Learning How to Boil Eggs: From Toni Morrison to J. Kenji López-Alt

Deviled eggs courtesy of Dina and Lola. They were as tasty as they look.

I learned how to boil eggs from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I first read 30 years ago. Every time I boiled an egg, I could see her vivid imagery in my head:

In the heartbeat of silence that followed his shouts, Pilate laughed.

“You all want a soft-boiled egg?” she asked.

The boys looked at each other. She’d changed rhythm on them. They didn’t want an egg, but they did want to be with her, to go inside the wine house of this lady who had one earring, no navel, and looked like a tall black tree.

“No, thanks, but we’d like a drink of water.” Guitar smiled back at her.

“Well. Step right in.” She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered. A moss-green sack hung from the ceiling. Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere; newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls. But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and stove, there was no furniture. Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit.

“You ought to try one. I know how to do them just right. I don’t like my whites to move, you know. The yolk I want soft, but not runny. Want it like wet velvet. How come you don’t just try one?”

She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose. Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue-and-white wash basin which she used for a saucepan.

“Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing. One can’t get the upper hand over the other. So the temperature has to be the same for both. I knock the chill off the water first. Just the chill. I don’t let it get warm because the egg is room temperature, you see. Now then, the real secret is right here in the boiling. When the tiny bubbles come to the surface, when they as big as peas and just before they get big as marbles. Well, right then you take the pot off the fire. You don’t just put the fire out; you take the pot off. Then you put a folded newspaper over the pot and do one small obligation. Like answering the door or emptying the bucket and bringing it in off the front porch. I generally go to the toilet. Nor for a long stay, mind you. Just a short one. If you do all that, you got yourself a perfect soft-boiled egg.”

Of course, my cooking conditions were never quite the same as Pilate Dead’s, so I had to adapt. For example, I never bothered “knocking the chill off the water.” I figured that my tap water wasn’t as chilly as hers, but mainly, I was too lazy. For a long time, I followed her “one small obligation” rule, but my obligations were too inconsistent, and I often ended up with a harder yolk than I wanted, so I switched to using a timer.

Still, it pretty much worked, and I had the satisfaction of learning how to boil an egg from Toni Morrison. There was only one problem, as demonstrated by my nephew, Benjamin, a few years ago.

The egg white would often stick to the shell when I peeled my eggs. For many years, I thought that it was because my eggs weren’t fresh enough. Then later, I thought it was because my eggs were too fresh. This is what happens when you rely on hearsay and homespun wisdom (which includes much of what you’ll find both in books and on the Internet). Of course, I never bothered attempting to research something that felt definitive or to experiment myself. (See above re: my laziness.) I even own Harold McGee’s classic, On Food and Cooking, but I never bothered checking to see what he had to say. (That worked out in the end, because McGee’s advice and explanation are wrong.)

For years and years and years, I tolerated my pock-marked boiled eggs. Then, a few months ago, I came across the brilliant J. Kenji López-Alt’s debut article for The New York Times, where he chose to tackle this time-honored problem. I finally knew how to boil eggs correctly. (Read the article, and you’ll understand why I trust him so much.)

The water and the eggs should not be on equal standing. The water should take the upper hand. Boil it first, then add the eggs. Better yet, steam the eggs rather than boil them.

I didn’t have an excuse to test this myself until this past weekend. I had to make a butt-load of potato salad for a friend’s party, and there was no way I was going to sit around picking egg white off of the shell. So I gave López-Alt’s technique a try.

IT WORKED!!!

There’s undoubtedly more to say about the nature of epistemology in these times, but that will have to wait for another time. For now, I’m just happy to have solved the final piece of the puzzle regarding boiled eggs. And I’m still grateful for Toni Morrison after all these years. Who else could have emblazoned such a clear picture on my impressionable mind about something as mundane as boiled eggs?

David Chang on Integrity

I’ve never met David Chang, the hotshot chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, nor have I ever tasted his food. From the various profiles I’ve read of the dude, he seems like the kind of guy I’d either be best friends with or wouldn’t be able to stand.

My all-time favorite story about him comes from this 2008 New Yorker profile:

At Noodle Bar, a junior line cook had been cooking chicken for family meal—lunch for the staff—and although he had to cook something like seventy-five chicken pieces and the stoves were mostly empty, he’d been cooking them in only two pans, which meant that he was wasting time he could have spent helping to prep for dinner. Also, he was cooking with tongs, which was bad technique, it ripped the food apart, it was how you cooked at T.G.I. Friday’s—he should have been using a spoon or a spatula. Cooking with tongs showed disrespect for the chicken, disrespect for family meal, and, by extension, disrespect for the entire restaurant. But the guy cooking family meal was just the beginning of it. Walking down the line, Chang had spotted another cook cutting fish cake into slices that were totally uneven and looked like hell. Someone else was handling ice-cream cones with her bare hands, touching the end that wasn’t covered in paper. None of these mistakes was egregious in itself, but all of them together made Chang feel that Noodle Bar’s kitchen was degenerating into decadence and anarchy. He had screamed and yelled until a friend showed up and dragged him out of the restaurant, and his head still hurt nearly twenty-four hours later.

The following afternoon, Chang called an emergency meeting for the staff. Something was rotten in Noodle Bar, and he meant to cut it out and destroy it before it was too late.

“I haven’t been spending that much time in this restaurant because of all the shit that’s been going on,” he began, “but the past two days I’ve had aneurisms because I’ve been so upset at the kitchen. On the cooks’ end, I question your integrity. Are you willing to fucking sacrifice yourself for the food? Yesterday, we had an incident with fish cakes: they weren’t properly cut. Does it really matter in the bowl of ramen? No. But for personal integrity as a cook, this is what we do, and I don’t think you guys fucking care enough. It takes those little things, the properly cut scallions, to set us apart from Uno’s and McDonald’s. If we don’t step up our game, we’re headed toward the middle, and I don’t want to fucking work there.

“We’re not the best cooks, we’re not the best restaurant—if you were a really good cook you wouldn’t be working here, because really good cooks are assholes. But we’re gonna try our best, and that’s as a team. Recently, over at Ssäm Bar, a sous-chef closed improperly, there were a lot of mistakes, and I was livid and I let this guy have it. About a week later, I found out that it wasn’t him, he wasn’t even at the restaurant that night. But what he said was ‘I’m sorry, it will never happen again.’ And you know what? I felt like an asshole for yelling at him, but, more important, I felt like, Wow, this is what we want to build our company around: guys that have this level of integrity. Just because we’re not Per Se, just because we’re not Daniel, just because we’re not a four-star restaurant, why can’t we have the same fucking standards? If we start being accountable not only for our own actions but for everyone else’s actions, we’re gonna do some awesome shit.”

Fuck yeah. Fires me up every time I read it.

 

Technique, Practice, and Craft

Last week, Sports Illustrated published an article about Georgetown’s basketball program and its coach, John Thompson III. Georgetown has a long tradition of producing skilled big men, starting with Thompson’s father in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Thompson has continued that tradition, he’s gained a reputation for something different:

Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown’s system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.

Georgetown’s theory is different.

Thompson doesn’t tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, “the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don’t be a position.”

And that is the most difficult point to get across.

“A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do,” he said. “The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they’re so used to being told where to run in the play next.

“It’s new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they’re being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple.”

I’ve loved basketball my whole life, but I’ve never played it competitively. So I’m intrigued by what this actually means in practice. I totally agree with it in theory. However, before you can learn how to make your own decisions, sometimes you have to learn things by rote.

I recently heard chef extraordinaire Jacques Pepin on the radio talking about cooking, and he gave a wonderful definition of technique:

For me, technique is very important. Technique is really a repetition, repetition, endless repetition of a certain movement, whether you use a knife or whatever, so it becomes so engrained, so part of yourself that you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.

You learn a certain movement, a certain reaction over and over and over again until, as Pepin said, “you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.” That, to me, is the essence of craft, whether it’s sports, cooking, or my own craft of collaboration. Learning certain things by rote ultimately gives you the freedom to express yourself.

After a recent playoff game, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had this to say about his point guard, Rajon Rondo:

“He’s got to be in attack,” Rivers said. “I thought the second quarter he was attacking and attacking. I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on instincts. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him at times. He’s trying to read the defense, but you can’t read and play with speed at the same time.

“We go through it a lot — at least Rondo and I — about, ‘Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You’ll make the right decision.'”

Doing any craft well is all about trusting your instincts. You get those instincts by doing your thinking in practice rather than in the moment.

Ducking Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to give thanks, to be with family and friends. On the other hand, it’s a holiday that’s loaded with stress and unrealistic expectations.

Specifically, I’m talking about cooking turkey. In my family, that foul fowl is single-handedly responsible for raising the household holiday stress levels to undue proportions every year.

First, we go through the same dance every year trying to buy a small bird. Every year, the store takes our order, then calls us a few days before Thanksgiving and says that the turkeys are in. Unfortunately, the smallest bird they have is double the size of what we ordered. This happens every freakin’ year.

Then we have to clear out space in the refrigerator to hold the giant bird, which is just about mathematically impossible, given that you have about quadruple the amount of groceries in your fridge for the rest of your dishes.

Next comes the cooking. For the past 10 years, I have been bestowed with the responsibility of roasting that wretched bird for my family. I’m a good cook, and I’m especially good at cooking meat. And yet, every year, I somehow manage to butcher the bird, and not in a good way.

I’ve tried roasting it, brining it, barbecuing it, butterflying it, and braising it. And somehow, I’ve never managed to cook a good turkey. (Actually, braising works great, but I only braise the dark meat, so you still have to figure out what to do with the white meat.)

There are two things I hate more than anything: undercooking meat and overcooking meat. My little sister says that whenever I undercook or overcook meat, a little black cloud forms over my head. Yes, yes it does. Fortunately, it only happens a few times a year. Unfortunately, it happens every November.

Finally, there’s the eating. Despite the adversity, the bird has always looked good. And it’s always tasted okay. But why settle for just okay? It’s Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! It should be mind-numbingly delicious.

The truth is that none of us even like turkey. We ate it every year, because that’s what society expected us to do. Well this year, after once again ordering a 12-pound bird and hearing once again (after our order had already been taken) that only 20-pound birds were available, we finally said, “Enough!” We decided that we’d eat duck for Thanksgiving instead.

It was shocking to realize how liberating this decision was. First, we all love duck. I mean, really, who doesn’t? Duck is a magical animal — all dark meat and hauntingly beautiful fat and skin.

Second, we never cook it. I had never even touched a raw duck before. So cooking duck would be special, perfect for such a festive occasion.

Third, preparing duck is an order of magnitude easier than cooking a turkey. It’s small, meaning that it fits in the refrigerator and that it cooks quickly. It’s all fatty, dark meat, meaning that it’s hard to overcook. And duck actually tastes great medium rare, which means that it’s okay to undercook as well.

Fourth, the Pilgrims ate duck at the first Thanksgiving. So we were still being consistent with tradition.

Win, win, win, win.

Armed with J. Kenji López-Alt’s helpful guide to roasting duck, I decided to prepare two: a jerk-spiced duck and a Chimaya chile-coffee rubbed duck. I dried both ducks in the refrigerator for a day, then rubbed them and let them dry for another day.

We roasted the jerk-rubbed duck for Thanksgiving on a soda can so that the fat would render out. It took about 50 minutes to cook, and we let it rest for about 20 minutes. It was without question the most stress-free Thanksgiving ever. Cooking was a breeze. We all pitched in as usual, and we made plenty of delicious sides, but we didn’t have to do any extraordinary prep, nor did we have to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning.

As for the taste… well, did I mention that duck is a magical animal? This was unquestionably the best tasting Thanksgiving meal any of us had ever eaten. At one point, we were all eating in silent, focused concentration as we savored this delicious food. My dad, who is the most critical eater in our family, spent most of the meal with his eyes closed and a blissful smile on his face.

We actually thought that we would need the second duck for Thanksgiving, which was ludicrous. We barely had room to consume the first duck. We ate the second duck the day after, which was like having Thanksgiving two days in a row. It was as good as our first meal, only much easier to prepare, as all of the sides were already ready.

Furthermore, the ducks were gifts that kept on giving. We made sweet potato fries with duck fat (baked, not fried, so that we could pretend they were healthy), which made my dad smile even wider. We boiled the duck carcasses overnight to make a rich, meaty stock, then combined it with butternut squash, garlic, and habanero to make an unctuous soup. I was even able to restore the boiled duck meat from the carcass — which had been literally rendered dry and useless from the stock-making — with a little dollop of duck fat and salt. It had a pulled pork consistency and tasted like duck heaven.

So this year, I’d like to express deep, stomachfelt gratitude to one of the most wonderful animals in the world for restoring peace, harmony, and joyous food coma to my family this year. I hope other families can learn from our experience this year.