by Lisa Joy Solomon
illustration by Hillary Weber-Gale
In her beautiful and brave memoir, “I Dreamed of Africa,” Kuki Gallmann—born and raised near Venice, Italy—recounts the time she found her husband in the bedroom of their ranch home in Kenya hanging a “large perfect ostrich egg” above their four-poster bed.
Gallmann and her second husband, Paolo, uprooted their financially privileged lives in Italy to settle in Africa with her young son and Paolo’s two daughters. Often asked why she moved to Africa, Gallmann came to understand that her “desire to go to Africa seemed to have been an obscure yearning to return, a nostalgic inherited need to migrate back to where our ancestors came from.”
From the unblinking honesty through which she reveals the sensuously rich stories of her African life, Gallmann seems to have embraced the rewards and costs of pursuing her dream. For while the ostrich egg dangled from a thin nylon thread above the bed, her husband died in a car crash on the Mombasa road just before the birth of their first daughter. And two and a half years later, her 17-year-old son, Emmanuel, died from a poisonous puff adder viper bite.
I have long been an admirer of courageous and talented women like Kuki Gallmann, who enhanced a writer’s voice and passionate love life through the rigors and richness of living deeply on foreign soil. But I have come to understand that I need the familiarity of home ground beneath me as I gradually walk the steps toward fulfilling my creative and personal dreams. However, it’s neither possible nor advisable to return to the city in which I was raised, and where my large, complicated network of extended family and old friends live. So when I’m tired of navigating a new sense of home, and the refrigerator and my strength are running low on provisions, I hard-cook an egg.
I begin by reaching for my two-quart, stainless-steel Cuisinart saucepan that’s been with me for over a decade. It’s scratched from use, both inside and out, with one rainbow-like burn mark on the copper-core bottom from when I left it on a heated electric element with nothing inside. And although this saucepan and her mates have moved with us from Atlanta to Portland to Santa Monica, it’s in our current southwestern city of Austin where she seems to look most at home. Settled on the black coils of the electric stove top, her scuffed-up silver face and simple, strong and purposeful rounded shape fit naturally into the weather-scarred, but defiantly beautiful and honest, Texas landscape outside my wide kitchen window.
The scene is a seasonal mix of smooth, slender, silver-trunked and pink-blossoming crepe myrtle trees guarded over by tough, old, thick charcoal-brown-trunked oak trees and sun-bleached, sturdy, white stone walls. Just behind these are short, dry, green-and-gold grasses and a black-paved parking area where families of hungry deer often graze on the nearby low bushes with deep-green and pale-brown leaves. Sometimes, if I look up at the right moment, a couple of translucent yellow, richly textured auburn or mosaic-colored butterflies come into view, illuminated by a white ray of fierce, untamed Texas sunlight.
Under the small, golden glow of my oven light, I place one large egg into my well-traveled saucepan with enough water to cover, then gently stir the egg once or twice with a wooden spoon to help center the yolk. Then, after bringing the water to a gentle boil, I add a pinch of salt and cook the egg, uncovered—boiling very gently for 10 minutes. I stay close to the egg while it cooks—setting a timer and draining the hot water at exactly 10 minutes. To quickly stop the cooking and retain the fresh yellow and white color, I immediately cover the egg with cold tap water while it’s still in the saucepan. I prefer to eat a hard-cooked egg warm, but the egg can easily be held in the cool water until the rest of my meal is ready if I need more time before cracking and peeling the shell.
In “3 Bowls, Vegetarian Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery,” a special cookbook my mother bought for me many years ago, it’s explained that students of the monastery were taught how to crack a cooked egg by the abbot Roshi. It should be accomplished, one of the co-authors Nancy O’Hara writes, “not as we had done, with multiple taps on the table, but with one loud thump.” Roshi encourages the students to “pierce the silence and be done with it.” I am intrigued by this strong approach to cracking a hard-cooked egg, but I also like the words Auguste Escoffier offered in his classic book, “The Escoffier Cookbook.” In chapter 12, entitled “Eggs,” he explains that “boiling eggs hard may seem an insignificant matter, but like other methods of procedure, it is, in reality, of some importance.” And he concludes that as soon as the eggs are cooked within a properly monitored period of time and dipped in cold water, it is advisable to “then shell them carefully.” This is the quiet moment, after the loud crack, when you see and feel the outer hardened shell release the cooked white, like an aged skin—revealing something softer and more luminous inside.
“There is a message for you in this egg,” Gallmann’s husband tells her shortly before his tragic car accident. “But if you want to read it, you have to break the egg.” She decides to bury the perfect ostrich eggshell whole, with her son’s body during his funeral. “The mystery in the egg would be buried with the mystery of death,” she writes. Beginnings and endings so closely tied; the untouched shape of an egg so near perfection—the kind that looks easy to achieve.
“E is for Egg” is adapted from “One Peaceful Moment,” a book-length collection of alphabetical stories with recipes highlighting the natural nourishment to be discovered on the other side of loss, and the sustaining power of a well-chosen eating experience.