I use a knife to gently crack a ring around the egg's surface, then I scoop the whites into a bowl and slice them into slivers with the side of a spoon. Unfortunately today the yolk is too hard so I push it off to the side. A scrape of butter on top melts into the white valleys, now sprinkled with salt.
Comfort foods fall into two categories for me: foods that are consistent and dependable, and foods that are taste memories. Soft-boiled eggs are a taste memory, though I am unable to recreate them exactly as I remember. Like a writer trying to write to that one scrutinizing, unknowing reader, I am a chef in pursuit of the recreation of my grandmothers' cooking.
I find myself wondering if I am trying to recreate something that doesn't exactly exist, if memory has taken over at the limits of taste. Could anything I make ever be as good as either of my grandmas' creations, when my memories are tainted with positive associations? What if it was never that extraordinary in the first place? I love that food and memory are so complex.
Both of my parents worked. If I was sick, I went to Gram's (either one). Though they are entirely different, both of my grandmothers would start my sick day with a soft-boiled egg and toast. At Grandma Lila's this was usually sourdough, at Grandma E.V.'s it was a bagel. I have no recollection if this tradition started at one house or the other, only that a day when I was sick meant I got to request whatever kind of egg I wanted, and it was always soft-boiled.
We never had soft-boiled eggs at home. I'll have to ask Mom if that was because she didn't like them or she (like me) was inconsistent in their preparation. We always had hard-boiled eggs as a staple in the fridge; we ate scrambled and eventually fried with great regularity. But soft-boiled was for Grandma's house.
A soft-boiled egg is an exercise in patience and careful timing, so unlike what I eat on a weekday. Soft-boiled eggs are a sit-down food, and most decidedly not driving fare. Monday through Friday I find I'm lucky to make it out the door with a mug of black coffee or a yogurt to eat between classes. Lately I've had a strong craving for soft-boiled eggs that I think mirrors a craving I'm feeling for things like home, family and a slower pace. Frankly I'm no good at them--they're always clear and soupy or hard and crumbly--but even the attempt has an air of familiarity that comforts me.
I wonder what taste memories my kids will have. Will they make batches upon batches of "orange fries" without knowing that garlic holds the secret? Will they try to make my chocolate chip cookies and never know that cutting a few tablespoons of butter will keep the cookies from over-spreading? Or will theirs be a reflection of the hastiness of our generations? I hope they have more to pursue than the perfect bowl of Cocoa Pebbles.