One of the owners of the cheese/gourmet food shop where I worked last year says: “Food is memory.” Ever since I heard her say it, I’ve loved that phrase, running it over my tongue like a nibble of dense chocolate.
There are few things more right. Favorite foods, prepared a certain way, conjure up memories as real as if we stepped into a time machine and rocketed back to places only we, and those closest to us recall. I engineer my own trip to the past each Easter, when I prepare the same breakfast my grandmother cooked for my family every Easter morning while we were growing up.
I was not quite two when my father’s father died, and I retain no memory of him. A few years later Grandma Carens moved within walking distance of our home. After that, for as far back as I can recall, she joined us for Sunday dinners. I have no idea if she was a good cook, since by the time she moved near us, she and three of her friends had developed a routine of eating dinner five days a week at Lotties, a linoleum floored, meat loaf and hot turkey sandwich restaurant. But on Easter, she prepared breakfast.
The empty lot behind Grandma’s looked across to St. Paul’s Church, and we arrived at her house in plenty of time to eat, then fast for an obligatory hour, before cutting across her backyard for late morning Mass. Stepping in her front door, my younger sister and I headed straight to the dining room. There, in the middle of a table set with Royal Dalton china holding precisely edged grapefruit halves, two over-sized stuffed bunnies sat back to back, serving as a temporary table display. After breakfast, the centerpieces belonged to my sister and me.
Every year, Grandma served the same meal: those grapefruit halves decorated with maraschino cherries, pulpy, fresh squeezed orange juice, crisp bacon, grilled sausage, meltingly sweet honey buns warm from the oven, plus scrambled eggs. But not just any eggs.
All the lead-up above? The story here is the eggs.
My grandmother is the only person I have ever known who cooked her scrambled eggs in a bowl resting above a pot of simmering water. This double-boiler method requires patience, but the results are creamy and luscious with thick, soft curds and an incredibly moist texture. As far as I am concerned, they elevate something as mundane as everyday scrambled eggs to epicurean status. I think I read that one of Julia Child’s challenges when learning to cook in France was perfecting scrambled eggs. Julia should have called my grandmother.
Grandma died when I was in college, but for as long as I’ve been married, she comes alive again for me each Easter morning when I recreate her annual breakfast. I stand over the steaming pot of water, scraping the sides of the bowl while the eggs cook, pulling them off when they have reached a sunny yellow, custard-curd texture. As soon as I taste them, I’m vaulted back to a seat in my grandmother's painted-pink dining room, facing a polished mahogany table, with my family all around me. My grandmother wears an apron over her church dress. We use our best manners, savor the silky eggs, and endure the evil eye from mom when she catches us licking honey bun-sticky fingers. When breakfast is over, my sister and I grab our bunnies and escape to the living room for quiet play time, before we all leave for church.
Back at my own table, I bite into the one edit I’ve made to my grandmother’s breakfast, a cayenne and brown sugar spicy bacon that my daughter adores. Someday, she’ll have a food memory of her own.
Grace Carens’s Double-boiler Scrambled Eggs
Fill the bottom of a double boiler one-third full of water and heat to a gentle simmer.
Crack two large eggs per person and add one extra egg “for the bowl.”
For every six eggs, add two tablespoons of whole milk, half and half, or cream.
Add a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper and beat the eggs until frothy (Grandma used a hand-crank egg beater, I use a whisk).
Butter the inside of the double boiler insert. Pour in the eggs and rest the bowl above the simmering water. Be patient. It will take a while for the eggs to start cooking. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl until they are done to your liking.
Be forewarned. There is a reason I only cook these eggs once a year. Clean-up is a BEAR! The protein in the cooked eggs adheres to the sides of the bowl like cement. Scrape as much of the remaining egg off as you can and prepare to soak your dish overnight.