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?

A Taste of How Korean Culture Has Become International… in Southern California


It’s no secret that Korean culture is huge internationally and has been for a long time, whether it’s K-pop, Korean dramas, or kimchi. I love it, but I still find it weird, especially when I’m in Southern California, where I remember (from many, many, many years ago) Korean culture being the exclusive province of Korean people, and everyone else being completely ignorant or suspicious of it.

Yesterday, I had lunch with my mom at Yigah in Garden Grove, which specializes in Korean beef soups. As we left, I held the door open for a UPS delivery man carrying a large box. As this older white man walked through the door, he said, “감사합니다” (“thank you”) without missing a beat, which left me chuckling.

Afterward, my mom and I went to Arirang Market to pick up some groceries. At the Korean barbecue stand, I noticed to my surprise that each menu item had the Vietnamese equivalent written underneath (pictured above). I pointed this out to my mom, who shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Vietnamese people love 불고기 (bulgogi).” (Garden Grove is also known as Little Saigon because of its large Vietnamese population.)

As folks become more exposed to and enamored with Korean culture, I delight in the subtle nuances that most people don’t know. At Yigang, I had 육개장 (yukgaejang), a delicious, spicy, beef brisket soup made with mountain vegetables. I imagine many people enjoy it. What they may not realize is that “개” translates to “dog,” which is what this dish was originally made with. 육개장 was a peasant dish, but when the Korean nobility (양반) discovered they liked it, they started making it with beef instead.

Status Versus Substance

A little over a year ago, I read an item in Sarah B.’s most excellent Richmond District Blog about a French bakery called Arsicault opening up in my neighborhood. I love great bread and have often wished for a bakery like Tartine nearby. But Arsicault wasn’t that kind of bakery, and while I like a good croissant as much as the next guy, I didn’t see the need to go out of my way to visit.

Still, I love living in the Richmond District, and I take great pride in all local successes. So last month, when Arsicault was named America’s Best Bakery by Bon Appetit magazine, I took notice. But I still didn’t go, and frankly, while I knew that national recognition like this was a big deal for small businesses, I had no idea how big of a deal it would be.

I’ve gotten a pretty good idea, thanks to my weekly pickup basketball game. I drive past Arsicault every Sunday on my way to the park. Prior to the Bon Appetit article, I had never once seen a line there. Now, the line is around the corner all the time.

This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle had a great piece describing Arsicault’s story and pondering this most recent chapter:

So what had drawn the crowd — bragging rights? The sense of accomplishment? The chance to taste the best new croissant in America and assess it on one’s own terms? Was that even possible anymore?

There’s a scene in Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise” when the narrator and a fellow professor pay a visit to the “most photographed barn in America.” They stand in silence, watching people take pictures of the barn.

“No one sees the barn,” the colleague says finally. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. … We can’t get outside the aura.”

Here we were, inside our own sugar-scented aura. The charming neighborhood bakery that Bon Appétit’s editors had stumbled on had momentarily ceased to exist, and in its place was a much-hyped croissant factory that caused otherwise reasonable people to wait in a 30-minute line at 6:55 on a chilly morning.

We weren’t waiting for breakfast. We were waiting to see whether this experience was worth it.

I don’t know how good the croissants are at Arsicault, and I am less likely to find out now than I was before, thanks to the ridiculous lines. But it’s been a good reminder to me about how much I value craftsmanship and the unusual relationship between status and substance.

Regardless of whether Arsicault’s croissants live up to the hype, I love founder Armando Lacayo’s story, how it all began with an incessant desire to bake a croissant that lived up to the ones he ate as a child in Paris, and how he kept working and working and working at it, and how he plans to continue to work at it.

Photography Is About the Person Behind the Camera

I loved this 500px interview with Gabriele Liaudanskaite, a 17-year old Lithuanian food photographer. She only uses natural light, she mostly shoots in automatic mode, and she uses a cheap kit lens. And, her photos are gorgeous. Further proof that photography is ultimately about the person behind the camera, not the tool itself.

She also offered some excellent advice for beginning photographers on developing their voice:

One should not be afraid to begin with ordinary pictures: blooming tulips in grandma’s yard, oh-my-god-how-awesome clouds at sunset, touristic pictures of famous landmarks from a very boring angle, close-ups of friend’s new puppy or kitty or whatever. Only after taking such photos one will start to feel the need to become different.

Ten Years of Blogging

Today is my ten year blogiversary.  This is my 615th blog post.

In my first blog post, I wrote about the tools I used and wrote to support this blog. In my second blog post, I explained why I started blogging. I cited three reasons.

First, I wanted to understand the medium better, and I learn best by doing.

Second, I wanted a platform for carrying out some tool experiments.

Third — and this was the main reason — Chris Dent, my cofounder at Blue Oxen Associates, kept nagging me to do so. If you’re looking to blame someone for 615 posts worth of noise over ten years, blame Chris.

In that first post, I made light of people blogging about their cats and the things that they ate. My intention was to use this medium strictly as a place to share my thinking on collaboration. While I’ve continued to use it that way, I also drifted far away from that. It became much more of a personal sandbox, and yes, that has included many posts about things that I’ve eaten. Based on my analytics, people are much more interested in what I eat than they are about what I have to say about collaboration. So it goes.

In celebration of my blogiversary, I had hoped to do an extensive analysis of the things I’ve written over the past ten years. Then last week, my friend and mentor, Doug Engelbart, passed away.

I’ve been thinking a lot about him and about what he meant to my life and my career. That man literally changed my life. I wanted to write something special about him, but it’s been a hard process, and it will take me some time.

So in the spirit of old school blogging, I’ll point you to two things written about Doug by two friends: the aforementioned Chris Dent and Brad Neuberg, who worked with me on Doug’s HyperScope project in 2006.

Thank you to everyone who ever engaged with me on this blog, whether it was linking to a post, leaving a comment, or simply reading and thinking about what I had to say. The simple act of writing things down has helped me considerably, but I’ve also developed some amazing relationships with people through this blog, and that has meant the world to me. We’ll see if I can manage another ten years.