Treat an egg with respect

Grandfather told me a hen's egg merits respect. Not only because it is a full day's work for a hen, but also because it's a neat job of packaging. It's an object of art with utilitarian purpose, always ready in four minutes. My wife and I tried to find out how Europeans are able to boil a four-minute egg in five seconds, but the secret was not revealed.

While touring, my wife and I always asked for four-minute eggs just to see how long it took the waiter to bring them. Never more than 10 seconds, and with an apology, as he presumed Americans are always in a hurry.

On the Continent, such an egg always comes in the shell, and is opened by its consumer by rapping with a spoon. We, of course voted for the little ends, and as Down-Mainers were pleased to notice Continental kitchens are mostly brown-eggers. My grandfather always kept brown-egg hens, opened the little ends, and voted the straight Republican ticket.

I have just suffered the sadness of a short incarceration in a medical institution, not at all of my volition, and confronted the Great American matutinal egg bravely.

Somebody told me, and I don't disbelieve him, that state law requires that such breakfast eggs be served only if cooked to a frazzle, as there are hazards to health and environment in lightly simmered eggs. I thus got an inedible morning egg conforming to the law of the greatest good for the most people. I hope there is not really any such state law, and that the cement eggs are no more than proof that institutionalized old folks are fair game for demented Fanny Farmer dropouts. There is no dietary agony worse than a poached egg on toast staring up at you with the disinterest of a defunct stuffed owl limited to one taxidermist's porcelain eye.

In Europe we had one amusing exception to our four-minute-egg conclusions. We took breakfast one morning at the Italian version of a throughway HoJo's, and sat back to time the arrival of four-minute eggs. Our eggs did not come, and time ran on.

We became interested in a couple at another table who seemed to be newlyweds. They were dallying deliriously with soft boiled eggs in the shell. We waited, and our eggs didn't come. They dallied, we dillied. When they left, the waitress gathered their dishes and took them to the kitchen. Then she brought our eggs. Elapsed time; 16 minutes.

The restaurant had only the two egg cups. But the eggs were properly timed, at four minutes.

At the age of 10, I had my first 4-H Club project: poultry management. Before that time, most farm boys would "keep a few hens," but the cow-college terminology of the government-stipend professors had not developed, and using "hens" and "project" in the same sentence smacked of pretension. I had bulletins to read, 25 pullets, and charts to hang on my hen-house door.

My father kept American Dominiques and was president of the National American Dominique Society, so I had Rose-Comb Rhode Island Reds to be different. Both breeds, of course, laid brown eggs. (West of the Connecticut River, it was OK to eat a white egg.)

My mother once showed us that if the breakfast eggs are shelled and served in a bowl, nobody can tell which is which. Neither does the big end or the little end matter; a hen's egg is a hen's egg,, and go ahead and eat it. I was also to learn that Grampy's "day's work" was in error: Under certain conditions, a hen may miscount and lay more than one a day. I soon knew the facts of ovulation and why I got double-yolk and peewee eggs, and why my biddies "fell off" at times and didn't lay anything. A flock of 4-H hens is a good education.

The first time my 25 hens laid 28 eggs was a big day. My dad took me aside, and we talked confidentially about fiduciary possibilities and the wisdom of long-term investments.

In later years, when my wife and I farmed and the children came along, we always had a flock of hens and kept them available for instructional purposes. The four-minute breakfast egg was regular, and a surplus went weekly by crate to the Boston egg auction. Boys and girls together attended their day-old broilers to marketable maturity and understood a great many things. And I had many memories to recall as I explained to them why some things are thus and others are not. Besides which, we always had a rooster to gladden daybreak.

And always we had a foolish hen who stole her nest away and would surprise us by trotting her clutch one happy morning from under the rhubarb. It takes a broody mother hen 21 days of vacant staring into space to bring off her chicks. One time we had a broody hen who stole her nest away to the hay mow in the peak of the barn roof. Every day she would sneak up there, snuggle into the hay, lay an egg, and then come down as if nothing had happened.

We didn't know she was doing this, and she didn't know that each egg, as she laid it, fell through the hay, between two poles, and came down 35 feet to humpty-dumpty on the barn floor where Fang, our barn cat, lapped it up. We discovered this when we wondered why Fang sat there every morning looking up at the hay mow.

Eat your four-minute egg, it's good for you.

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