Jacques Pepin, the prominent tv cooking celebrity, recommends you crack an egg by tapping it against a flat surface, like a countertop. You can see his technique here at around the 5:40 mark. When I try the method, the egg is as likely to crack longitudinally as it is the right way. Or it cracks crazily and the albumen dribbles all around. So, like my mother and every other cook I've ever seen, I continue to crack eggs on the edge of a bowl or pan.
I don't like to disagree with the person I refer to as "my man Jacques." I regard him with the affection usually given to a great teacher. When I watch him make a dish, I want to get up from the couch and try it myself. Maybe it's a matter of "mirror neurons" as some brain researchers say, though I'm doubtful. Everybody knows the experience, whatever the cause: when we see someone doing something skillfully, we often feel a desire to try it ourselves. The skill itself seems to call to us. It's a calling.
For me, Pepin's performance makes a strong call. He knows his ingredients and how to treat them. Viewers of his television shows or readers of his comprehensive books on kitchen technique can tell immediately how much he knows about food culture. His recipes and commentary show a familiarity with all aspects of food and its preparation, in their theoretical and practical dimensions, including butchering, fish cleaning, vegetable growing, and the chemistry of baking. He dices an onion the way a card shark shuffles a deck, going through the identical motions flawlessly each time, while talking of other things. He gives his pan a few shakes, and an omlette seems to fold itself into perfect form. He scrapes a knife along a stick of cold butter, and he's made an edible rose blossom to decorate a serving dish.
His success is an achievement of both nature and nurture. Born near Lyons, France, he worked from his childhood in the kitchen of the restaurant his mother opened after the war, when provisions of all kinds were scarce, and nothing was wasted. His family saw his potential, and he was sent to apprentice at the restaurant of the Plaza Athenee, the summit of Parisian elegance. Again, he was noticed. He cooked for three heads of state in France before moving to New York in the 1950s to work at La Pavillon, a restaurant in the stuffiest American-French tradition.
But Pepin himself was no snob. Rather, he was ambitious and open-minded, and he prospered here. He was hired away from La Pavillon to work for Howard Johnson's restaurants in their glory days, researching and developing new recipes for the chain, in company with Pierre Franey, who later became a distinguished food-writer at the New York Times. (I like to think Pepin was responsible for the beef bourgignon that I enjoyed as a child when I visited HoJo's with my family.) Watch Pepin in the casual kitchen set of his public television shows, listen to him praise the modern supermarket and the food processor, and you will soon see that he is, to borrow the words of another immigrant artist, Vladimir Nabokov, as American as April in Arizona.
Why does Pepin encourage us to crack eggs on a flat surface? Because if you hit the egg against the edge of a bowl or pot, or tap it with a knife, you're likely to get bits of egg shell into the dish you are cooking. In these days of industrial egg production, with hen cage stacked upon hen cage--and hen waste sifting down accordingly--you increase the risk of salmonella by letting the potentially contaminated outside of an egg come in contact with the inside, and this is more likely to happen with cracking an egg on an edge.
Of course, if you insist on cracking eggs on an edge, you can reduce the salmonella risk by buying cage-free eggs or free-range eggs. (But see the Humane Society for a skeptical interpretation of these egg-carton terms.) If you rely on this strategy, it's best to check out the eggs before putting the carton in your cart. If any are broken or dirty, find a new carton. If your thought is to buy cheap eggs and wash them, you should note that the FDA does not recommend this practice, as it can actually spread contamination.
Pepin--skilled, creative, and unpretentious--is also frugal. He does not tell you to avoid contamination by paying more for free-range eggs. For him, it's easier and more economical to avoid illness by cracking on the flat than by buying higher priced eggs laid by contented hens. Maybe for you too. Give it a try, if you have the technique.
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