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This Just in: Egg Comes First

by Tarla Fallgatter

The hunt for eggs on Easter Sunday has long been an event much anticipated by children of all ages. First the eggs are cooked, then colored, then hidden, then hunted and finally found. The Christian tradition of giving eggs on Easter Sunday dates back to the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon festival of Eostre and symbolizes the arrival of spring, rebirth and fertility. Because most birds begin to lay eggs as the days lengthen in spring, the egg became symbolic of the season of rebirth, of celebration, and of thanks for the renewal of life.


Eggs have been part of man's diet from earliest times. Wild birds' eggs were no doubt a source of sustenance for primitive man, as they are today for the last remaining hunter-gatherers. As early as 2500 B.C., however, the domestication of fowl began to ensure a more predictable egg supply, and since that time the domestic hen has been carried to every corner of the globe.

Chickens are naturally prolific layers. Selective breeding has helped to increase their individual output to 200 or more eggs a year (a goose, by contrast, lays only 15 to 30 eggs a year). Output has been boosted further by the battery -- or mass-production -- farming methods that were developed in the United States during the 1920s.


Quality is determined by checking the shell for shape, cleanliness and smoothness, and then examining its contents through the shell with the aid of lighted, automated racks. The interior quality is judged by the thickness of the white, the compactness of the yolk and the amount of air in the egg. In a newly laid egg, the white is surrounded by a pair of membranes that cling to each other and the shell. As the egg ages, carbon dioxide and water evaporate through the shell pores; at the same time, air is absorbed, producing a visible pocket between the membranes at the egg's broad end.

The best, freshest eggs with the firmest yolks and smallest air pockets are graded AA; slightly older eggs are graded A. Grade B eggs, only rarely available to the consumer, have thin whites and enlarged yolks and sometimes stained shells. Except for these, shell color is unrelated to quality; it is determined by the breed of hen that laid the egg. Brown or white specks on shells are the harmless result of uneven pigmentation or water molecules trapped in the pores.

Once sized, graded and packed, eggs generally reach the supermarket within four or five days. The grading date appears on the carton as a number: 048, for example, means the eggs were graded on February 17, the 48th day of the year.


Hen's Eggs

While most eggs are produced by intensive methods, some commercially raised free-range eggs which come from hens having continuous daytime access to open-air runs are available in health-food stores. It is still possible, however, to buy eggs from farms where the hens live, roam and feed freely on wheat, corn and whatever they pick up in the barnyard, rather than on specifically formulated animal protein feed. These are often available in farmers' markets.

Duck Eggs

In Europe, these are available all year, but mainly in spring and summer laying seasons. Because of their size (they tend to be a little larger than hens' eggs) and rich flavor, they are particularly suitable for baking.

Goose Eggs

These eggs are available from late March and are very popular with enthusiasts who like to blow and color eggs for the Easter table, as they are about twice the size of hens' eggs. Geese are farmyard animals and likely to lay their eggs in all kinds of places without any regard for hygiene. Because of this, goose eggs should be thoroughly cooked and are particularly good in baking.

Quail Eggs

Once a hard-to-find delicacy and quite expensive, these attractive, small, dark-speckled eggs are now quite common because of the increase in quail farming. Often eaten soft- or hard-boiled, they are extremely difficult to shell when still warm, so allow plenty of time for this if serving them at a dinner party.

Quail eggs make perfect cocktail snacks or starters, such as tiny individual Eggs Benedict, miniature omelets, poached quail eggs in small pastry cases and soft-boiled quail eggs arranged on salad greens.


As researched by Georgeanne Brennan in her lovely book, Holiday Eggs, legend and superstition have historically surrounded eggs. Lacquered eggs were given as springtime gifts in ancient China, while in pagan England, red eggs were said to honor Thor, and those painted yellow honored the goddess of light. All eggshells had to be burned and thoroughly destroyed, because witches, who were unable to cross water, could use even a tiny piece of shell as a boat. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures also valued eggs, which were exchanged between friends as gifts and even buried in tombs. The Jewish Passover seder includes hard-boiled eggs to dip into salted water, the eggs symbolizing rebirth, the salted water representing bitter tears. With the advent of Christianity, the egg became the symbol of the Resurrection of Christ, and in many cultures, traditional decorated eggs associated with spring became linked to Easter.

Ukrainian eggs, also called pysanky, are among the most elaborate of the decorated eggs and versions of them are made throughout Eastern Europe. Hollowed-out shells of raw eggs are traditionally decorated by means of a wax-resistant technique, like that of batik, to create complex, multicolored designs covering the entire egg. Adorned with symbols of the earth, such as wheat for a good harvest or chickens for fertility, and religious or geometric floral designs, Ukrainian eggs are small pieces of art.

In the United States, children are equipped with baskets and sent out on Easter egg hunts to find the colorful dyed or painted eggs hidden for them by the Easter Bunny. The tradition of dyeing eggs for Easter is said to have come to the United States with early German immigrants. Danish children roll dyed eggs down hills to see whose egg can make it down without breaking, and the winner takes all the eggs. Introduced to the White House in the early 1800s by Dolly Madison, egg rolling on the White House lawn is still an Easter tradition.

Cooking With Eggs

Many types of cooking would be impossible without eggs. Egg combines well with other ingredients to create a variety of products. Among the eggs' properties are the following:


By beating egg white you trap air into it. When this is folded into other ingredients and baked, the air remains trapped inside; as a result, dishes like soufflés, sponge cakes and meringues stay light and airy. In France, egg whites are traditionally beaten in unlined copper bowls because a chemical reaction between the egg whites and the copper makes the egg foam stronger and more resistant to overbeating. In lieu of a copper bowl, cream of tartar strengthens the foam in similar ways.


For a delicate thickening, mix egg yolk into hot but not boiling liquid; the liquid will thicken, whether it is a custard, soup or sauce.


Egg yolk is an emulsifying agent and combines with oil or butter to produce creamy mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce. The yolk of the egg will hold many times its volume of melted butter or oil in suspension.


The protein (albumen) in egg white is used in making sorbets because it stabilizes the mixture during freezing, minimizing the chance of ice crystals forming.


The proteins in egg start to combine or coagulate when heat is applied; the making of cakes, pancakes and muffins is possible all because of eggs.


Refrigerated eggs keep well for up to two weeks. Eggs absorb smells easily so always store them away from strong-smelling foods in the refrigerator.

My favorite Easter Brunch egg dish is:

Southwest Brunch Special

12 eggs

6 Tbsp. plain yogurt or sour cream

1/2C medium-hot fresh salsa

1 lb. Italian sausage, sweet or hot or a combination, removed from the casings

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped or thinly sliced

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced

2 Tbsp. cilantro (or oregano), coarsely chopped

8 oz. Vermont cheddar cheese, grated

8 oz. Sonoma Jack cheese, grated

cilantro sprigs (for garnish)

additional salsa, room temperature (to pass on the side)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Blend the eggs and yogurt together with a whisk or in the food processor, add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a 9x13" baking dish coated with nonstick spray. Bake 15 minutes, or until the eggs are set. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Spread with the salsa and set aside. Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F.

Meanwhile, crumble the sausage. Heat a sauté pan, add the sausage and cook until no longer pink. Remove from the pan and discard any grease. Drain. Reheat the pan, add the onion and sauté until soft, add the mushrooms and sauté until tender. Return the sausage to the pan, add the cilantro, salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the sausage mixture over the egg mixture and sprinkle with the cheeses. Bake 20-25 minutes until the cheese is melted and the "special" is bubbly.

Let cool slightly, slice and serve. Garnish each plate with cilantro sprigs and pass the additional salsa separately.

Makes: 10-12 servings


You can find some lovely hand-painted ostrich, goose, duck and quail eggs, beautifully decorated by local artist Sayfere, at The Cat Hospital of Irvine, 14429 Culver Drive, Irvine, California 92604; telephone number (714) 733-2287.

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.


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