The Incredible, Edible Egg!
Which was first, the chicken or the egg? It's a debate that has gone on for a long time and still, there's no definitive answer. Eggs were being laid by domestic geese and ducks long before chickens were domesticated around 3200 BC. However, these eggs were rarely consumed since it was known that one egg eaten meant that many birds would not be available for future eating. Once the more productive chicken was domesticated, people could eat eggs without worrying about disrupting the food cycle.
Still, it took some time before eggs became a regular part of the diet. It is known that the Romans used eggs in deserts and as a thickening agent in sauces. They also used hard-boiled eggs as an ingredient in various dishes. However, it is not known if eggs were used as a dish in themselves. They were popular among the ruling class and the religious hierarchy around the time of Charlemagne. In later years, eggs were an inexpensive commodity and became a part of the everyday fare of ordinary people all over Europe. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the French knew of over 600 different ways to use eggs in their cooking. Although Europeans had been eating hens' eggs for centuries, chickens were not introduced in the new world until Columbus's second voyage in 1493.
Eggs have been boiled and made into omelettes since the time of the Romans, but some of our other popular egg-based dishes have more recent origins. The recipe for scrambled eggs first appeared in the late 1700's. The popular dish, eggs Benedict, is said to have been invented in 1894 at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City. It was created by chef, Oscar Tschirky when a Wall Street broker named Lemuel Benedict requested "some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a 'hooker' of hollandaise sauce." Later, ham was substituted for bacon and English muffins replaced toast.
Since ancient times, eggs have been regarded as a universal symbol for rebirth and springtime. However, there are no references which associate eggs with Easter any earlier than the fifteenth century. Around the year 1490, egg hunts in the Palatinate region of Germany and banquets featuring huge omelettes in Italy, were associated with the Easter holiday. Near the middle of the sixteenth century, eggs were dyed red and given as gifts in the Alsace region of France. These customs became popular and spread from the Rhineland to other regions of France and Germany. Eggs, dyed in multiple colors, were presented to children as gifts and hidden for them to find. Eggs were painted, adorned, and even covered with gold in many areas. A man by the name of Faberge, a goldsmith for the imperial court of Russia, made many such pieces which today, are in great demand by collectors. A Faberge piece entitled, "Winter Egg" sold in 1994 for $5.6 million.
Today in the United States, some 50 billion eggs are produced annually by 240 million laying hens. Per capita egg consumption in 2000 was 258, down from an all-time high of 402 in 1945. This decline over the last half century has been attributed to health concerns and to the increasing percentage of women who work away from the home. In today's hectic lifestyle, there is less time available for food preparation from scratch than there was in the 1940's.
The top five states for egg production are Iowa, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. These states have roughly half of all the egg-producing hens in the U.S. Of the 198 million cases of eggs produced in 2000, 56% were sold at retail, 31% were further processed into other products, 12% were used in food service establishments, and 1% were exported.
Before World War II, most eggs came from small farm flocks. Advancements in technology led to a gradual shift to larger commercial operations. Today, flocks larger than 100,000 are common and some flocks are as large as one million birds. In modern facilities, temperature, light, and humidity are carefully controlled and strict attention to sanitation is practiced. Feeding is largely automated and the feed ration is balanced to provide the proper amount of fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, and minerals. The primary constituents of feed rations are soybean meal, cottonseed meal, corn, or sorghum. Hormones are not given to chickens in the U.S.
As soon as an egg is laid, physical and chemical changes that affect freshness begin to take place. Warm temperatures accelerate these changes. Thus, eggs are gathered and refrigerated quickly. In most modern facilities automated gathering belts gather and transport the eggs to refrigerated holding areas. The humidity is usually kept rather high to minimize moisture loss. Eggs are then cleaned, graded, and sometimes oiled. The oil used is a tasteless, edible, light mineral oil which helps to prevent contamination. Eggs are sorted according to size before being packaged and shipped to retail stores. Minimum weights per dozen are 30 oz. for Jumbo, 27 oz. for Extra Large, 24 oz. for Large, 21 oz. for Medium, and 18 oz. for Small.
The main parts of the egg are the shell, the air space, the albumin or white, and the yolk. There are also three membranes. The shell is composed mainly of calcium carbonate and serves as a barrier against bacterial contamination. The color of the shell is white or brown, depending on the breed of chicken. Contrary to popular belief, egg color has nothing to do with flavor, quality, or nutrition. The belief that brown eggs are better quality and more nutritious probably comes from the notion that anything darker seems stronger and more nourishing. The shell surface has thousands of small pores which facilitate the exchange of gases. This is how air gets into the air space. The shell is covered by a protective coating called the cuticle which blocks the pores, thereby maintaining freshness and minimizing contamination. As eggs age, the pores gradually open, allowing carbon dioxide and moisture to escape. Air enters through the pores to replace these gases, filling the air space. The air space is formed as the inner contents of the egg contract upon cooling. This space becomes larger as the egg ages. The air space can be seen on the flat end of a peeled hard-boiled egg.