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.
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?