Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Eggs

Growing up, I was very lucky to have all four of my grandparents throughout my entire childhood.1  I was also lucky in that both my grandmothers cooked, although they had very different styles.  Which is not surprising, as they were very different people.

My father’s mother was born poor and seemed to have a fierce sort of pride in it.  She considered herself salt of the earth, and was very proud of being humble.  Her cooking came from her North Carolina farm upbringing.  There was lots of ham and chicken and corn and butterbeans and biscuits and collards and mashed potatoes and potato salad and boiled potatoes and, for special occasions, all of the above at once.  Barbecue meant pulled pork, old hambones were dropped into anything boiling, be it potatoes, cabbage, or soup, and bacon grease was used to fry everything, from corn to cornbread to grilled cheese.

On the other hand, my mother’s mother was born poor and seemed determined to never be poor again.  She married for money (twice, I believe) and did her utmost to avoid work (at which she mostly succeeded).  The vast majority of her housework was done by the maid, but she did her own cooking.  She made steak and steak fries, spaghetti and meatballs,2 and chicken tetrazzini.  When she wanted a snack she would spread soft bleu cheese or Braunschweiger on saltines.

As you can imagine, Sunday dinner was radically different depending on which set of grandparents we were visiting on any given week.  For the most part I gave the edge to the paternal side, not being impressed by fancy food, but honestly I was a very picky eater and didn’t eat that much of what I was served no matter who was cooking it.  Still, I had my favorites in either place, and, being the eldest grandchild on both sides, I often influenced them to emulate each other to some degree.3  But there wasn’t a huge amount of overlap in terms of dishes.

The one I remember most distinctly is scrambled eggs.

My maternal grandmother cracked her eggs in a bowl, added milk, whisked them to within an inch of their lives, then cooked them low and slow in a saucepan with butter and not much else in the way of seasoning.  When they were done, they were light, and fluffy, and buttery, and I hated them.  Breakfast at her house meant Fruit Loops.  After a while she wouldn’t even bother to make me eggs at all.

My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, took a gigantic cast iron skillet and cranked up the heat until a flicked drop of water would dance around the pan for a few seconds before vaporizing.  Then she fried up an entire pound of bacon.  Then she cracked a dozen eggs directly in to the pan, with the bacon grease still in it (obviously), peppered them enough to make the devil’s eyes water, and then essentially fried them while beating them with a fork, till they were good and scrambled.  Her eggs were spotted with brown— often nearly black— crust, and greasy, and so firm you might call them rubbery ... and they were delicious.  I would eat the bacon because it seemed expected of me, but honestly I didn’t care anything about it.  Bacon existed to create grease, and bacon grease existed to scramble eggs in.  And bacon grease— and salt, and pepper— were all the eggs needed.  No butter, no namby-pamby milk ... just eggs: chewy, and tasting of bacon.

After I went away to college, I can’t remember my grandmother making eggs for me any more.  Of course, by the time I was a teenager, I was regularly sleeping through breakfast, especially on weekends.  For many years— probably over a decade— I never even ate breakfast.  I would get up late and proceed directly to lunch.

I lost my grandmother on my father’s side just before I turned 30 ... although she was the youngest of my four grandparents, she was the second to go.  She had always been overweight, but otherwise relatively healthy, so it was completely unexpected.  She died in her sleep, apparently peacefully.

Of course I missed a lot of things about my grandmother, as I did about all my grandparents after they passed away.  I didn’t even think about missing the eggs so much for another ten years or so.  This was about the time that eggs became healthy for you again,4 and eating breakfast had somehow become an essential part of losing weight.  And I suddenly began to develop a craving for my grandmother’s eggs.

Of course my first attempts were disastrous.  First of all, I was not going to cook a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs, and I rapidly discovered that even two strips of bacon could easily overwhelm 2, 3, or even 4 eggs.  Maybe I was getting old, but I just couldn’t handle the quantity of bacon grease my grandmother used to use, and it probably wasn’t very good for me anyway.  I also can’t scramble my eggs in the pan.  I’m just no good at it.  I need to pre-scramble them before pouring them in.  I’m also pretty sure I’m not using as much pepper as she used to.  But overall, after fiddling with my prepartion methodology for the past decade, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m happy with it.  It’s not “just like Grandma used to make,” but it retains enough of the character to satiate my nostalgia, and I probably couldn’t handle her eggs these days anyway.  I’m old and fat now, and less grease-resistant.

I eat eggs about 3 times a week.  I generally make 4 at a time, as I only get to eat them on those days when I can sleep in, so it’s sort of a brunch meal.5  Here’s how I make them, in case you ever want to try it yourself.

First, you need some bacon grease.  If you actually like eating bacon, then lucky you.  Otherwise perhaps you can do what I do, which is convince The Mother to cook a package of bacon, give me the grease, then put the cooked bacon in the fridge and make sandwiches out of it later.6  I put the grease in a small glass jar which we keep in the fridge.

You’ll also need ghee.  Using only bacon grease isn’t particularly good for you, and besides: the taste will overwhelm the eggs.  You can use butter— I did, for years— but it doesn’t stand up to the high heat as well as ghee.  Plus ghee is supposedly better for you.  Although butter also magically became good for you again recently.  So who can say.

Other than that, you just need salt, pepper, and eggs.  I like sea salt, peppercorns which I grind myself on the medium setting, and jumbo cage-free/organic eggs.  I buy brown, but honestly there’s no difference in taste between the egg colors.  You’ll also need a decent pan: it doesn’t have to be a cast-iron skillet, but that might be nice if you have one.  I just use a regular old small pan.  Other “hardware” (as Alton Brown would say) is a glass, a butter knife, and spatula or non-metal serving fork.

Put the pan on medium-high heat and add a dollop of ghee and a dollop of bacon grease.  “Dollop” here is an intentionally vague measurement; once melted, the grease shouldn’t even cover the bottom of the pan.  It doesn’t take much.  You’ll get a feel for how much is too much after a few tries.

Crack your eggs into the glass and add a large pinch of salt per two eggs (or a small pinch for one), and 3 grinds of pepper per egg.  You can put the salt in first if you like,7 but don’t add the pepper first, or you’ll end up with one giant clump of pepper somewhere in the middle of your eggs.8  I also like to let the pepper sit for a minute or so before stirring up the eggs (with the butter knife); if you stir it right away, it won’t clump as bad as it would if you had added it before the eggs, but it still isn’t pleasant.9  Take advantage of this time to spread your ghee and bacon grease around the pan with the spatula or fork.

Now just sit back and wait for a bit.  I generally use this time to make myself a glass of tea.  But whatever floats your boat.  What you’re waiting to see are the first barest wisps of smoke from the grease.  Once you see that, stir your eggs quickly but thoroughly, then pour them in.  Your pan should be plenty hot, and your eggs will start to bubble.  Rinse your glass out: that allows a few seconds for your eggs to firm up on the bottom.  Now use the spatula to stir the eggs.  (If you chose the serving fork route, you may find the tines can do a better job here.)  You want to pull the edges of the eggs toward the center, which keeps the edges from getting dried out and burnt.  And you just basically want to swirl everything around a lot.  As your eggs start to change from liquid to solid, start doing more of a flipping motion.  The goal here is to get the wet stuff to the bottom of the pan and the dry stuff on top.  Once you either see your first browning, or the eggs stop looking “wet” (whichever comes first), turn the heat off and grab a bowl from the cabinet, if you haven’t already.  Keep stirring and flipping, with the length of time being dependent on how done you like your eggs.  I’ve come to like mine a bit softer and less burnt than my grandmother did.  But they still taste like scrambled up fried eggs, which is what I’m shooting for.  Once you achieve the consistency you’re looking for, dump them in the bowl and hit that pan with some hot water to remove the bits of egg from it.  I don’t know about your dishwasher, but there’s only two things mine won’t get off dishes: rice, and dried egg.

And there you have it: the perfect scrambled eggs.  Well, my other grandmother wouldn’t say so, and I bet there’s a lot of you out there reading this that wouldn’t think so either.  But give it a try sometime: at the very least, they may be different from what you’re used to, and different is always good.  For me, they embody a little slice of my grandmother.  I think about her every time I make them.  And that’s a pretty fine breakfast.


1 I lost the first a few months before my 18th birthday.

2 In fact, her recipe is what we still use today; when my kids ask for “spaghetti,” they mean they want my grandmother’s sauce, and for the most part could care less what you put it on.

3 By the end of my childhood, their mashed potatoes were indistinguishable.  At this point, I can’t even remember which of them changed to match the other.

4 This is still contested, of course.  As is all food wisdom.

5 Plus usually I have to share them with my daughter.  She can really put a hurting on some eggs, even though she’s only 3.

6 Also good for crumbling into bacon bits and putting on salad.

7 I always do, personally.  But that’s mainly because after I crack the eggs, I generally have egg on my hands.  So I either have to reach into the salt cellar with eggy hands, or with wet hands after rinsing them off.  Either way gets yucky.

8 Trust me on this.  I speak from experience.

9 I’m sure there’s some scientific explanation for why letting the pepper sit on top of the eggs for a bit makes it clump less, but I confess I have no idea what that is.

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