Visiting Vienna in the early 1950’s, Charles and I stayed in style for very little expense at the old König von Ungarn hotel, which had been there since at least the 1820’s. We ate breakfast at a café around the corner. Always the same café and the same breakfast: good coffee, fresh fruit, crisp rolls with butter and jam, and a soft-boiled egg. Perfect. Invariable. Every morning.
I don’t know why I got it in my head one morning to vary it, but I did, and when the tall, middle-aged waiter arrived in his impeccable dark coat, I indicated that I wanted the usual breakfast, without the egg.
He appeared not to understand, which, given the quality of my German, was understandable. I repeated something like, “Kein Ei,” or “Ohne Ei.”
He responded slowly, in a shaken voice, “Ohne Ei?”
He was disturbed. I was ruthless — Yes, I said, without egg.
He stood for quite a while silent, trying to handle the shock. He visibly forced himself not to appeal, or plead, or show his disapproval. He was a waiter, a disciplined, skilful, Viennese waiter, and must obey the most perverse customer. “Without egg, Madame,” he said softly, almost unreproachfully, and went away to fetch my eggless breakfast, which he brought and set before me with silent, funereal dignity.
We still laugh recalling that tiny incident of nearly sixty years ago, but it is also kept alive in my memory by a sense of guilt. For one thing, in 1954, in Vienna, an egg meant something. The city was just coming out of very bad times. It was still occupied, divided among the US, the British, and the Russian armies; the Cathedral had re-arisen and the Opera House was re-arising from the rubble of bombing, but damage and destruction was everywhere, and the effect of privation plain to see in the faces and bodies of people on the street. An offer of food in a city that has gone hungry is not a small matter.
Also, I wilfully and needlessly disturbed the order of that waiter’s universe. A very small universe, the Viennese café breakfast, but a stable, orderly, perfected one. Better not change something that has achieved excellence. And it was unkind to demand of a person who spent his working life maintaining that excellence to impair it, to do something he so clearly felt was wrong. After all, I could have let him bring the egg and simply not eaten it. He was far too good at his job to have taken notice, except possibly for a mild, commiserative, “Madame doesn’t feel hungry this morning?” To have an egg and not to eat it was my privilege. To refuse to let him bring the egg was to interfere with his privilege, which was to bring me a complete and proper Viennese café breakfast. I still want to laugh when I think about it, and I still feel a twinge of guilt.
The guilt has increased since I began, a couple of years ago, to have a soft-boiled egg for breakfast— to have, in fact, a Viennese café breakfast — every morning. Invariably.
I can’t get those lovely, light, crisp, European rolls. (Why do the Artisanal Bread people in this country think crust should be thick and tough? The more leathery the more artisanal?) But Thomas’s English Muffins are very good, so I have them, with tea, fruit, and a three-and-a-half-minute egg eaten, as in Vienna, from the shell.
To soft-boil an egg I put it in a small pot with cold water to cover, set it on high heat till it boils, take it off at once, turn over the egg-timer (a three-and-a-half-minuteglass) and start the muffins toasting. When the sand is through the minuteglass, the egg comes out of the water and into the egg cup.
As you see, a certain care and ceremony is involved, which is what I wanted to talk about, and also why the egg cup is important.
If you crack a soft-boiled egg and dump it out into a bowl, it tastes the same but isn’t the same. It’s too easy. It’s dull. It might as well have been poached. The point of a soft-boiled egg is the difficulty of eating it, the attention it requires, the ceremony.
So, you put your freshly-boiled egg into the egg cup. — But not everybody is familiar with egg cups.
In this country they are usually an hourglass shape, with one lobe or bowl bigger than the other. The small end is just big enough to hold the egg. You could eat it there from its shell, but most Americans take it out, turn the egg cup over, crack the egg, and dump it into the larger bowl where they smoosh it around and eat it.
British and European egg cups don’t offer that option; they have no big bowl; they are just a small china cup on a short pedestal, like a goblet, in which the egg sits upright. You have no choice but to eat your egg out of its own shell. This is where things get ceremonial and interesting.
So, you put your freshly-boiled egg into the egg cup — but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.
I am a Big-Ender. My opinion, which I will defend to the death, is that if the big end is up it’s easier to get the spoon into the opening created when you knock off the top of the egg with a single, decisive whack of your knifeblade. — Or possibly — another weighty decision, another matter of opinion, with advocates and enemies, the Righteous and the Unrighteous — you lift the top of the egg off carefully from the egg-encircling crack you have made by tapping the shell with the knifeblade all the way round about a half inch down from the summit.
Some mornings I whack. Some mornings I tap. I have no opinion on the matter. It depends on my mood.
Some elements of the ceremony offer no choice. The knife has be steel, since the sulphur in eggs blackens silver, and the egg spoon must also be untarnishable — stainless steel, or horn. I’ve never seen a gold egg spoon, but I’m sure it would do. Whatever the material, the spoon has to have a small bowl with a fine edge on it: a thick edge can’t coax all the eggwhite off the inside of the shell. The handle is short, for good balance and easy handling. An egg spoon is a tiny implement that, like the Viennese breakfast, cannot be improved. Like all good tools, it gives pleasure by its pure aptness. It does one thing only, but does it perfectly, and nothing else can do it. Trying to eat an egg from the shell with a normal spoon is like mending a wristwatch with a hammer.
The sole imperfection of the egg spoon is that it’s so small it gets lost. Horn spoons are larger, but the beautiful horn spoon my daughter gave me finally wore out, its edge becoming coarse and fibrous. Replacement can be a problem; most Americans don’t eat their eggs from the shell, and the implement has become rare and hard to find. When I see one, I acquire it. My current egg spoon is stainless steel; on the handle are the letters K L M. I will not go into how we came to own this spoon.
You see what I mean about difficulty. Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime.
If you are in the whacking mood, the first whack of the knife on the shell is decisive. A firm whack on a good shell in the right place decapitates the egg cleanly with one blow — ideal. But some eggshells are feeble and crumbly, and sometimes your aim is tentative or faulty (after all, this is something you have to do before breakfast.) If you hit too high, the opening isn’t big enough; too low, you get into yolk, which you don’t want to do yet. So maybe you choose to tap instead of whacking — nowhere near as exciting, but you have more control of the outcome.
So, now, you have opened your egg. You stick the spoon right down into it, but not too suddenly, or the yolk will well up and dribble wastefully down the outside of the shell. The three-and-a-half-minute egg white is barely firm, while the yolk has thickened just enough to make a beautiful golden sauce for the white. Your job is to mix the two nicely so you get a balance of yolk and white in each small spoonful, while not destroying the delicate little bowl you’re eating from, the eggshell. This takes attention.
The more complete the attention, the more you actually taste the egg.
It may be apparent by now that this whole blog is a subtle blow against doubletasking, and a paean to doing one single thing with, as the Bible puts it, “all thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
Nor is there any breakfast there. The grave is without egg.
The flavor of a fresh soft-boiled egg is extremely subtle. I like salt and pepper on a fried egg, but nothing at all on a boiled egg. It is completely satisfactory in and by itself. If a little butter from the muffin gets into it, that’s fine too.
The soft-boiled egg experience is the same every morning and never the same. It remains endlessly interesting. It is invariably delicious. It delivers a small, solid dose of high-quality protein. Who could ask for more?
Of course, I’m very lucky: I can get toxin-free eggs at our co-op from local farmers who don’t cage their birds in pest-holes and don’t feed them on carrion. The eggs are brown, with strong shells and orange yolks, not the weak, pallid things laid by hens kept in filth and torment all their lives. The Oregon Legislature has at last decided to ban poultry batteries, hurray — the ban to take effect in 2024, unhurray. The lobbies who run our lives demand that torture, ordure, and disease continue for thirteen more years. I will not live to see the birds go free.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Café