Which Came First?

Eggs for sale in Morocco

A farmer in Morocco sells free-range eggs by the side of the road.

On this blog, it was the chicken, but elsewhere, the question still remains, which came first—the chicken or the egg?

That eggs are worthy of admiration has been recounted by many of the great chefs and gastronomes of the last few centuries. The sixteenth-century historian Benedetto Varchi wrote a treatise on boiled eggs, while the renowned seventeenth-century French cook Pierre François de la Varenne produced a cookbook that contained sixty different recipes for eggs. In his masterwork, Le Guide Culinaire (1903), the legendary Auguste Escoffier wrote that “Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg.” He then went on to detail nearly 150 recipes for eggs. So the humble hen’s egg is no culinary slouch. In fact, it is said by some that the number of pleats in the traditional chef’s toque corresponds to the repertoire of egg dishes he or she has mastered.

Though some ancient peoples have traditionally viewed eggs as too valuable to eat—an egg might produce another chicken, which would feed more people than the egg would—most cultures have numerous recipes that employ these dandy little protein parcels. And they are nutritional wonders, indeed. In the world of food, when it comes to judging and classifying substances as complete and assimilable, the standard is the egg. It possesses all the amino acids needed for growth and is rated as having the highest biological value of all common foods (96 on a scale of 100). A hen’s egg also supplies all the essential vitamins except vitamin C, and most of the essential minerals in sufficient amounts to affect metabolism. Consume two eggs, and you have met half of your daily requirement for proteins and vitamins. Toss in a piece of fruit and some whole-grain bread, and you pretty much have a perfect meal.

Interestingly, the egg yolk (from the Old English geolu, which meant, and is also the root of, “yellow”) and albumen (egg white, from the Latin albus, “white”) are such complicated materials that food science has still not been able to fully explain their composition and behavior. But fortunately, you don’t have to understand eggs to enjoy them.

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History, Language, Nutrition

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