There are always eggs at my house. Well, I’ll clarify that—there are always eggs somewhere around my house. Usually the hens are obedient and lay in their nest boxes, but they love to hide their work from us. Occasionally we’ll pull hay bales from the barn to find a cache of eggs tucked in a corner, like the work of a lazy Easter bunny. Sometimes they have been there for years; when we were younger, my siblings and I would throw them against trees deep in the woods, where their sulfur was overwhelmed by the smell of pine.
Responsible for this mess are fifteen hens. In the summer, each hen lays about one egg per day, and in the winter, perhaps once every few days. Spread out across the kitchen table by the dozen, they form a scattered mosaic: their shells are brown, white, and even teal. In an attempt to stymie this embarrassment of riches, I learned to cook at an early age, wielding recipes like a dozen-egg soufflé or a frittata that asked for eight.
I was driven to cook not only by the hens’ industriousness, but by the equally unyielding habits of my mother. She is a painter and gets so immersed in art that she forgets to feed herself, truly, not in the way that celebrities claim to skip meals by accident when interviewed in magazines. Often I would come home after school to find her in the studio, the morning’s cup of coffee growing cold against the windowsill. “Did you have lunch?” I would ask. She would think about it for a second. “No, I guess I didn’t,” she replied, as expected, and I would head to the kitchen to scrounge something up.
She is certainly capable of cooking, as evidenced by the books I found in our library after I had finished all of the age-appropriate novels (and dipped my toes in the inappropriate ones). Silver Palate Cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Jacques Pepin, Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook. When absolutely pressed, she can make beautiful meals: perfectly rare rack of lamb, fish en papillote, gorgeous roast vegetables. Ever the artist, even among scarred butcher-block counters, she needs to be moved by her muse in order to create.
When forced to go grocery shopping, she would leave for three hours and come back with hearts of palm, artichokes, seventeen gorgeous tomatoes, and no milk or bread. My father attempted to fill in the gaps, but he had no idea what to purchase, often settling for items as basic as my mother’s were nonessential: Cheerios, dried pasta, yogurt.
But we always had eggs. Every recipe I attempted from my mother’s books went like this: get to step two, “separate the yolks.” Drop the book, run barefoot down the slate path through the yard, shimmy through the split-rail fence. Regain momentum, cold spring mud squelching between my toes, reach the chicken coop. Here lies the gauntlet: the gorgeous, malevolent rooster whose knack for fighting led him to be named Cassius Clay. Pick up a branch from the apple trees that shade the coop, fling open the door, hoping to intimidate Cassius. Hold the stick towards his bright chest, root blindly through the hay in the nest box, one eye on his talons. Do not drop the stick when he swipes it with his feet. Back away slowly, sprint back to the house, track mud through the kitchen. Read again: step two, “separate the yolks.”
Warm spaghetti folded with egg yolks and ancient Parmesan became a bacon-less carbonara. Skillet tomato sauce could be studded with whole eggs, cooked until their yolks were just soft enough to pierce with bread. By the time I was thirteen, I was cooking dinner for my family every night. When I got my license, I was no longer at the whim of my mother’s sporadic shopping trips; I bought thumbs of ginger, bok choi the size of fists, handfuls of lemongrass. By that time, there were only five chickens left, and for the first time in my life, I had to go to the store to purchase eggs for a pâte à choux. Their pale yellow yolks were alien after years of being greeted by deep orange ones.
The big joke in our family, told with underlying tones of anxiety, was what everyone else would do for dinner once I left home. And I left in a rather spectacular fashion—after graduating high school, I spent a gap year in India. When I contracted typhoid that I could not beat, I was sent home to my hysterical parents. My mother ferried me to hospitals, specialists, appointments with every medical expert in the Tri-State area. She was too worried to paint, and for the first time I could remember, she was entirely mine—a situation I regarded with a combination of happiness and guilt. While I was ordered to bed rest, she made chicken soup from bones, crusty sourdough that filled our house with the smell of vinegar.
When the doctors said it was safe for me to cook food again, I began trying to repay her. Every morning I cooked her breakfast: massive omelets, with feta and oregano from the garden or fresh mozzarella and pesto that I had frozen into ice cubes way back in high school. For myself I made plain oatmeal; I gave my mother all the flavors I could not yet handle. On those mornings we always ate together, looking out onto the fields where new tufts of grass emerged from the thawing ground, like the hair that was slowly growing back across my battered scalp. I was making sure that she got at least one good meal a day. I realized that it might be the last time in my life that I could do this for her.
Some people are horrified by the practice of eating eggs, because of the misconception that every egg will someday become a chick. But it is only when an egg is fertilized and set on by a hen that a chick hatches. The hen must set for twenty-one days.
Sometimes she forgets. One year a Buff Orpington named Penny laid ten beautiful eggs, and decided that she had no intention of being a parent. My mother scooped the eggs from her nest and brought them to the house, placing them inside an incubator. She watched them obsessively for days, monitoring temperature, watching for the slightest crack in their shells.
When they hatched, we placed them in a giant cardboard box. Chicks are able to feed themselves from the start, and I watched as my mother sprinkled grain for them. “If only you had been so easy,” my mother said, turning to me. She was smiling, but I noticed how clean her hands were, almost entirely free of paint. She had been in school board meetings all week and had not been in the studio. I told her to go work—I would be making dinner.