How eggs kicked off Gold Rush-era frenzy off San Francisco coast

In “Egg,” author Lizzie Stark explores the history of the egg, from Gold Rush-era gang wars in San Francisco to vaccine development and chickens in space.

Excerpt from Egg: A Dozen Ovatures by Lizzie Stark


This is a book about eggs, scrambled, boiled, and cosmic; eggs in magic rituals, in the vaginas of conceptual artists, and at the center of Gold Rush gang wars. It is about crusty, obsessed Victorian gentlemen and the modern blue-​collar guys who want to be like them. It is about the clown code and experiments in space. It is also about my dad, my mom, and me and our relationship with one another in and out of the kitchen.

An egg is a paradox. It is both alive and not-​alive, the most precious and most worthless cell in the world: precious because it can generate new life; worthless because most efforts at creation fail, so evolution plays the odds and makes eggs plentiful. Take human ovaries. Those of us born with them start life with about one million eggs. By puberty, we’re down to roughly three hundred thousand. A minuscule number of those—​less than a tenth of one percent—​makes it down the fallopian tubes during the fertile years. Even by the most generous measures, no human has ever used more than about a quarter of their viable eggs. The world’s most prolific human mother was allegedly a Russian peasant of the eighteenth century who bore sixty-​nine children. History does not remember her name with certainty—​it may have been Valentina. The Guinness Book of World Records lauds her merely as “the wife of Feodor Vassilyev.” Let me repeat that: the world does not know the name of the person who fit nearly seventy babies through her cervix, and that—​the way the patriarchy tries to control eggs and erase mothers—​is also part of this story.

Aside from its new-​life potential, sometimes an egg is a fungible, yet concrete commodity. One of the stranger examples of this comes from the Philippines. Spanish conquerors spent three centuries colonizing the islands, starting in the mid-​1500s. They brought many varieties of Catholic missionaries with them, who built baroque churches of local materials—​walls of adobe, stone, and brick faced with plaster. The builders used animal proteins to strengthen the concrete and plaster, including buffalo milk, goat blood, and the whites and shells of local duck eggs. Forget lemons and lemonade: when colonialism gave them egg yolks, Filipino women created iconic, yolk-​heavy snacks and desserts. These include dishes like yema, a mix of yolks, condensed milk, sugar, and lime zest; leche flan, a heavier version of the classic; and a variety of cookies, Catholicism’s architectural zeal reflected in rich pastry. This is a typical story featuring eggs: we start with one thing but end up with quite another, thanks to human ingenuity.1

Perhaps my favorite folk tradition involving eggs is the egg dance, a springtime custom from Germanic Europe in which couples danced across a field strewn with eggs. If they managed to do this three times without breaking any, then the pair could wed without parental approval. The egg dance is a loophole, one that gets my mind wondering about potential ways around cultural conventions. Could this have been used to facilitate queer marriages? Marriages across class or national background or religion? We may never know. But the loophole that the egg dance provided—​the opportunity to literally dance around the strictures of society—​is a recurrent motif wherever we find eggs.

So what then is an egg? Most of the time when we say “egg” we mean a “bird egg” or, particularly, a “chicken egg,” although reptiles and some mammals lay leathery ones. Species that reproduce sexually all have them: frogs lay gelatinous eggs, fish produce pearls of caviar, praying mantises create oothecas (insect egg hotels), and humans, guinea pigs, and most mammals release tiny ones. All of these may also be called ova (singular ovum)—the larger of two reproductive cells in most animals—​but we call them eggs too. This book focuses on bird eggs—​the hard-​shelled variety—​with the occasional nod to other ova.2

As for the proverbial question about what came first, the chicken or the egg, let’s put that to rest quickly. It’s the egg, man; it’s always been the egg. Eggs preceded the existence of chickens by about 300 million years, when reptiles first crawled out of the primordial ooze and evolved a system for replicating away from the moisture of water: the eggshell prevents embryos from drying out. Tyrannosaurus rex laid eggs 65 million years ago, and chickens are their closest living relative.3

Biologically speaking, bird eggs are a clever little piece of tech that antiseptically contains everything a developing embryo needs in exactly the right order. Eggs originate deep inside a hen in the ovary. Birds have two ovaries, but typically only the left one is active. There, a germinal disc begins as a tiny seed that ripens. The germinal disc is the bit of DNA the bird will contribute to any potential offspring. In hens, it’s large enough to see with the naked eye. Simply crack an egg into a bowl, and after a few seconds a pale spot will rise to the top of the yolk. Speaking of the yolk, it is the developing bird’s food source and is attached to the germinal disc in concentric spheres, which are visible in a hard-​boiled yolk sliced in half. If you look closely, you can see concentric rings of light and dark yellow. Yolk matters. Taken as a total percentage of an egg’s volume, the bigger the yolk, the more developed the hatchlings will be when they emerge from the shell. Consider the northern gannet, which lays eggs with a comparatively small yolk—​about 15 percent of total egg volume. Their hatchlings emerge naked, weak, and blind. The southern brown kiwi, on the other hand, lays eggs that are 70 percent yolk. Its hatchlings are “precocial,” that is, they spring forth with feathers and the ability to run around and feed themselves. As for poor mama kiwi, her finished egg weighs an incredible fifth of her body weight, which would be comparable to passing a fully grown human toddler through one’s cervix.

Whatever the size of the yolk, when fully ripe, it enters the oviduct, a snakelike organ with an open maw that faces the ovary. Here, in the upper part of the oviduct, sperm may fertilize the yolk. This is also where things get weird, by human standards at least. Human reproduction is a one-​on-​one affair. One sperm fertilizes one egg during the few days of a month that an egg is in the uterus. By comparison, chicken sex is pretty kinky. For starters, cocks don’t have cocks, just cloacae, albeit ones with different abilities from the hens’. My favorite description of the cloaca—​Latin for “sewer”—​comes from Ologies podcaster Alie Ward, who declared it “like the home button on the iPhone, like if Steve Jobs designed an orifice; a multipurpose lil’ boop that’s good for sensual adult times, egg laying, and poo.”4 The chickens press their cloacae together, and the male ejects sperm into the female. In humans, a race of the fittest to the egg in the uterus commences, but not so in birds. A hen’s body stores the sperm away inside a glandular sperm-​cellar for up to two to three weeks. (Turkeys, incidentally, can hold sperm longer—​up to fifteen weeks.) The hen’s body passes sperm—​multiple sperm—​up to the ripe yolk in the oviduct. Birds, plus some sharks and amphibians, require polyspermy, a process in which several sperm must fertilize an ovum to make a viable embryo, but the reasons for this aren’t precisely clear to scientists. Birds rarely lay unfertilized eggs, with one major exception: humans have bred chickens to do just that.5

Fertilized or not, as the yolk twists down a hen’s oviduct, glands attach albumen, or egg white, to it. People talk about “egg white” like it’s a single thing, but in chickens it has four layers. The innermost layer of thick white is a membrane that wraps the yolk, plus the two ropy bits known as chalazae that tether the yolk to the blunt and pointy ends of the egg and help keep it suspended in the center. The next layer of white, immediately around the yolk, is small and loose. It’s the part that takes an eternity to film over when I make sunny-​side-​up eggs, which I usually do poorly. The two most visible parts of the white take up the most real estate in a frying pan—​the tight white, which stands up tall during frying, and the final outermost layer of loose white, which spreads out thinly. The tight white also helps indicate freshness. The longer an egg spends in the fridge, the more tight white decays into loose white.

The white represents some top-​shelf evolutionary engineering, as it does several jobs at once, acting as both a cushion for the developing embryo and a container for the water the embryo uses during development. From the perspective of an invading microbe, it operates like the moat around a medieval castle, creating an immense barrier for a microbe to cross. Albumen has high protein content, but when raw, the proteins are bound up in a state that microbes can’t use easily. Miraculously, albumen also contains antimicrobial agents that kill and prevent bacterial growth. Some of these work best when slightly heated, say, to the temperature of a mother bird’s body.6

After the white joins the yolk on the way down the oviduct, the egg receives its shell membrane, two meshlike layers of keratin. Anyone who has peeled a hard-​boiled egg will recognize this as the layer that either sticks to the inside of the shell or the matte thing you must peel off the egg to get to the shiny white beneath. The shell membrane keeps the egg together, creates a mesh barrier to microbial entry, and shrinks soon after it is laid, which creates a crucial air pocket inside the blunt end of the egg. That air pocket beneath the shell rests next to where the chick’s head will develop. Immediately before hatching, the chick punctures that membrane and uses it like a mini oxygen tank, which buys it a few hours to get its lungs going and burst out of the shell. Many species of birds produce chicks with a special egg tooth, a little horny bump at beak’s end used to puncture the membrane and shell during hatching. The air pocket also provides another way for wily humans to tell how good an egg is. Whether fertilized or not, as eggs age, they lose moisture and their air pockets grow. You can test an egg’s freshness by placing it in a bowl of water to see if it sinks, if the blunt end rises, or worst of all, if the whole thing floats.

With shell membrane enclosing the egg, special glands inside the hen apply the shell. This hard calcium coating protects embryos from the weight of their parents and controls gas exchange. The shell contains pores—​more of them on the blunt end near the chick’s head—​that allow air to enter and metabolic water, the vapor living things give off, to exit. Chickens can somehow detect the oxygen concentration of the air; at higher altitudes they lay eggs with more pores to compensate for thinner oxygen.

The next-​to-​last layer of an egg is its pigment. Across species, birds lay eggs in a rainbow of colors: whites, creams, beiges, reds, browns, blacks, greens, and blues. So far as researchers can tell, this rainbow arises from only two pigments: porphyrin, responsible for red-​brown colors, and biliverdin, responsible for blue colors. According to ornithologist Tim Birkhead’s book The Most Perfect Thing, before an egg exits a bird, glands in the uterus work like paint guns, spraying hues onto the surface as it rotates its way to the outside. Wet pigment on a freshly laid egg can even smudge.7

The outermost layer of an egg is not the shell or the pigment but the waxy cuticle. In some species, it forms microspheres so small that droplets of water can’t fit between them, effectively waterproofing the egg. The cuticle is an egg’s first line of defense against microbes. In the United States, commercial producers powerwash the cuticle off, since barnyard detritus can stick to it, increasing salmonella risk. Since we strip eggs of their first microbial defense, we must refrigerate them to hinder the growth of any bacteria. In many other parts of the world, especially where salmonella rates are low, eggs retain their bacteria-​repelling cuticle and live at room temperature on kitchen counters.

Birds stash their completed masterpieces in all sorts of places: on bare rock, in nests (their own or other birds’), and in holes. They incubate them inventively, too, with their tummies, their legs, rotting vegetation, and sun-​warmed or volcano-​warmed sand. Everything life requires is locked inside an ingenious, convenient, and sanitary package. The egg is a universe in a shell.

My own relationship to eggs is joyful but fraught. On the fraught side, there is my biblically bad family history of cancer and its toll on the eggs I once carried in my body. Most of the women on my mom’s side have either died of breast or ovarian cancer, or preventively removed those organs to avoid cancer. I can write that simply, now, but make no mistake—​my family has watched beloved relatives die horribly or suffer the lifelong effects of lifesaving treatment. Knowing that you are genetically prone to develop aggressive, potentially lethal cancers at unusually young ages has created life-​altering terror for many of us. For my mom and grandmother’s generations, this dark cloud spurred surgeries, since you can’t get cancer in organs you no longer have.

By the 1990s, researchers had discovered an inherited genetic mutation in one of the family’s BRCA1 genes that caused a strongly elevated cancer risk. Instead of waiting for cancer to strike, my generation could get ahead of it with genetic testing. When a simple blood test I took at age twenty-​seven revealed that I shared my mother’s BRCA1 gene (the worst day of her life, my mother said), I planned an immediate double mastectomy, but left the ovarian surgery until I’d had a child. Still, my oncologist told me that given my family history—​strong even for someone with a BRCA1 mutation—​she wanted my ovaries out before I hit forty. That is why my relationship to eggs has been fraught.

But I’m joyfully obsessed too. The December I removed my ovaries, my father and I cooked more than twenty different egg dishes in a series of experiments. We cooked eggs together for any number of reasons: I’d recently had surgery, so he wanted to show me he loved me and I wanted to show him I was OK. Plus the COVID pandemic of 2020 had made everyone stir-​crazy, and my family has always used the kitchen to transport ourselves elsewhere. We “traveled” to France, where we jellied eggs in aspic; to medieval Italy, where we poached yolks in rose syrup; and to China, where we steamed them into a mind-​blowingly luxurious texture. This was familiar territory for us since cooking has always been the medium of our relationship and my dad loves nothing more than arcane knowledge obsessively pursued.

During my childhood, while my mother was outside our home convalescing from cancer treatments, my dad and I bonded in the kitchen, a place that provided distraction from worry and gave a sense of control over something, anything, even if that was a boiled egg. He came up with the idea, he said, because “one of the issues with having a little girl is figuring out how to connect with her, and you know, I’m the one in our family who likes to cook the most.” My real education, though, began when I turned eight and started Saturday morning swim lessons at the rec center. After each practice, my dad gave me a much-​anticipated breakfast lesson. Every week we tackled a new dish. We fried, scrambled, and poached eggs. We used them to coat French toast, as our toads in the toast hole, and to raise pancakes and waffles. My dad let any mistake I made stand as a way of teaching me that my choices mattered.

Historically, I hadn’t been a big egg fan, associating them with rubbery steam-​plate scrambles at buffets, smelly hard-​boiled offerings at Easter, or oozing fried yolks from which pancakes had to be fervently protected. When my dad was a kid, his dad used to prank him on pancake day—​Saturdays—​by offering him a fried egg atop his short stack. My dad called the bluff by accepting and over time developed a taste for this sacrilege. He tried the same technique on me, but I stood firm against the onslaught, mandating my egg on the side. To further slight him, I’d eat only the tender fried white from around the intact yolk, which I left untouched. He’d say something like, “Are you leaving that? That’s the best part of the egg,” and when I relinquished it, he’d pop it into his mouth whole.

At my house, one did not simply dislike a food. My father firmly believed culinary pleasure came from exposure. I didn’t hate eggs; I simply hadn’t acquired the taste for them yet. And though it pains me to admit it, he was right. He fed me soft-​boiled eggs in little pottery cups my grandmother had made, snuck hard-​boiled egg into otherwise unobjectionable potato salad, and offered me the choicest yolk-​kissed bites of his pancakes. Soon I was eating my own fried yolks whole to get the oozy part over with, and seamlessly, I became a fan of most egg dishes. I still can’t stomach steam-​plate scrambles or browned diner omelets. I don’t know how much exposure therapy is required, only that I may never reach that particular threshold.

My childhood breakfast tutorials arrived in the middle of my father’s campaign to accustom me to new foods. He proposed an experiment to find the perfect soft-​boiled egg. One Saturday, I arrived home from swim practice to find an absurd number of cartons—​perhaps four or five—​on the counter. We boiled the eggs for progressive sixty-​second intervals, from the control egg (zero seconds) all the way up to a hard-​boiled egg (twelve minutes), then set them neatly into a labeled carton. We knocked off their tops with a butter knife and peered at the gooey interiors. In my father’s eyes, and therefore mine, the ideal soft-​boiled egg has a sloppy, just-​opaque white and a fully liquid yolk. We established that the ideal timing lay somewhere between three and four minutes, then ran further experiments to refine the time down to the second.

The following Monday, I flew down the stairs to boil the perfect quick-​breakfast dish with my father. A few minutes later, I placed the ideal egg onto my toast and whacked the broad side sharply with a knife. Imagine my disappointed little face when a gush of practically clear egg snot came running out.

And that, dear reader, is how I learned an important lesson about experimental conditions. We’d used room-​temperature eggs in our weekend project, but on a busy Monday morning we grabbed them cold from the fridge. Lesson one: eggs cook fast, so starting temperature matters.

Our culinary experiments have continued ever since. Though not all of them were egg focused, we always had fun. As we cooked, we’d discuss life stuff—​my friends, interests, and hobbies. As I grew out of the narcissism of childhood, I learned more about my dad: that his lawyerly work combined research and writing, that he loved the trumpet almost as much as cooking and could digress extensively on the differences among trumpet mouthpieces, and which collection of Shakespeare on tape reigned supreme. Even now, cooking time is when my dad gives me fatherly advice, praises my son, and tries to get me interested in new, and always mythical, cooking experiments. The kitchen is our clubhouse, the experiments the price of entry.

I never needed that clubhouse more than in the fall of 2020, when I carved my own personal supply of eggs out of my body to avoid a fate passed down in my mother’s family. The rest of the world joined me in medical limbo as COVID spread internationally. Those of us who had enough time and money retreated into the shell of homelife and headed straight for the kitchen.

This book examines more than eggs in the kitchen, though. This is a book about what one creative species can do with the world’s largest cellular workhorse and what that says about us and about power. It is about cosmic loopholes, the ingenuity of the oppressed, and the nature of obsession. It is an attempt to understand what I gave up when my ovaries came out. It’s my attempt to reflect on the meaning of an object that carries deep symbolism and heavy metabolic importance. And it is also a means of traveling through stories of eggs to other times and places.

So please, come sit in my kitchen. Relax. Open the carton, and take a look at a dozen perfect and perfectly protean eggs.