War over the breakfast table!

Silverplate eggcup cruet from Elizabeth Bay House.

Silverplate eggcup cruet. Sydney Living Museums EB95/1-8. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

We often recreate breakfast scenes in our houses, evoking a time when the first meal of the day certainly wasn’t grabbed at a takeaway or drive-through. Here’s a tale of googy eggs, egg cups and bloody war at the breakfast table!

6-cup eggcup frame, with brackets for egg spoons, as part of a recreated breakfast setting

6-cup eggcup frame, with brackets for egg spoons, as part of a recreated breakfast setting. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

When I was growing up I ate my boiled eggs (soft, or ‘googy’, with toast soldiers) from a pair of eggcups shaped like Enid Blyton’s Noddy and Big Ears, complete with little knitted pointy caps to keep the eggs warm. Nowadays I love poached eggs, despite the risk of wearing a beard-full of runny yolk.

This leisurely breakfast scene is of a Regency beau in his banyan (like a voluminous dressing gown worn casually in the house), with a fluted sugar bowl, creamer, toast rack and loaf. He’s quite engrossed in his paper as he pours his tea into what appears to be a broad tea bowl –  it doesn’t have a handle – that matches a solitary egg cup:

Breakfast scene

Breakfast scene, pasted into The drawing room album : an ornamental and variegated repository for contributions in literature, music and drawing, 1833-1861. State Library of NSW PXA 395

Though egg cups – especially from the 20th century – are often solo items, they can also be part of a set, held in a support called an ‘egg-frame’ or ‘egg-cruet’. I’ve occasionally seen them called ‘egg-trivets’ or the prosaic ‘egg cup stands’.

The oldest ‘egg-frame’ in Britain is a 1741 example from Dunham Massey that holds 10 individual cups – unusually arranged in a 4/3/2/1 triangle – both a reflection on the number of diners expected at that great house, and of the then fashion for coddled eggs [1]. Most domestic sets contain 6 or 4 cups, often around a central handle. A full egg set will contain the frame, the egg cups and spoons which hang, stand or rest in individual slots – you can clearly see the lyre-shaped rests in the image of the Elizabeth Bay House set that opened this story. If the spoons – which have a longer bowl than a teaspoon and are slightly pointed – are of silver or silver plate then they are often gilded inside the curved bowl to prevent the silver being discoloured by the egg yolk (be very careful how you clean these that you don’t remove the gilding). Some incorporate a salt cellar, butter dish or toast rack – as described in the catalogue below –   and at home I have an 1820s egg frame that spins on a central stand for ease of serving.

Egg cup cruets

Egg cup cruets from Anthony Hordern and Sons’ household catalogue, Anthony Hordern & Sons, Sydney, July 1914, p327. Collection Gary Crockett

In the dining room at Rouse Hill is this egg warmer – particularly useful when not everyone arrives at the breakfast table at once. The cooked eggs are placed in a frame that sits inside the egg-shaped compartment, in a bath of hot water heated by a spirit warmer placed underneath. Individual egg cups – a more unusual 3 in this case – sat on pegs around the base ready for use.

Egg warmer from Rouse Hill House & Farm

Egg warmer from Rouse Hill House & Farm. The Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust collection, Sydney Living Museums 87/54-1:6. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Egg warmer from Rouse Hill House & Farm showing the internal compartment

Egg warmer from Rouse Hill House & Farm showing the internal compartment. Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust Collection, Sydney Living Museums HR87/54-1:6. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

But which end of the egg goes up and which goes down?

Careful! Don’t start a war!

Simple: the pointy end of the egg points down, to make it more stable in the egg cup. In Johnathon Swift’s 1726 satire ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ the hero finds himself enmeshed in a protracted war between the kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefescu. Inquiring as to its cause, he learns it began after an accident at the royal breakfast table:

It began upon the following occasion.  It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers.  Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs.  The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown.  These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire.  It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.  Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.  During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran).  This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’  And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine.  Now, the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the Emperor of Blefuscu’s court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war has been carried on between the two empires for six-and-thirty moons… [2]

A story that may well be apocryphal is that Louis XVI would show off his cutlery skills by cutting the top off an egg in one swoop of a knife: an unfortunate premonition of his later life.

There’s  an old line that so-and-so is so bad at cooking they’d “burn water”, or that they “couldn’t boil an egg” – and boiling water and cooking eggs do seem to be the starting points for many ‘how to’ cookbooks. Boiling eggs is a very personal matter; some like them soft boiled just perfect for dipping toast soldiers, others prefer them so hard they’d bounce if dropped. And for salads its another story again.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ (ca. 1880) from the Rouse Hill collection gives these instructions:

 EGGS; to Boil for Breakfast, Salads, &c. :

Eggs for boiling cannot be too fresh, or boiled too soon after they are laid; but rather a longer time should be allowed for boiling a new-laid egg than for one that is three or four days old. Have ready a saucepan of boiling water; put the eggs into it gently with a spoon, letting the spoon touch the bottom of the saucepan before it is withdrawn, that the egg may not fall, and consequently crack. For those who like eggs lightly boiled, 3 minutes will be found sufficient; 3 3/4 to 4 minutes will be ample time to set the white nicely; and, if liked hard, 6 to 7 minutes will not be found too long. Should the eggs be unusually large, as those of black Spanish fowls sometimes are, allow an extra 1/2 minute for them.

Eggs for salads and garnishes for dishes like kedgeree are needed very firm so they don’t fall apart:

Eggs for salads should be boiled from 10 minutes to 1/4 hour, and should be placed in a basin of cold water for a few minutes; they should then be rolled on the table with the hand, and the shell will peel off easily. Time.—To boil eggs lightly, for invalids or children, 3 minutes; to boil eggs to suit the generality of tastes, 3 3/4 to 4 minutes; to boil eggs hard, 6 to 7 minutes; for salads, 10 to 15 minutes.

And of course, the cardinal rule!

Eggs… that cannot be relied on, should always be broken [separately] in a cup, and then put into the basin [mixing bowl]: by this means stale or bad eggs may be easily rejected, without wasting the others.

Its a mistake you only make once.

Kedgeree decorated with a St Andrew's Cross, parsley, eggs and lemon.

Kedgeree decorated with parsley, sliced lemon and boiled egg. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

Second helpings:

Read about a breakfast display created at Elizabeth Farm here;
A kedgeree recipe is here;
…and a truly exhaustive summary of cooking eggs is on the Food Timeline

[1] Lomax and Rothwell, Country House Silver: from Dunham Massey. The National Trust (UK), Anova Books, 2007
[2] Jonathon Swift, Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world, London, 1726. Ch.4