This topic was initially sparked when readers wrote to me about a scene in my book The Autumn Bride, where Damaris cooks the first meal for the badly neglected and almost starving old lady, Lady Beatrice Davenham.
“And I’ll make you something tasty to eat,” Damaris said. “What about a soft-boiled egg with soldiers?”
“A soft-boiled egg with soldiers?” the old lady repeated in a whisper. “I haven’t had that since—” She broke off, her mouth wobbling. Her face crumpled and she scrubbed at her brimming eyes. “Blast the dratted dust in here. It’s got into my eyes again.”
The readers asked me, "what are soldiers?"
Soft boiled eggs for children are often served with "soldiers" — toast cut into narrow lengths, that we dip in the egg and eat. In the UK they're often called "dippy eggs" — because you dip the soldiers into the eggs — just like the little girl above, and in this cute video showing two toddlers solemnly eating their "dippy eggs."
It's nursery food, comfort food, and though I'm supposedly an adult, there are days when a boiled egg with soldiers is exactly what I want. Which is why I thought Lady Beatrice would react the way she did. (And though the OED lists toast soldiers as first appearing in 1966 — I do check these things — my mother used the term in her childhood, and so did her mother, so it's clearly something that's been passed down through the generations. The OED only lists when a word first appears in print, so it's not an infallible guide to when a word was first used. Probably "nursery expressions" rarely made it into print until the 1960's when child rearing books became popular. )
But when it comes to soft-boiled eggs, the use of toast soldiers isn't the only difference between our countries. It seems most people in the USA don't use or even own egg-cups. And that really surprised me.
I just pulled a handful of egg cups from my my cupboard — my "bunnikins" one from my childhood, another china one, a couple of silver ones that were my grandmother's, and an old plastic one used in our caravan when I was a kid. My bunnykins one is my favorite, even though it has a crack in it. I've had it all my life. You can still buy the exact same ones today (from Royal Doulton.)
Even the people who rarely eat boiled eggs as adults still tend to keep their childhood egg-cups. And there are so many really cute and fun designs, people keep buying them. For those of us who've used them since we were toddlers, using egg cups is pretty much automatic. In fact when I mentioned my topic in an email to an English friend she said this: Well, this is fascinating! I had heard a rumour that Americans didn't use egg cups but wasn't sure if it was just a myth because how would you eat a boiled egg without one?
Good question. In the US, I've seen soft boiled eggs served in a bowl, with their innards scooped out for you. I've also seen people eat them holding the egg in a paper towel — because of the heat I suppose. Generally, I gather Americans don't eat soft boiled eggs. People have suggested to me that it was because of the cholesterol scare about eggs — but I see eggs cooked everywhere in the US fried and scrambled in even more fat, so that can't be it. Hard-boiled eggs are used in salads and sandwiches and I suppose if people want an egg with a runny yolk, they poach one.
So, on one side of the pond it's unthinkable to eat a boiled egg without an egg-cup, on the other side it's a rare and arcane item. I must confess that I've found the passion with which both sides address The Egg-cup Issue endlessly entertaining. In one discussion I particularly loved these two comments — one from either "side".
But but but….. how do you dip your soldiers in when there's no egg cup…? *lip quiver*
Egg cups are the reason the sun has set on the British Empire. Soft-boiled eggs are Evil. Pure and simple.
Some of the sites I've visited show people trying to eat boiled eggs and soldiers as if it's some kind of scary weird thing. In this one they acted as if they'd really done something amazing by cooking and eating a soft boiled egg. Others show that you need a special implement to cut the "lid" off. They portray it as a "posh" and pretentious way of eating eggs. I've never even seen such an unnecessary implement. Most people just cut the end off with the teaspoon they're going to eat the egg with. Others use a knife.
I saw one video on "how to eat a soft boiled egg" and she cooked the egg and then peeled it and then slid the peeled egg into the egg cup. So wrong. And completely pointless! Not having to peel a hot, soft-cooked egg is the reason we have egg-cups.
Odd facts about egg-cups
They're not a recent invention. A silver egg-cup was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, preserved under lava and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and completely buried the city. Turkish mosaics found in the city showed scenes of people dining, many of whom were using eggcups.
Egg-cups were used in England during the Elizabethan period ( 1600’s. ) The ruling classes ate their eggs in silver eggcups, the poor people used wooden ones. And if you're a handy type, you could make one like this, from foraged wood:
"Louis XV often entertained his courtiers by “beheading” the egg in his eggcup with one slice. Ironically, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, would be beheaded during the “Reign of Terror” in 1793." More here about the history of the egg-cup. The Victorian era saw a boom in the manufacture and sale of egg cups, and they've never looked back. But they never, it seemed, jumped the pond.
There's even a word for the practice of collecting egg cups: pocillovy. It comes from the Latin term pocillum ovi, which translates to "small cup for an egg."
According to this magazine, egg-cups in America are becoming "aspirational." And here are some more sites to browse if you're curious. Here's how to cook boiled eggs and soldiers — though I do NOT approve of the way they spill the yolk down the side of the egg. (You don't need the sound on.) More than you ever wanted to know about eggs through the ages.
For crafty types:
Some people make "egg cosies" for eggs to keep the heat in. If you're a knitter there are instructions here for some little egg hats. Or you could try these adorable bunny ones; Woodturners make beautiful egg-cups. And if you fancy a soft-boiled egg with soldiers but you're stuck for an egg cup, here's a way to improvise. Or use a shot glass.
The conundrum remains
I've tried to discover a reason why Americans don't use them and Canadians, Brits, Aussies, NZers and various Europeans do (I have no idea about other countries), and all I can come up with is my own personal theory — I think it's all to do with the soldiers. And that we're trained to it almost from birth. And that it is an entirely permissible way of "playing with your food". <g>
So what about you? Do you own an egg-cup? Use them? Do you eat soft-boiled eggs, with or without soldiers? And do you have a theory why Americans don't, in general, use them?