In the 13th century when theologians were arguing how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, Thomas Aquinas, an inquisitive scholar of the Dominican Order of Friars, posed the famous question: “Which came first – the hen or the egg?” After much debate, it was agreed that mama hen came before her ovoid product. Aquinas recorded the consensus in his religious treatise entitled “Summa Theologica” reasoning that: “…every imperfect thing must be preceded by some perfect thing for seed is from some animal or plant…”
The Church’s great thinkers patted themselves on the back for solving Aquinas’ riddle, but their answer was not original. Every culture has a creation myth of the wondrous egg. The Hindu Upanishad states that Brahma, the first living creature, hatched from a golden egg that floated on the waters of creation. Ancient Egyptians believed that Geb, lord of the earth, and Nut, queen of the sky, produced an egg from which the universe developed. New Guinea aborigines believe the first man and woman hatched from an egg. Polynesians believe that when Tangaroa grew tired of sitting in his egg and burst forth, bits of shell fell in the ocean creating the Pacific islands.
To understand humanity’s fascination with the egg, just imagine the prehistoric world. Primitive man had no control of his surroundings, and Nature was unpredictable. That which could not be explained was regarded with fear and awe. The sun, moon, stars, animals, plants, rivers, and even fire-sparking rocks were thought to have magical powers, and the egg was truly a thing of wonder. From a seemingly lifeless stone-like object, a living, breathing creature would suddenly emerge. If an egg was broken prematurely, the yolk resembled the golden sun, which when eaten, sustained life. It’s not really surprising then that the egg as the origin of the universe is a common creation theme in most cultures.
The egg has been a symbol of death and rebirth since ancient Greece where it was believed that the mythic phoenix was born from an egg, died and was reborn again in a nest of fire. Eggs have figured prominently as resurrection motifs in Easter customs since the sixth century when Pope Gregory the Great decreed that the 40 days preceding Easter would be a time of penance and fasting called Lent (from the Anglo-Saxon lencten which means “spring”). During this period the faithful were forbidden to eat certain foods as a form of self-denial. “We abstain,” the pontiff said, “from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.”
For devout Irish this was an extreme penance as dairy products and eggs were vital staples. Since soda bread is made with buttermilk, the papal edict even prohibited people from eating bread, and extremely poor families existed on meager diets consisting mainly of dry oat cakes, water, and occasional bits of fish. Many households suffered further hardship by losing essential income earned from the milk and eggs their cows and hens provided.
Since neither cows nor hens ceased producing, countrywomen spent much of their time preserving milk and eggs. Churned into butter and made into cheese, milk became substances with long shelf lives. Fragile eggs were another matter. Even hard-boiled, eggs will only stay fresh for a limited time. Our forbears were clever folk, however, and before the days of refrigeration they covered eggs with a thin coating of butter, which kept them from spoiling for nearly three months.
Lent’s egg stockpile played a central role in Easter celebrations. Eggs laid on Good Friday were marked with a cross and eaten Easter morning for luck. Monks ended their austere Lenten fast and celebrated Christ’s resurrection with a hearty meal of hard-boiled eggs and cheese curds.
During Holy Week women boiled eggs with onion skins to give the shells a deep rust hue, and children collected the colored eggs from neighbors for their own party. At rural Easter dances, a rich egg cake was displayed all evening so everyone could admire the baker’s skill, and when the music ended the best dancers divided the cake among the guests.
Eggs topped the list of restricted foods during Lent, but on Shrove Tuesday, the last day of normal eating before midnight church bells tolled the beginning of the 40-day fast, they were a menu headliner. The traditional meal was a feast of pancakes made with eggs, milk and butter.
Every household’s eldest daughter was expected to toss the first cake as high into the air as she dared, but it was a risky performance. If she failed to catch the pancake and it landed on the floor, folk belief held that the poor girl wouldn’t land a husband for an entire year.
At other times, eggs were an Irish dietary mainstay. This was especially true in spring when crops had just been planted. Food was scarce, but flocks of returning migratory birds made nests and filled them with eggs that saved many a family from starvation. While domestic hen, goose and duck eggs were usually roasted whole in the hearth embers, tiny wild eggs might be sucked raw straight from their shells. In the days when taverns and inns were few and far between, travelers carried knapsacks filled with bread, cheese, apples, a bit of smoked bacon, and a supply of hard-boiled eggs. In fact, an old adage for sending a guest who had overstayed his welcome on his way was, “Give him two eggs for the road!”
Since even small plots of land could support a few chickens, poor people relied on eggs to vary their diets. Fricassee of eggs with cream sauce was a very popular Sunday supper dish during the famine-stricken 18th and 19th centuries. Women and children liked the flavor of hen eggs, but men, especially hard-working turf cutters and field laborers, preferred rich duck eggs. Long ago, when goose eggs were a great luxury served at royal banquets on dishes of pure silver and gold, they were so coveted by the kingly elite that they may even have started a war.
In the year 637, the annalist Tiarnach wrote The Banquet of Dun na nGedh and the Battle of Magh Rath which mentions a skirmish caused by a basket of goose eggs. King Donall, a descendant of the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, wanted to serve goose eggs at a banquet in his new fort on the banks of the River Boyne, but the only eggs his men could find belonged to Earc of Slane, a hermit who spent his days immersed up to his armpits in the river. After performing this daily penance, the pious man always returned home and ate a meal of one goose egg and three sprigs of river cress. Ignoring the warning they received from Earc’s housekeeper, the king’s men rode off with the hermit’s store of precious eggs. When the hermit discovered the theft, he placed a curse on the eggs and whoever might eat them. As the purloined eggs were served to the king’s foster son Conghall of Ulster, the gold platter on which they lay turned to wood and the prized goose eggs were transformed into humble hens eggs. The Ulstermen were so insulted they stormed from the keep and engaged their host in a bloody battle.
The ubiquitous egg figures not only in sagas, but also in many folk rituals. Before planting seeds, eggs were sown in newly ploughed fields as a charm to ensure bountiful harvests. Cattle were driven over freshly laid eggs to make sure the animals would grow as fat and round as the egg itself. Egg garlands draped over doorways and hearths protected a home from wandering malevolent spirits. Even the empty shells had their uses.
Cooks used eggshells to measure liquids, and blown eggshells were hung from the branches of budding trees to honor the Tree of Life. The original meaning has been forgotten and the eggs now used are made of bright-colored plastic, but the custom of hanging eggs from a tree branch survives today at Easter when a budding branch bedecked with decorated blown eggs makes a meaningful holiday centerpiece. Slainte!
Onion Skins Easter Eggs
Brown onion skins
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Half-fill a large soup kettle with torn brown onion skins, water to cover, add the vinegar. Gently lower as many as one dozen eggs into the water.
Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Remove the kettle from the heat and steep the eggs in the onion-dye bath for half an hour. Remove the eggs from the bath, wipe them clean of any bits of onion skin and dry carefully. Arrange the eggs on the shredded straw in a decorative bowl as if they were in a nest. If displaying for more than a day, refrigerate the eggs at night. Note: onion skins are non-toxic and do not impart an onion flavor to the eggs. To make the eggs shine, rub them gently with a light cooking oil.
Fricassee of Eggs & Mushrooms
1 pound mushrooms, cut in quarters
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup light cream
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons minced parsley
4 toast slices cut diagonally into triangles
Place the eggs in a saucepan of water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 8 minutes to hard-boil. Run cold tap water over the eggs, remove the shells, quarter the eggs, place them in a serving dish and set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a frying pan, sauté the mushrooms until golden, and add to the reserved eggs. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan, add the flour and cook the roux until it bubbles. Slowly add the cream and stir constantly until the sauce thickens as desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste, stir in the parsley, and pour over the eggs and mushrooms. Serve immediately ladled over toast triangles. Makes four servings. ♦