The Egg Cooks Best (Slippery) Friend

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: January 06, 2016 17:08 IST

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The Egg Cooks Best (Slippery) Friend
The first step in making an omelet: "Catch a chicken," advises the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux.

Every spring, Theroux liberates the chickens from his backyard coop on the North Shore of Oahu before decamping to Cape Cod. Every fall, he rounds them up again, luring them with food at the back of a cage and waiting until nightfall, when they roost, to grab them.

Theroux, 74, keeps only 10 chickens in the coop at a time, for a yield of three to four eggs a day. Some 30 of their fellows amble unfettered around the seven-acre estate, steering clear of the geese, which honk bossily under the house.

As a child in Massachusetts, Theroux used to feed his grandfather's Rhode Island Reds. Their counterparts here are "jungle chickens," he said. They lay eggs with shells almost the color of champagne and yolks high and fat, perfect domes.

Most days, the eggs are destined for an omelet, made in any of a series of nonstick frying pans that Theroux's wife, Sheila Donnelly Theroux, has given him over the years. ("The cabinet is full of failed pans," she said.) Thus far, he has had the greatest success with a forged-aluminum model by Zwilling J.A. Henckels, from which the omelet ripples to the plate like a silk handkerchief.

Eggs have been a motif on Theroux's many travels, hawked outside train stations from Tanzania to Siberia. On Savo Island, in the South Pacific, he survived on megapode eggs, disinterred from the sand where the birds had buried them and cooked in hot springs on the slopes of a volcano.

In 1973, preparing for a trek across a newly kingless, restive Afghanistan, he stashed a hard-boiled egg in his pocket. It was half lunch, half talisman. "I thought, if something goes wrong, I've got this egg," he said. "Then a guy with a rifle shoved me and smashed it."

When he lived in Malawi in the 1960s, he watched his Yao cook, a veteran of the King's African Rifles, break an egg "very gently" into a pan and spoon hot oil slowly over the yolk. But Theroux learned the most about cooking at hotels, "shuffling down the buffet line," he said. "Sometimes I stay by the egg station and watch."

In his Hawaiian garden, he chops bamboo shoots, then skins and boils them. His Italian grandmother was a forager, too, digging up dandelion greens for salad. He remembers the scent of basil in her house and hand-rolled pasta drying on her dining table. She folded a tortellino "like a classic Chinese won ton," he said.

Hives once stood under the bamboo trees, but a few years ago, the colony collapsed and he hasn't had the heart to replace it. Occasionally, a wild pig blusters into the yard. Theroux shoots it, then entrusts it to a neighbor with a smoker.

Long before the chicken coop, Theroux kept pigeons in a dovecote in Malawi. "I ate them," he said. When asked if his chickens might one day meet a similar fate, he shook his head.

"I don't think they'd be very tasty - skinny feral chickens," he said. "I'd have to be pretty desperate."

© 2016 New York Times News Service

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Tags:  EggsOmlette