Next week, I will put all of my eggs in one basket.
It is, after all, Easter, and more importantly spring. Eggs are a symbol of the season. In addition to representing rebirth of the earth, new life and fertility, they are just plain good to eat. That is reason enough to celebrate. But then, consider that a chicken egg is one of the most complete protein sources and has all the vitamins that you need except vitamin C. Exactly what about eggs that humans were first attracted to — their taste or their nutritional value — is something of a chicken-and-egg problem.
This is the busiest time of the year for egg producers. While one hen can produce about 250 eggs per year, consumers in the United States purchase a staggering 90 million dozen during Easter week. To do the math, one would have to know how many eggs a typical hen can lay in a typical week, as well as the number of laying hens in this country. Either way, though, it’s a safe bet that Easter week makes for some harried hens (not to mention farmers, shippers, grocery store clerks, and parents looking for time to color them.)
Eggs are simply zygotes; they can be either fertilized or not. They are made by many creatures great and small. The largest egg (besides the ones produced by extinct dinosaurs) is the ostrich egg, which is the size of a cantaloupe, while the smallest bird egg comes from the bee hummingbird and is the size of a pea.
Animals that produce eggs are called oviparous, and the study of eggs is oology (a useful word for Scrabble players or crossword-puzzle fans.)
Among other good egg facts: you can determine the freshness of an egg by the float test — fresh eggs sink in water, while older eggs float. Don’t eat the floaters.
If you are not sure whether an egg is cooked or raw, you can play spin the egg. If it wobbles, then it is raw: good spinners are hard-boiled.
A third fun fact: it is on the day of spring equinox that it is rumored to be possible to stand an egg on its small end.
We may think we know where eggs come from, but conventional wisdom as well as scientists can be fooled. It had, of course, been known since earliest times that birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans lay eggs. But many scientists thought a hoax was being played on them when monotremes — the mammals that buck the trend of live birth and lay eggs — were first described. Reports of the duck-billed platypus laying eggs were met with skepticism and disbelief by some. The doubters, though, ended up with egg on their face: the platypus, the spiny anteater, and the long-nosed echidna are all mammals that do lay eggs.
Let’s get back to regular old chicken eggs: they have been revered and in the center of traditions for centuries. Romans crushed the shells after eating eggs to prevent evil spirits from hiding on their plates. In Italy during the Renaissance, young men tossed empty eggshells filled with perfume to woo young women. How their sweethearts felt about being pelted with eggshells filled with perfume is lost to history. Pity the poor suitor who forgot to replace the yoke of an egg with perfume.
Dyeing eggs has been a common custom, too. Orthodox Christians, Middle Easterners, and the Greeks dyed eggs red to symbolize the blood of Christ. German tradition held that one should dye eggs green to symbolize new life and give them as a gift on Holy (Maundy) Thursday. Before food coloring, natural dyes were used.
When eggs show their true colors, there is an interesting correlation involved: generally a hen produces eggs that correspond to the color of her ear lobes and feathers. White-feathered, white ear-lobed chickens produce white eggs; red-feathered, red ear-lobed chickens produce brown eggs. Green- and blue-hued eggs buck the trend: those colors result from other color pigments in the eggshell. Multi-colored eggs, of course, come from the Easter Bunny.
“An egg today is better than a hen to-morrow,” said Benjamin Franklin, which seems uncharacteristic for one who is usually associated with saving for the future. But maybe he, too, was captivated by the irresistibility of the egg.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.