One evening when I was still a young mother, our evening began at 6:00 pm with the usual crush of just-arrived-home responsibilities followed by an unusual number of 7:00 meetings. I abandoned the previous dinner plan and opted instead for quicker fare - eggs. Omelets for everybody - cholesterol be damned.
"Claire," I inquired of the resident child, "what do you want in your omelet?"
"I don't want an omelet."
"How about scrambled eggs?"
“Well, it's got to be eggs."
"O.K. Can I have Eggs In A Nest?"
The eight-year old gourmand went on with an elaborate explanation about something with toast and a hole and sunny-side-up and soon I got the picture that the yolk is supposed to peek through the hole. Dinnertime schedules do not allow much leeway for whimsy, but something in her earnest description propelled me towards her vision. I could do this. I proceeded with the less fanciful Omelets Florentine for the grown-ups and kept them warm in the oven while I figured out the Egg In A Nest.
Claire got out the bread and made two slices of toast. I dug out the biscuit cutter, it is just the right size for the hole, and I let Claire do the honors. She kept up a stream of chatter to tell me just how this was supposed to be cooked and assembled. Two pieces of toast. One with a hole. That one on top. Egg on the bottom piece. Yolk sticks up through the hole. Easy. O.K. So I got all that. I cracked an egg into the frying pan. It sizzled and the clear white turned white-white and curled and bubbled at the edges. The yolk rose high and proud on a little pillow of albumen that would remain viscous and slimy if I didn't flip it over. Time for a consultation with the eight-year old food stylist. "Now, tell me, just how do you want this egg cooked? If I leave it like this the white won't cook all the way through and it will be kind of slimy. If I flip it, the yolk will get a little cooked." Claire conveyed the importance of getting the yolk to fit in that hole in the toast as uncooked as possible. I poured some water from the teakettle into the frying pan and it sizzled and steamed and simmered. I put a lid over it and poached that egg for about 45 seconds. I removed the lid and - Voila! The white was cooked through, even the translucent layer of white that covered the yolk, but underneath the yolk remained liquid and shimmery and rose high and mighty, a perfect little hillock. The egg was perfect.
I quickly slipped the bottom toast onto a plate and nestled the egg on top of it trying to center the yolk. Then I placed the cover toast on top like a crown with the beloved pate of the egg peeking through the top. The eight-year old epicure beamed, it was exactly as she had imagined. We sat down to eat, the grown-ups with their omelets Florentine and Claire with her Nest. All would go well now, the rush to get dinner on the table successfully met.
Should I have foreseen the sequence of events that followed? Perhaps next time I will take care to not allow an egg yolk to be so voluptuous, so inviting of play. That high and mighty egg yolk, all proud and worthy of attention, proved irresistible to Claire's imagination. Transfixed by that yellow shimmering mound, she massaged it gently. The yolk responded provocatively and that egged Claire on for more. She prodded and nudged and poked, but never with enough violence to put a premature end to the life of the yolk. More maneuvers to elicit more wiggles, you could almost see the egg calling out for more. Claire made a token effort at eating the thing. She nibbled away at the edges of the toast but kept a ring so that the yolk couldn't escape. She lifted the plate and surveyed this rising sun and its horizon. She tipped it one way, then another, then back, then forward, allowing the volume within to flow heavily from side to side. With each tip the yolk bulged dangerously and strained its translucent cover, that thin membrane that held it—barely—together.
The yolk traveled a few circuits around the ring of toast before coaxed into its next trick. Which was to dance - to shimmy, to jiggle, to hula, to dip and weave to whatever teenybop music was playing inside this girl's head. These two were quite the dancing couple. Claire led of course and imposed all sorts of whirls and twirls upon her obedient partner. The responsive yolk moved provocatively and swayed enticingly and held Claire in a trance. To the casual observer they could have been two lovers lost in the discovery of each other's movements. But the Mother was not a casual observer and had a keen interest in seeing this courtship ended or consummated; there were schedules and errands and dishes to clean up. "Stop playing with your food and finish your dinner!" - my reveille and anthem.
Claire nibbled away some more, pecked at the edges, unwilling to disturb the yolk's exquisite equilibrium. The thick blaze-yellow ooze stayed in rapturous suspension, a state of liquid on the verge of something important. The nibbles took away one side of the fence, then another, then another still until the yolk stood alone on a peninsular piece of toast attached only to a smidgen of the cooked white. There it stood, bold and naked, ready to sprint through the chute towards its destiny. I thought briefly of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. The anticipation was excruciating. All eyes were on the yolk. It was ready. It stamped its feet, it snorted, steam rose from its neck. "Eat me!" it screamed at the red flag of Claire's mouth.
Wild-eyed and mouth opened like a spring-loaded trap, Claire lifted the yolk. Poised on her fingertips she steadied and readied her prey. Hypnotized, mesmerized, she uttered a brief Hosanna for the life this yolk was about to give up. Jaws opened, tongue tucked out of the way - Ready, Go! She shot that yolk into her mouth and clamped down hard before it could change its mind. An error in either the timing mechanism of the jaw or the hand-to-eye coordination fixed her index finger between the set of jaws as they rushed to each other in the victory of capture. No sooner had they met upon Claire's finger than they flew apart again, the feedback loop being quite intact. A great yelp rushed through the air and, startled beyond belief, the yolk leaped from its dark cavern. In its haste it stumbled and fell. Flipping end over end like a coin toss, it repelled out of control, bounced from chin to table to lap to chair to floor, shedding big sticky yellow tears along the way. It lay, heartbroken, upon the floor, collapsed and drained of all life, sunny-side-down.
How can good love turn out so wrong? And so quickly too? How can the charming innocence of a child's imagination reek so much havoc? But 7:00 advanced and there was no time for questions, let alone answers. And amid the ensuing yelling, blame and recriminations, there remained a dead egg yolk awaiting its final disposition.
Could this have been avoided? Maybe, but what good would that have done? This was a lesson that had to be learned. Whenever an egg yolk emerges from its shell and settles into voluptuous splendor, there will always be trouble. As there are a lot of eggs out there, it is best to learn this young. Claire's yolk left a difficult removal chore in its wake, a disturbed dinner, and a shattered peace. But long after the veneer of yellow shellac was gone, this lesson remained: Never give an egg yolk more trust than you yourself can handle.
Claire will not be consigned to scrambled eggs forever, but for a while, yes, until she can handle the dangerous freedom of an intact yolk. No doubt there will be some experimentation along the way - poached eggs, soft-boiled, puffy souffles - things like that. She'll learn safe handling procedures, how to avoid disease, how to prevent, uh, accidents. All on the sly of course, the Mother is not supposed to know.
Twenty-five years later, when she's sophisticated and elegant in her own way, she will attend a party. There on the buffet table will be some very dangerous food - raw oysters and clams on the half shell, a plate of raw steak tartar with rounds of French bread and pumpernickel, and little ramekins of lemons, capers and chopped onion. Next to those will be an assembly of saucers, each with a high top raw egg yolk captured by a perfect ring of red onion. She'll sample the oysters and clams for practice, and let their chilled sliminess slither down her throat. Then with longing and remembrance in her eyes, she'll approach the line of saucers, take one and deftly slide the yolk onto a round of tartar. She'll raise it to her lips and with a wink and a sigh insert it whole into her lip-sticked mouth. She will discreetly churn her jaws and swallow and run her tongue over her teeth in a clean undercover sweep. She will raise her head and beam a broad smile, and without a trace of yellow anywhere, will nod to the gentleman standing to her left and confidently say, "Hello."
Claire will have her yolk and eat it too.