Eggs Get a High-End Makeover

Eggs Get a High-End Makeover

At the end of March, egg prices for grocers peaked at $3.01 a dozen, up from 94 cents at the beginning of the month, spurred by the combination of Easter, Passover, and shoppers stockpiling for quarantine. That last one is unsurprising: Adding an egg to a mess compiled of leftovers and beans makes the meal feel intentional, as though inspired by something other than necessity. But, increasingly, in the rarefied world of food media, the eggs in question are not fried or scrambled. They are “jammy,” which is to say, soft-boiled eggs in a fancy outfit. The jammy egg is the perfect example of the gentrified new comfort food, which elevates humble ingredients via slightly fussy preparations, a delicate combination of cozy, casual, and the leisure to devote to something so fiddly.

A jammy egg is a soft-boiled egg, cooked for six minutes (or maybe seven, depending), and then cracked open to reveal a just-set white and a plush, custardy yolk. Halved and plated atop a grain bowl, a salad, or, as Instagram chef Alison Roman suggests, as an accompaniment to matzo ball soup, the oozing, gooey egg is really the star, a perfect example of the culinary world’s beloved pastime of exalting pantry staples. Jammy eggs are just the latest gussied-up basic the food media has chosen to promote, like Rachael Ray’s successful campaign to abbreviate olive oil to EVOO and “elevated” Southern cuisine.

Food writing often balances precariously between educational and twee, and jammy eggs jiggle perfectly in the middle. “Jammy” is clear but also cutesy and hyper-specific, the tone for which much of contemporary food media strives. Eggs are a pantry staple that transcend trendiness because of their ubiquity, but they are relatively cheap, widely available, and an excellent source of protein, making them ripe for a rebrand. Though as food costs rise across the country, egg prices are soaring, jeopardizing their accessibility as an affordable basic.

Soft-boiled eggs have a long culinary history. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a massive book published in 1836 that served as the Victorian-era Joy of Cooking, offered plain instructions for soft-boiled eggs, recommending a cooking time of three to four minutes, and, if desired, serving them to “invalids or children.” A soft-boiled egg is the perfect nursery fare—soft and nourishing, and it doesn’t require teeth. “Eggs and soldiers,” a staple of British nursery food, is essentially a soft-boiled egg served with crisp rectangles of toast.

In a whimsical touch, the traditional way to serve soft-boiled eggs is inside an egg cup, a delightful frivolity that seems unnecessary but is actually quite practical. A soft-boiled egg can be eaten on a plate, but an egg cup is a charmingly silly anachronism— a small ritual that feels special. At the Guardian, British food writer and critic Simon Hopkinson described the soft-boiled egg his grandfather enjoyed as a morning ritual: “It always oozed and wobbled, perfectly, the inside of that egg,” he said, continuing: “In fact, the golden yolk would, occasionally, overflow the crest of the broken shell, all sticky down the blue-striped egg cup as it dribbled.” This Proustian egg, ensconced neatly in its designated holder, is the ultimate in refined comfort food—which is precisely why every egg must now be jammy.

The current yolky moment began in 2017, when Bon Appetit published a recipe for jammy soft-boiled eggs, which instructs readers to boil the eggs for precisely six and a half minutes and let them rest for an additional two, which will net perfectly-set whites and a custardy yolk that is, one surmises, the texture of jam. (Searches for “jammy eggs” spiked in March 2017 and continued to rise, especially in California, New York, and Texas.) American diets have largely recovered from the mid-2010s egg-white mania, and the popularity of other diet trends like keto and the paleo diet, both of which allow for eggs in Gaston-esque abundance, clearing the path for jammy eggs to take the spotlight.

But social media helps, too: Jammy eggs look good on Instagram, because they traditionally accompany visually appealing food, like a bowl of ramen at Momofuku or Ippudo. Bon Appetit, the publication that is most responsible for the pervasiveness of the jammy egg, sells a “6 1/2 Minute shirt” that features six hand-drawn, perfectly wobbly eggs on the back. The copy on the product page is cheeky but also quite smug: “Not seven. Not six. Jammy eggs should take six and a half minutes to cook. End rant.” A sunny yellow tote made in collaboration with sustainable clothing brand features a jiggly egg over-easy on the front, and on the reverse, a list of various egg preparations, with “jammy” dead-center. Like most of Bon Appetit’s merch, it looks great on Instagram and is also sold out.

Bon Appetit may have coined the phrase, but the aforementioned Instagram cheflebrity, Alison Roman, had a large hand in popularizing the method. (Though I feel confident that Roman originated the term, she hasn’t responded to my request for comment.) In 2016, the phrase “jammy egg” appeared in a guide to boiling eggs she wrote at Buzzfeed. Two years later, her column for Bon Appetit introduced the jammy egg, with a recipe featuring soft-boiled eggs, paprika mayo, and pepperoncini—a rustic take on deviled eggs, or the sort of appetizer thrown together in fifteen minutes that looks impressive. In a monthly column for the same magazine in 2019, Roman doubled down on her stance against the classic deviled egg, offering as an alternative basically soft boiled eggs on a platter with whatever else you might find in your fridge to go with it. Roman’s dedication to the jammy egg is savvy. She is a master of curating her own personal brand and is selling precisely what her audience wants: high-end comfort food that doesn’t feel like it.

The term “comfort food” evokes casserole dishes full of golden-brown mac and cheese, lasagna, and pasta carbonara, heavy on the carbs and hearty enough to stick to the ribs for a week straight, widely accessible in chain restaurants. But somewhere like Olive Garden is frequented by self-avowed foodies only as an ironic night out that makes for a great Instagram story. Jammy eggs suggest a different sort of comfort: a weekend at a second home in the country, big salads, a roast chicken, a pot of beans on the stove, and orange wine drunk out of an old jam jar. The new comfort food is punctuated by bright citrus and inexplicable smears of yogurt on a plate, sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs and a healthy pour of olive oil.

The new comfort food is nourishing and suggests a material comfort that is, of course, aspirational at its heart. It’s worth noting that Roman’s food and that of her contemporaries photographs well—the rustic, devil-may-care plating of a salad of Little Gem lettuces pops visually but it also tastes good. Unlike the gloppy excess of a bowl of chain-restaurant mac and cheese, the new comfort foods are simple in both preparation and presentation. The unlimited pasta bowl at Olive Garden and a table laden with a burnished roast chicken and platters of roasted vegetables atop smears of lemon-scented labne are both abundant, but the difference is clear: one is homemade and artisanal, and the other a gluttonous smorgasbord. The new comfort food is fresh and unprocessed but lacks the Slow Food movement’s obsession with hyper-local, seasonal ingredients, which makes it more accessible. It’s nothing overtly fancy, though each dish that comes out of the kitchen is perfectly imperfect. It’s just good food—good because it’s healthy, and because it was made by hand, and because it is not widely available in a mall.

The jammy egg, then, is the perfect avatar for the new comfort food, because it prioritizes preparation. A McGriddle at McDonald’s is consistently perfect because it’s fast food and that’s the point. But nailing a jammy egg requires the dedication that an order of Eggs Over My Hammy purposefully doesn’t, and it is this extra step of care and attention that distinguishes it from its chain-restaurant equivalents. In comments sections across the internet, cooking times and egg temperatures are hotly contested—the optimal conditions for making jammy eggs are subjective, and no recipe is perfect. Once the home cook has figured out their ideal conditions, jammy eggs are fairly easy to replicate—but like everything else that once was new, they will soon wear out their welcome.

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