|Girl with a basket of eggs. Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer or his follower, early 17th century. National Museum in Warsaw via Wikimedia. Public domain.|
In 1490, the famous author and publisher William Caxton wrote of a merchant sailing to France. Stranded on the coast of Kent, he tried to buy some eggs from a local woman:
“And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted ‘eyren’. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.”
In Middle English, eggs in the north of England were called egges, a word derived from Old Norse, but southerners used the Old English eyren. Both terms came from the Germanic branch of the Indo-Europeans, an agricultural people believed to have lived around the Black Sea, probably in the Ukraine, some 5000 years ago.
The story of the egg itself, however, is much older. Eggs have long been the dominant form of reproduction for many species of reptiles, birds, amphibians, and even some fish (fish roe). Humans have eaten eggs at least since they domesticated chicken around 7500 BCE. Eggs became popular in China, in Mesopotamia, in Greece – predominantly from quail – and in Egypt – where ostrich and pelican eggs were also eaten. Since antiquity eggs have been on the menu of most nations, prepared and served in too many forms to list, as well as painted for Easter and other occasions.
Eggs vary in size from half a gram for hummingbirds to 1.5 kg for ostriches. All eggs are white at first but may become colored during their passage through the bird’s oviduct – which for the hen takes some 26 hours. Eggs may be blue, green, olive, or brown, depending on which pigment stains the eggshell and whether the pigment can penetrate through the shell.
Many animals feed on eggs, notably raccoons, skunks, mink, river and sea otters, gulls, crows, and foxes. Weasels, stoats, and ermines steal ducks’ eggs, while Egyptian vultures, mongooses, and even hyenas threaten eggs of ostriches. Some snakes also specialize in eating eggs. Humans presumably first ate the eggs of wild birds, then moved on to farming and raised birds for consumption.
The protective shell of most eggs is made of calcium carbonate and is susceptible to being broken, hence the problem of Humpty Dumpty not being put together again. Not “teaching your grandmother to suck eggs” means not teaching experienced older persons skills they already have. To “egg someone on” means to irritate him or encourage him to do something silly. A person may be a good egg or a bad egg. Getting egg on one’s face is a bad experience. Investors are advised not to put all their eggs in one basket, and one should certainly not kill the goose that lays the golden egg, nor be so imprudent as to walk on eggshells. Chicken-and-egg problems are difficult to solve if one cannot determine which came first. “It has laid an egg” means time has run out.
Eggs contain a variety of substances, some in the yolk and some in the egg white. An average chicken egg provides about seventy-five calories and has five grams of fat, six grams of protein, no carbohydrates, sixty-seven milligrams of potassium, and 200 milligrams of cholesterol. Opinions vary on how many eggs it is safe to eat in a day and whether one should eat the yolk or merely the egg white. Some sources claim it is safe to eat up to seven eggs a week and some believe that eggs may have beneficial effects such a preventing blindness from macular degeneration. Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century “iron chancellor” of Germany, could swallow half a dozen eggs for breakfast and lived until the ripe age of eighty-one.
Eggs have long ago been linked to the genesis of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease, but may have been unfairly vilified since most of the cholesterol in the body is generated from other sources through the Krebs cycle rather than from diet. Moreover, many people with high blood cholesterol levels have also habitually ingested large quantities of carbohydrate and protein – bread, sausage and ham, bacon, and foods fried in oil or butter – so that the role of the eggs themselves is hard to ascertain.
Some people are allergic to eggs. Such intolerance may occur at any age but is most common in infants, being the most common source of allergy after cow’s milk. Most children outgrow their allergy by the age of sixteen. Acute egg intolerance may take the form of life-threatening anaphylaxis requiring an epinephrine injection and a visit to the emergency room; more chronic manifestations include hives, dermatitis, nasal congestion and sneezing (allergic rhinitis), asthma, or digestive symptoms.
Eggs are also a common source of salmonella infections, and the rules how long they may be stored vary from country to country. In America it is held that raw eggs can last in the refrigerator for at least three to five weeks; three to six months in an airtight container; and about one year in a freezer. The “sell-by date” given by the producer is often shorter but is not the official expiration date. The longer an egg is stored, the more it declines in quality but can remain good for some uses. Eggs should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in its door. They should not be eaten if they are cracked. After being hard boiled, they may be stored in the refrigerator for about a week. Techniques are available for prolonging storage times – with or without refrigeration – by not washing them when raw or by coating them with various materials, but these are generally not relevant for the ordinary consumer.
Beyond their nutritional value, eggs have also been used to make facial cleaners and skin-firming face masks, moisturizers, hair conditioners, glue for paper or cardboard, protective coverings for leather, edible paint for decorating biscuits before baking, fertilizers, pest repellents, abrasive cleaners for pots and pans, fabric whiteners, and tempera pigment to create beautiful paintings, especially in the early Renaissance. A recommended hangover cure is mixing a raw egg with one teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, some hot sauce, salt, and pepper. Eggs should not be used to pelt opera singers who miss their high notes; in an emergency, tomatoes may be used instead.
, MD, Editor-in-Chief