“Reader, are you fond of pickled eggs? That you, doubtless, consider to be a curious question. Still anything will do to commence a conversation. It is better than saying it is a fine day, or you think it is going to rain…“
– J. Ashby-Sterry, The Shuttlecock Papers, 1873
While I appreciate Ashby-Sterry’s sentiment, in the places we go hunting for pickled eggs – namely, bars – comments on the weather might serve you better in the pick-up line department than those of pickled eggs. Still, you never can be sure. Search across any blog or article on the subject of pickled eggs, and you’re likely to stumble upon observations that mirror that of Karen Herzog from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “You don’t often see pickled eggs and meats today. They’re icons of long-gone corner taverns, where a brandy old-fashioned was garnished with a pickled egg, and a blue-collar patron stopping on the way home from work ordered a pickled ham hock or egg with a beer to tide him over until dinner.” Indeed, in some back corner of our minds, we all know that pickled eggs once existed, but unless you live in a special part of the globe where they still flourish, you probably can’t recall exactly when they joined the Dodo on Extinction Island. Which is why I set out to track them down.
If you look hard enough, pickled eggs are, of course, still alive and well (sorry, Mr. Dodo, you’ll have to find something else to accompany your Old-Fashioned). In the States, a handful of companies, such as the Porkie Company of Wisconsin, continue to produce them. But as a staple of the bar, they have become thin on the ground. Our romanticized visions of the cocktail world tend to make us assume that this probably happened somewhere over the past century – either during Prohibition or the health craze of the 70s. Yet, devotees have been lamenting their passing for sometime longer. Consider:
“I am, I should tell you, particularly fond of pickled eggs, but I very seldom meet with them; whether the pickling of eggs is a lost art or whether the taste for eggs pickled has altogether died out, I know not.”
That comes from our friend, Mr. Ashby-Sterry, in 1873. It seems that even in Victorian England, a pickled egg was a rare bird. But surely, they must have been popular enough at some time for a London passageway, Pickled Egg Walk, to have been named after them. The Walk, subject of a magnificently evocative bit of writing by Ashby-Sterry, took its name from a tavern, The Pickled Egg, which had stood on the spot for more than two hundred years. Legend had it that Charles II would frequent The Pickled Egg and delight in its namesake’s pleasures whenever he made the trip to visit his mistress, Eleanor Gwyn. In fact, it’s during the reign of Charles II that I find the earliest reference to the snack. In The Secrets of Art and Nature (1661), under the subject “To Keep Eggs”, we are told that “some steep them three or four hours in a warm pickle”. Of course, pickling – and the pickling of eggs – goes back much further than the Restoration, but it was the Age of the Sail that really increased the demand for all sorts of preserved foodstuffs.
Aside from the royal visits, the two other items of note about The Pickled Egg, its history, and its environs are a) an (in)famous cockfighting pit was located on its grounds; and, b) it is down Pickled Egg Walk that the artful Dodger led Oliver Twist on their way to meet Fagin. Together, these tidbits should tell you something about the neighborhood. The writers, artists, and sporting men of the early 19th century – Dickens, Pierce Egan, the Cruikshanks – were, of course, more than familiar with the territory. A literary party celebrating the launch of Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son was even held at The Pickled Egg.
By the second half of the 19th century, however, Victoria Street had been opened and Pickled Egg Walk – until then, the most direct route from Fleet Street to Clerkenwell – suffered the fate shared by so many other establishments when progress passes them by – it silently faded away. The Walk became Crawford Passage, and not long after Ashby-Sterry’s visit, The Pickled Egg itself closed. This was unfortunate on many fronts, but for Ashby-Sterry, who dreamt that after a series of visits to the famed Pickled Egg, he “might become familiar with the eggs of France, of Germany, of Italy, of Spain, of Portugal, of England, of Ireland, and of Scotland, and I might eventually become critical in the be-picklements of all nations,” it was a serious shame, because on the one occasion on which we know he visited, they were out of pickled eggs.
What Ashby-Sterry captures so well is the vast number of ways in which pickled eggs can be prepared. After you factor in the eggs and vinegar, the sky is really the limit. For our recipe, I’ve not only tried to keep things very simple – consider it a starting place from which, if you’ve never made pickled eggs before, you can go off as your heart pleases – but also to provide a profile which I think marries well with cocktails, which is what we’re about here. That said, personally, I like a slightly spicy pickled egg, one which not only puts some food in my belly (to soak up all the booze down there) but which also (re)awakens my taste buds.
Simple Pickled Eggs
0.75 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
0.75 Cup Filtered Water
Half Jalapeno, sliced and seeds removed
3 slices Ginger
1 tsp Black Peppercorns
Salt to taste
3-4 peeled Hard Boiled Eggs
Makes a single 2-cup jar
Add all ingredients, except salt and eggs, to a sauce pan and bring to a boil
Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes
Remove from heat, and allow to cool
Salt to taste
Add the eggs to clean mason jars (I use 2-cup Ball jars) and cover with the pickling liquid
Store in the refrigerator for a month
Eat before they go bad
Now, first things first. The only way to properly hard boil eggs is the Julia Child method. Trust me; there is no arguing this point. Second, scale the recipe as needed. I make these in small batches and tend to eat them within a few weeks of opening. How long pickled eggs will last depends on a number of factors: how clean your materials are, how fresh everything is, and how you store them. In theory, pickled eggs will keep on a counter for a year, but for safety’s sake, leave them in the fridge and throw them out if they appear or smell off.
The method I use here, 50/50 vinegar and water, provides for a nice gentle pickle and is popular among picklers. Any type of 5% vinegar will work. I also tried a method from food guru Harold McGee, which calls for leaving the shells on, but in my weaker solution, the shells just turned into “latex” and the eggs were not appealing. As mentioned, once you have the eggs and the vinegar solution, let your palate run wild with spice combinations. A popular, and beautiful variation, is to add beets to the mixture, which will turn the outsides of the eggs fuchsia. Matthew Rowley has a great recipe for these. If the thought of pickled eggs scares you, I will tell you that they are delicious, and aside from eating them as is, they make a terrific foundation for deviled eggs and for potato salad.
Once you’ve had a pickled egg, I think you’ll agree with the wisdom of Ashby-Sterry, who wrote: “If there is ‘reason in the roasting of eggs,’ and we are assured such is a fact, there must be rhyme in the pickling of them. I think Mr. Pope said ‘the vulgar boil, the learned roast an egg’ – I would add to this that poets, gourmets, and Sybarites pickle it.” True words, indeed.
Esoterica: Like some codex from the shelves of Prospero himself, The Secrets of Art and Nature also includes instructions on how “To Make an Egg bigger than a Man’s head”, how “To make an Egg flye up into the Ayre”, not to mention the ever useful “A Bait to allure Pigeons that they shall bring other Pigeons with them”, “To catch Ducks with your hands, an easie way”, and how “To roast a Goose alive”.
For the married men out there, I thought I’d pass along the book’s advice “That a woman may take delight with her Husband”: If a woman can find no pleasure with her Husband, let him take the marrow of a Wolfs left foot, and carry that with him, and she will love no man besides himself. Of course, we think this baby is what really keeps the ladies coming back for more.
- Deviled Beet-Pickled Eggs: Devilish but Not in the Way I Intended (imperfecthappiness.wordpress.com)
- Beet pickled pink eggs (via The Go Lightly Gourmet) (thespiritportal.wordpress.com)