Flippin’ eggs

Author: Jennifer Byrne
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

When it comes to the issue of eggs, for a conflicted Jennifer Byrne it's a question of good versus evil.

Eggs are my issue. But not all of them, and this is the core of my problem. Life would be easier if I could just tick the dietary-requirements box that says, "no eggs" - like some people tick "no offal" or "no milk" - but this would not be correct and would deny me one of the joys of life, because a good egg makes delightful eating indeed. A bad egg, on the other hand, is an evil thing and to allow one on my plate would be a disaster, not least because it would make me physically sick.

How can one person be so conflicted about the humble egg? It makes total sense to me. Eggs belong on a spectrum that has nothing to do with their freshness and everything to do with the nature of their egginess. And, for me, the less eggy the better.

At the positive end of the spectrum is the omelette, a delicious construction that I will happily take nude, but prefer stuffed with the traditional ham-cheese-tomato combo or the way the Spanish do it, with capsicum, chorizo and a hint of chilli. Yum. This is an unreservedly good use of eggs - a perfect supper or breakfast.

A close neighbour to the omelette in tastiness is the scrambled egg, which goes particularly well with a smear of Vegemite on toast or, if I'm feeling a bit grand, smoked salmon or trout. This is not quite as good as the omelette, but it's still well up the chart. Then there's the questionable zone, occupied by the fried egg. It's all in the cooking here. A runny fried egg is okay - runny yolk, that is; the white must be crisp at the edges - preferably with lashings of bacon to help it go down. But any variation to the mix and we're in dangerous territory. Hard yolk, no. Soft white, no.

Any hint of uncooked albumen, no and no again. The simple solution, to flip the egg (over easy, I think they call it), is unsatisfactory on the grounds of both taste and aesthetics, spoiling the perfect full moon of the unflipped yolk that is the saving grace of the egg in its fried form.

It's all downhill from here. It doesn't matter how you poach an egg - cracked and dropped loose into vinegared water, or bubbling away in one of those sectioned steamers - it's still a poached egg, thus profoundly unacceptable. And no amount of fancy hollandaise camouflage dims its horror.

This egg issue was born in me, I suspect. But there's also the childhood memory of being put in charge of a flock of chickens and selling their eggs for pocket money. Deep down, I hated those chickens - mean, stupid creatures who would peck my bare toes and cover their eggs in poo. Four years at boarding school followed (you knew it was coming) where the kitchen staff would decant poached eggs into steel serving trays, then float them in warm water for hours until the tops of these egg islands skinned over like a hard plastic. When pierced by our schoolgirl teeth, they would explode in a hot yellow tide across our faces. The headmistress one day spotted me trying to conceal bits of egg beneath a mess of tuna; come dinner, I and my congealing meal were still at the table. But I would not yield.

The very worst, the font of evil, is the boiled egg. Weirdly, I quite like peeling them - there's something almost sensual about baring that smooth white surface - but eating them is unthinkable. The texture. The purity of the eggness. The very thought…

The closest I came to eating one was during my days at 60 Minutes, when a family of Cambodian refugees - people with nothing - laid their hands on the scarce treasure of four eggs, one for each in the crew. They boiled and served them with all the dignity and generosity of which humans are capable. I still couldn't do it. It went down my boot (sadly, it was soft-boiled, but it was better than throwing up).

So, you see how it works. I want my eggs in disguise, preferably smashed up or transformed by additives. It's a cruel world that tolerates hysteria over gluten, yet refuses to acknowledge the complex and mutable chemistry of the egg. But I beat on, against the current. Searching for the green light on the dock that is the perfect, unrecognisable egg.

+ Jennifer Byrne is host of ABC1's The Book Club and the Jennifer Byrne Presents series.

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