Egging on Spring
Truth be told, I've always thought of the egg as seasonless.
Spring, summer, fall, winter. It can be raining, sweltering, feeling crisp, or necessitating the need for layer upon layer; the weather matters little to me as I make my stop at the egg farmer's table at my local market for my weekly dozen of large browns.
Eggs, often in pairs, their smooth shells flecked with tiny dots, sit on my counter at various points during the week all year long. I crack them against the flat countertop and hinge them open; the viscous whites and golden yolks spill out, providing sustenance in so many ways. They mingle in a mixing bowl with flour, millet, yogurt and honey, the batter transforming into muffins when enveloped by the heat of the oven. They get whisked with a splash of cream and a sprinkle of fresh-snipped chives, and in an old, dented pan scramble slowly into a fluffy mound to be eaten piled onto buttered toast. They fry in a puddle of rich butter, their edges crisping and turning lacy, before being scooped with a stew of spicy tomatoes onto a mound of hearty brown rice, the lot travelling from plate to mouth rolled into pieces of warmed flatbread. They are always welcome at my table.
And yet, if there were ever a foodstuff that speaks loudly and definitively the name of Spring, it is an egg. The vessel in which life begins, the egg represents everything we associate with this season: rebirth, beginnings, a fresh start. In her novel The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood has used the image of the egg's golden yolk to characterize the dawn of a new day: "What breaks in daybreak? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?" In Chinese culture, red eggs are served to guests at a baby's first birthday, the egg symbolizing the child's fledgling life and the colour red denoting prosperity and good fortune.
As such an iconic image of newness and birth, it is no surprise to find the egg in a starring role for spring celebrations around the world. In my own Eastern European family, we cover its surface with intricate wax designs and dip it in different colours to create the iconic pysanka, or decorated Ukrainian Easter egg. Presenting one of these items of folk art to another on the feast of the resurrection is a symbolic gift of life. We also hard boil them and dye them red, the colour of life-blood, and crack and peel them to eat, sprinkled with salt, at sunrise on Easter morning after the Easter Vigil mass.
Nowruz, Persian for "new day," is a celebration that has its roots in ancient Persia and marks the first day of spring and the first day of the new year on the Iranian calendar. As representing humans and their fertility, eggs are painted by family members and placed in a bowl on the feast table—one of seven traditional items that signify the Zoroastrian divinities. Eggs also make an appearance in a new year's feast dish called kuku-ye sabzi, a cross between a soufflé and an omelette flavoured with herbs, spices, greens and walnuts.
Cascarones, which translates as "confetti eggs," have Latino roots and make their appearance in Mexico during Carnival and Easter. Originally used in courtship as an offering to spur on the birth of the new relationship, these ritualistic eggs are made by piercing one end so the egg can be hollowed out. It is then filled with confetti, perfume, or a toy dyed in cheerful colours, and wrapped in tissue paper. The cascarones are thrown at, or broken over, the heads of the recipients, showering them with the prizes within.
The egg takes on a different meaning at the seder, the ritual service and ceremonial meal which heralds the start of Passover, the eight-day holiday that celebrates the Israelites' delivery from slavery and their exodus, led by Moses, from Egypt. As in other religions and cultures, in Judaism the egg is a symbol of fertility and birth (the roundness of it representing the circle of life and continuity), but it is also a symbol of mourning (a hard-cooked egg traditionally being the first food eaten by Jewish mourners after a funeral). A roasted egg is one of the six items displayed on the seder plate. It commemorates holiday offerings held in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish people's sorrow over the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Of course, the seder-table egg also signifies a new beginning, free from bondage.
But despite the rituals and the rites, perhaps the best way to celebrate the season is to enjoy the egg simply, prepared in a way that preserves and celebrates its form—a humble orb with the ability to create and bring forth life.
I'm imagining a perfectly poached egg, soft and wobbly, set beside a few spears of steamed asparagus, the highly anticipated first green vegetable to appear at the spring markets. A velvety river of rich yellow yolk counterpoints the snap of metallic green, the bright colours on the plate chasing away winter's last grey clouds, and the simplicity of the flavours cleansing the palate in advance of a new season's worth of fresh produce.
Or the soft-boiled egg, perched in a pastel-coloured egg cup and flanked by a slender slice of toast for dipping into the yolk hidden within. After a long winter of thick oats and dense griddle cakes, the uncomplicated pleasure of this simple meal is akin to throwing the windows wide open to the fresh, fragrant air.
Then there is the devilled egg, which tends to make its first appearance of the season on spring tables—perhaps because when the egg is hard-cooked and halved, this preparation lays bare its sunny centre, showcasing it at a time when the sun itself begins to linger longer in the sky and warm the days after what feels like such a long absence.
So let us celebrate the season with the very symbol of burgeoning life. But rather than taking the ubiquitous egg for granted, let us appreciate its humble yet life-giving nature. Let us savour the moment, both at the table and out in a world that is waking up and again becoming green. Spring is here: Tis hatched and shall be so.*
* From Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.