“I think these eggs have been fertilized,” my wife says.
I’m spreading correct peanutbutter on a piece of toast. That’s peanutbutter minus the ingredients that make it taste good (salt, sugar, hydrogenated oils, mono- and di-glycerides); peanutbutter in its purest, oiliest, sludgiest, and least manageable state.
Two scrambled eggs every morning. I cook them for her in a little olive oil, with a light sprinkling of salt. She likes her eggs wet, a preference I have always questioned and which she has always maintained is perfectly safe. When she was a kid back in Italy, her grandmother made her drink a raw egg some mornings. It doesn’t get much wetter than that. She doesn’t say she liked it; what she seems is proud of it. She drank her egg down while her sister threw hers up. Not because there was anything wrong with the egg, my wife says. Maybe because there was something right with her sister, I think.
I wonder what a fertilized egg would taste like.
Some years ago, long before I converted to “real” peanutbutter, I caved on industrial eggs. Up to then I bought a dozen white ones in the squeaky white Styrofoam cartons, bought them wherever I found them, grocery stores, party stores, gas stations, with total confidence in what was inside. Then eggs became suspect, full of cholesterol, and the industrial egg, in particular, like everything Big Food touches, was especially corrupt.
These days I buy eggs that are supposed to be virtuous. They’re brown. They come in cardboard cartons made from recycled paper. The package says free range, no antibiotics, no hormones. I can’t assess the difference in taste or yolk density. To me, they taste like eggs, just like the other ones did. Some mornings there’s the shock of double yolks. It’s a reminder of the creature potential in eggs—eventual feathers, beaks, feet.
She holds up her plate now for me to taste the fertilized egg.
I smell them—there’s definitely a funny ammonia thing going on—and try a bite.
“Tastes like feet,” I say, and dump the eggs in the sink.
“Too bad,” she says. “They were very red.”
My wife has long maintained the eggs in Italy are better than the ones in the US. Not just different. Better. She points to the yolk as evidence, the rosso dell’uovo, the red of the egg, as the Italians call it. And she is right about one thing. Egg yolks in Italy are different, a brighter, deeper yellow. You see it when you break an egg in a pan. You see it when you roll tagliatelle onto your fork. Cruising the pasta section of a grocery store in the US, you can tell the American-made pasta. It has a pale, bleached color. Next to it on the shelf, a pasta imported from Italy, especially the artisanal stuff, is almost too bright to be believed.
Nobody I know in Italy eats eggs for breakfast. But you see eggs on the menu, gorgeous blazing yellow fritatas, dishes of scrambled eggs during truffle season. Go out for truffles in the fall, typically at the outset of the meal they shave truffle onto eggs. You eat these eggs and marvel that something could be so good.
A few years ago we were in Acqualagna, a hill town east of Assisi, having a truffle lunch. When they brought out the eggs, one of our friends scowled and shook her head.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The eggs,” she said. “They give the chickens medicine to color the eggs.”
“Yes, you know, chemicals to make the yolks redder. Just look at them.”
“You’re not going to eat them?”
The eggs looked beautiful, preternaturally yellow, worthy of the big fat truffle the server was holding. At the table, there seemed to be general disagreement with her. The eggs were fine. The yolks were naturally “red,” get over it. I got over it, over a plate of those eggs, though I found myself picturing pill-popping hens hopped up on…something.
A few years after that, our daughter, fresh out of culinary school, stayed over in Italy a couple months, learning at the cousins’ trattoria to make pasta by hand: hand-mixed, hand-rolled dough, hand-cut tagliatelle. One morning she made an offhand comment about the eggs, their color, how “red” they were.
“It’s what they put in the feed,” my wife’s cousin Marina said.
“What the chickens eat makes the yolks that color.”
Maybe not medicine. But something.
In Italy, as in the US, there are eggs, and there are eggs.
I recall my shock, standing in the supermercato in one day in San Marino. I had gone to buy a dozen eggs. Where do you look? I headed for the refrigerated cases, finding cheeses and dairy, but no eggs. “Over there,” I was told when I finally asked someone. What? In the middle of the store, on pallets, eggs by the half dozen, sitting there at room temperature.
I bought my half dozen, took them home, and dutifully put them in the fridge.
In the US, by law, eggs are washed and refrigerated within 36 hours of the time they are laid and collected. They remain refrigerated through packaging, distribution, stocking in stores, right up to the point of sale (and after). According to the American Egg Board, yearly egg production in the US is staggering: 79 billion eggs a year. According to the Board, that’s 285 million “layers” coming to work every day, sitting around doing what comes natural to them. Sixty-two companies provide 85 percent of US production, many of those companies with a million hens; sixteen of them with more the 5 million hens each. If you have a weak stomach, don’t look too closely at the egg industry.
Washing and chilling is how US producers address the salmonella problem. The European model is different. In general, European producers are more hen-friendly. There’s a little more space, more room for hens to roost. Eggs going to market remain at room temperature, unwashed. The “cuticle,” a parting gift of hens to eggs, is a coating that protects the egg from disease. Unwashed eggs keep their cuticle.
How safe are eggs anywhere?
The USDA says, “There are no significant differences affecting health between organic and conventional eggs.”
But who’s going to believe them?
It’s hard to trust your food, just as it’s hard to trust your news. According to World Poultry, “In Europe alone over 100,000 cases [of salmonella] are reported each year and in the United States there are approximately 40,000 cases reported annually, which seems like a mathematical impossibility. In fact, since many milder cases are not diagnosed or reported, the actual number of infections may be over thirty times higher.” (Thirty times higher?) Makes me glad the US requires egg wash. Then there’s this, from Food Safety News: “Salmonella bacteria causes about 1.2 million foodborne illnesses in the U.S. annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The micro organism causes about 450 deaths every year” [my emphasis]. Evidently there are a lot of bad eggs out there. Unfortunately, they all look about the same.
And so much for the virtuous eggs I’ve been buying. “Cage free” means during recess a hen might get to scratch a patch of ground the size of a postage stamp, and probably not even every day. Most American hens are “debeaked,” a practice almost too brutal and offensive to imagine, which is done to reduce cannibalism. A National Public Radio story on eggs shoots down the “no antibiotics” and “no hormones” claims. Antibiotics are rarely used in US egg production. So that disclaimer is meaningless. And hormones? “It’s illegal to give hormones to poultry, and no large-scale farms in the U.S. do so.” So those no-antibiotics and no-hormones labels are about like the “contains no cholesterol” claim on bottled water.
The best eggs in the US these days, brought to market under the most natural and human circumstances, are pastured eggs. How much are you willing to spend? How much do you value purity and safety in your food? How real is risk? How elastic are your ethics?
In the end, maybe we want to eat what we’ve always loved. I may have gone natural, but I still dream about Jiff peanut butter. When our kids were small, my mother-in-law would whip up uovo sbattuto for them. Sometimes in the morning to give them a proper launch, or in the afternoon for merenda (snack), or at the end of a meal for dessert, she beat sugar into raw egg yolk and spooned it into their mouths. They loved it. She loved it. It was a way of getting egg, that excellent protein source, into them. In an online forum dedicated to questions of child-rearing in Italy, a mother swears by raw egg and sugar. She reports: “I miei lo mangiano tutti i giorni la mattina, e non prendono mai il raffredore.” My children have one every morning. They never catch a cold. Right. And it wards off flat feet.
Let there be eggs. Let them be yellow, red, green, or blue.
Fertilized? It turns out, like many things egg-related, it’s difficult to taste the difference. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to foresee a new disclaimer on egg cartons: Cage free, no hormones, no antibiotics. Extra-virgin hens.