliest hominids ate eggs (probably from a variety of birds), chickens were not domesticated until about 8,000 years ago. New research confirms that the domesticated chicken’s ancestor is the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), as Charles Darwin suspected, and suggests that the gray jungle fowl (Gallus sonneratii) also contributed to the chicken’s genome. Therefore we know domesticated chicken and its egg originated in multiple places in South Asia and Southeast Asia — ironically, more or less where the “King Rat” POW camp was located.
The first written description of the egg as food is an inscription on ancient Assyrian cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. These were more than likely chicken eggs. One of the most famous feasts of antiquity was a banquet offered by the Assyrian king Assurnasipal II (883-859 B.C.) to celebrate the completed renovation of the town of Kalhu/Nimrud, which he had chosen as his new capital. The feast list was simply Pantagruelian: 1,000 barley-fed oxen, 14,000 sheep, 1,000 cattle and 10,000 eggs.
The “Deipnosophists,” a book on food and dining by the Greek antiquarian Athenaeus (c. 170-230), mentions an hecatomb of eggs, but not how they are cooked. However, he does report that Epaenetus and Heracleides of Syracuse in “The Art of Cookery,” a lost work, rank peacock eggs as the best of all eggs, followed by goose eggs and, lastly, chicken eggs. No one knows when or why peacock eggs lost their popularity.
We find the first recipe for an omelet, rather than scrambled eggs, in the classic Roman cookbook by Apicius from the fourth century. His recipe for ova spongia ex lacte, egg sponge with milk, is made by beating four eggs with some milk and oil and then frying it in an oiled hot and thin pan (so it must get very hot). It only cooks on one side, turned out onto a plate, and is served with drizzled honey and black pepper.
The Renaissance chef Maestro Martino da Como’s “Libro de arte coquinaria” from about 1450 has a recipe for frittata called frictata made with eggs beaten with a little water and milk and grated cheese. He recommends cooking it with herbs such as parsley, borage, mint, marjoram or sage.
In the Middle Ages, eggs were widely eaten. Doctors repeated the precepts of the Salerno School in Italy (a health regimen founded upon Arabic medical learning in the 11th century, the most advanced medical knowledge of the time), that eggs be eaten fresh and not overcooked: si sumas ovum, molle sit atque novum. Good advice for the 21st century too.
Eggs were so central to the daily economy of the 16th century that a modern statistician could reconstruct shifts in the cost of living in Mediterranean of that time from a few eggs sold in Florence. Their price alone is a valid measure of the standard of living or the value of money in any given town in any given country. At one time in 17th-century Egypt, one “had the choice of 30 eggs, two pigeons or one fowl for a sou.”
In the modern era, the renowned 20th-century Romanian sculptor Brancusi called the egg “the most perfect form of creation.” Legend holds that he gave up sculpture because he could create nothing more perfect than the egg. There is, likewise, much lore about ostrich eggs (such as the dinner-plate thickness of their shell), Walt Whitman’s wren eggs (the best to eat, he says), 100-year-old Chinese eggs (actually a 100-day-old underground fermentation process) turtle eggs (falsely thought to be an aphrodisiac), peacock eggs (a misnomer: they’re actually peahen eggs), duck eggs (richest of eggs, and popular in Chinese cuisine), alligator eggs (the name of a shrimp-stuffed jalapeno in Cajun cooking) and the Holy Grail for all egg hunters, the dinosaur egg. However, for the most part all that exotica are secondary to what we most conveniently eat, namely, chicken eggs.
If, though, you have an opportunity to snag an exotic egg, cook it. While driving in the country near Buellton, Calif., my girlfriend Michelle and I came upon an ostrich and emu farm, and we bought one emu egg, a huge dinosaur-looking (I presume) egg. It cost $23. I made a scrambled egg cooked in butter, and this one egg fed six of us. It was the best egg I’ve ever had, no kidding. I felt a bit like an early hominid with a pan.
I asked Michelle how it was and she said, “Not bad.”
I responded, “You mean, ‘bloody marvelous.’”
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo of ostrich, emu, chicken and quail eggs by Theodore Scott. All other egg photos by Clifford A. Wright. Brancusi’s head, from the Tate Collection.