This fried egg was not all it was cracked up to be

If you write a letter of complaint - in the most constructive way, of course - then it would be best if it were about something that really matters. A fried egg, for instance. I wouldn't have thought of writing a letter at all if there hadn't been a small notice on the table inviting phoned or written comments. Also, I happened to have time to jot down the name and address proffered because my flight wouldn't be called for another hour. I decided there and then that I would follow through when I was back home.

If ever there was a fried egg that deserved to be immortalized in epistolary prose, this fried egg was it. In fact I'm not sure "immortalized" is the right word. No fried egg lasts forever, though this particular one - before I ate some of it - did show unusual signs of longevity. When I first noticed it alongside its fellow English breakfast items, my credulity received a strange jolt. It was not as other fried eggs.

I looked again. For a split second I thought it was one of those joke eggs made of rubber that children enjoy sneaking onto adult plates so that adults can pretend to be shocked when they discover them. Like those tricky objects, this fried egg didn't look real somehow. I prodded it with my fork. It resisted. I picked it up and dropped it. It bounced.

Out of pure charity, I am not going to reveal the name of the Scottish airport in which I had my disconcerting early morning egg encounter. I would not like to deter happy travelers - though they might consider bringing along their own comestibles.

My egg, surprisingly, turned out to be authentic, and for want of any other experimental activity at that time, I managed to separate part of it and give it a try. It was - how can I put it? - a neutral experience. It had no identifiable flavor. White and yolk were indistinguishable in both feel and taste. The texture, well, it was textureless, really, but in a faintly sliding way.

About a month and a half later, I was leafing through one of my notebooks and happened to find the address for the caterer. Oh, the egg! I had forgotten about my plan to write a letter. It's amazing how trivial issues like work or national elections or tidying garages can force truly significant things into the background.

I decided it wasn't too late to do a good deed on behalf of humanity and eggs. So I composed a handwritten, friendly and (I hoped) amusing letter detailing the egg. I suggested that a traveler in need of a good breakfast might feel slightly disappointed. I mentioned the high price of this sad airport breakfast and added that my aim in writing was a hope that future diners might be given a fried egg worthy of the concept. After two pages I felt I had said all that was needed.

A few days later, the lady in question phoned me. We had a lovely long chat. I was able to tell her, truthfully, how much I admire those who cater for a large number of people. How do they do it? It baffles me. All I can just about manage is a meal for two in the privacy of our kitchen.

Then we got to the subject of fried eggs and breakfasts. I was able to ask her why American food outlets routinely fry eggs just the way the customer likes them - sunny-side up, over easy, or any number of other states and stages - but at this British airport the only choice was an egg that was getting a bit bored with life. We both laughed. I explained that my wife sometimes calls me "Victor." My airport friend knew exactly what I meant. A few years ago, a TV series in Britain featured a character named Victor Meldrew, a kind of grumpy old man folk hero. Since then, anyone who tends to protest loudly is "a Victor." Victor is a British invention, but my friend pointed out that, on the whole, British people don't like to protest. She believed Victor was an exception. Well, Victor and I.

It turned out there was a legitimate reason for the rubber egg. She explained it in her subsequent letter to me (which included a money order generously in excess of the cost of the breakfast): "As discussed during our telephone call [this airport] currently operates a Grease Free cooking process, and the fried eggs are currently oven cooked."

When she had mentioned this on the phone, I'd burst into laughter, and we agreed that an oven-cooked egg is not, by any description, a fried egg. Maybe it is a baked egg. But a baked egg is a traditional form of egg cookery, and it is not what I met on my plate that morning.

She continued: "This [grease-free] system can, during peak trading times, cause problems with the eggs." She explained that the choice is between an overproduction of eggs, in which case "they go rubbery," or cooking them to order, in which case "customers have a longer wait." A dilemma, it seems.

It doesn't seem insoluble, however. The answer is to have two counters, one for customers in such a desperate hurry they won't even notice a bouncing egg and one for customers who agree with Somerset Maugham when he observed that "To eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day." These are customers who have time to appreciate one of the greatest culinary institutions the world has invented. In other words, a line for others and a line for Victor, Somerset, and me. Perhaps this is what my friend meant when she wrote that "the cook process is currently under review in response to customer feedback." And I didn't even send my food back. I just wrote a letter.

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