By Chris Offutt
As a kid, I was allowed to eat one egg per week. Mom fixed eggs on Sunday for a meal eaten at indeterminate times, dependent upon my father’s hangover. We ate late, often past noon, after being hungry for hours. The holdup was Dad’s weekly culinary tradition. The only food he ever prepared was Sunday potatoes—after Mom peeled and sliced them. Dad ensconced himself on a stool before the stove, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and reading a magazine. Occasionally he dumped spices onto the unsuspecting spuds.
The electric stove had an array of buttons for gauging heat—extra-low, low, medium, medium-high, high, extra-high. When you pressed a button, it remained depressed while automatically popping free any other button. I was fascinated with this system and its newfangled Space Age feel. When I was four I taught myself to read the buttons, then slowly began reading words on boxes: Sugar, Flour, Salt, Velveeta, and finally brand names on the appliances: Frigidaire and Osterizer. I liked the kitchen. It was bright with light, warm in winter, and blessedly safe since my father rarely ventured into that room except for Sunday mornings.
Mom maintained a close vigilance on my father in order to time the rest of breakfast with his arbitrary decision that the potatoes were finished. Because he controlled the entire stove, she was relegated to a counter where she used an electric skillet on two-inch legs. A box of eggs stood open on the counter beside the necessities: sugar, salt, coffee, half-gallon of Jim Beam.
When the potatoes began to burn, Mom placed sausage patties into the electric skillet and cooked them rapidly until they were dark and hard. She opened a tube of biscuits and quickly got them in the oven. Mom worked with a certain anxiety—if her timing was off, Dad got mad. By this time my siblings were staring hungrily at the food, Dad had read a couple of articles in Psychology Today, and the house was full of smoke from the potatoes.
I enjoyed watching my mother cook eggs. She cracked each one and slid its contents into the skillet. She used a cereal spoon to cook them by flicking the hot sausage grease onto the bright yellow yolks. This signaled breakfast was nearly ready. We assembled at the table for Dad’s ritual of cutting his biscuit in half, buttering it, and tucking it in his armpit to speed the melting of the butter. With his other hand he stirred a fresh cup of steaming coffee. To gauge whether or not the coffee was hot enough to burn his mouth, he set the spoon on my sister’s hand. If she jerked away and began to cry, he added more milk. When Dad ate, we ate, a prolonged activity that consisted primarily of praising the potatoes to high heaven, and shoveling in the grease-laden eggs and discs of hardened sausage. Regardless, I eagerly anticipated this meal for the simple reason that I got to eat an egg. And I loved eggs. I really loved eggs.
One summer I had a job in town, a twenty-minute drive away, that began at 7:00 a.m. My brother and I shared the family’s second car, an old VW Bug, which was an odd choice for a family of six. I had to be at work much earlier than my brother. My solution was to rise early and hitchhike. I took a shortcut on a path over the hill to the Main Road, and began walking. At that time I primarily read nineteenth-century British novels. In a book set in London, a man ate an omelet for breakfast, which I assumed was some British specialty food, like a crumpet or a scone. One day I looked it up in the dictionary and was surprised to learn that an omelet was French, invented in the 1500s. Most importantly, it was composed of not one, but two eggs. I asked my mother if she’d ever heard of an omelet, and she taught me to prepare one. Every morning I made an omelet and hitchhiked to work. I was eighteen and proud of myself for having a full-time job painting curbs for the college, sitting in a gutter with a paintbrush and a five-gallon bucket of thick yellow paint. I’d also managed to increase my egg intake from one a week to two per day.
A year later I applied for a summer job as a dishwasher at the Grand Canyon. I’d never worked in a restaurant, and in fact had eaten in one a mere four times, but the hourly wage was more than painting curbs. The previous summer I’d become comfortable enough with hitchhiking that it seemed natural to travel to Arizona in the same way. I packed a duffel bag with a change of clothes, a road atlas, a sleeping bag, my journal, and an old paperback of Walt Whitman’s collected poems. The book contained an enormous amount of poetry but wouldn’t add much weight to my duffel bag. I figured a guy who wore his hat as he pleased would understand my practical decision to travel with his work.
Reading books taught me that the United States had a desert, but I was operating under a significant level of geographical ignorance. I assumed everywhere in the country was basically the same as eastern Kentucky with a few key differences. I thought cities were the same as home, only with taller buildings, and it seemed reasonable that the desert just meant fewer trees. I was unprepared for the day’s heat and cold nights, and quite frankly, if it weren’t for the utter pity of drivers who stopped for me, I would have perished. They gave me water, food, and sunscreen.
The Canyon had a high turnover of employees, due to the abysmal living quarters and the general personalities of people who took seasonal labor—ex-cons, parolees on the lam, messed up veterans, car thieves, deadbeats, dope fiends, and divorcees—folks so beat down by life that a short-term stint at the Canyon represented a fresh start. My roommate had recently done five years for armed robbery in Michigan. He worked in the laundry and never spoke. We got along fine.
I excelled at washing dishes. Showing up on time and working hard set me apart in the eyes of the chef, a widowed retiree who’d owned his own restaurant in Nevada. He asked if I’d ever cooked breakfast. Yes, I said, I could make an omelet! He guffawed at my fanciness and thereafter referred to me as his “egg man.” He gave me rudimentary training in cracking eggs fast, and how to drop frozen sausage and slabs of hash browns into a deep fryer without burning myself. I spent half an hour learning to flip eggs in a pan. I practiced with a hamburger bun until I could keep it in the pan ten times in a row, then stepped up to an egg, finally achieving the goal of flipping two eggs without breaking either yolk. I became a short-order egg man, eventually able to flip the contents of two pans simultaneously, one in either hand, while also correctly timing over easy, over medium, over hard, and sunny-side up.
I became friends with a tram driver who worked the early shift and ate before anyone else. He talked constantly, mainly complaining. People didn’t like him, but I enjoyed his company and everyone said we were funny together. They started calling us Fear and Loathing because until I came along, he didn’t talk to anyone, just read that book constantly. Fear, as he was known, suggested we sky-hitch to Vegas in honor of the book. At the Canyon airport he bugged pilots until one agreed to fly us to McCarran. I had fifty dollars, which I intended to turn into fifty thousand by playing blackjack according to a system I’d read about in a book. The idea was to count high cards by stacking chips a certain way. My plan succeeded well enough that a grim-faced thug with a head like a bucket of lard stood nearby and watched me play. Who could blame him? I was twenty-one and scruffy and winning—at least until the tide turned and I ran so low on chips that I couldn’t maintain the count. I went way up and way down, then went broke.
Fear lost more slowly, like water draining from a partially stopped-up sink. By dawn I had less than two bucks and Fear was penniless and drunk. I put the last of my money into a slot machine and won four dollars, which we spent on the “Gambler’s Special” of two-dollar steak and eggs. I’d never eaten steak before, and considered the meat a little tough, but I believed they’d done a good job on the eggs. Afterwards, Fear informed me that he knew a shortcut through the desert to the airport. Halfway there, in the midst of scrub and dirt, traversing above the buried bones of thousands of mob victims, my upper thigh suddenly began to hurt with such stunning force that I thought a scorpion had crawled up my pants leg and stung me. I hopped around and slapped my thigh and yanked my jeans down. There was no scorpion, but in my pocket I found a book of casino matches that had caught on fire from friction in the heat.
We made it to the airport without further mishap. Fear caught us a return flight on a small plane that flew foreign tourists inside the canyon. Fear immediately passed out, despite the sudden twists and turns, hard banking, and quick drops in altitude as the pilot, a former crop duster, put the aircraft through its paces. The only other passengers were a well-dressed couple from France who’d chartered the plane. The husband became violently airsick, which disgusted his wife. My stomach held fast, and I flung about some high school French with an appalling accent. I told her I was a chef du omeletteand she laughed. Upon landing she pressed her bosom against me, stared at her ill husband, and gave me a long kiss. I was taken aback, but given the messy state of the husband, I didn’t worry about retribution.
The chef asked me to stay through the winter as part of his skeleton crew, but I’d managed to acquire a girlfriend, a college graduate who urged me to return to school. First, she and I hiked the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the single most remarkable walking experience of my life. The canyon is a mile deep, but the trail is ten miles long due to switchbacks. Descending is like traveling backwards through time, seeing the geologic history of Earth written in the strata of the walls, while being careful to avoid stepping in mule dung. We’d been warned that temperatures in the bottom surpassed a hundred degrees. She took trail mix and extra water. I took eggs. Based on my experience with matches in the desert, I believed the eggs would cook inside the shell and we’d eat them hard-boiled at the bottom. We were so exhausted upon arrival that we collapsed on the dirt and slept. In the morning, insects had discovered the contents of my pack—rapidly rotting eggs.
Over the years I’ve relied on eggs to get me through many prolonged periods of little money. The beauty of an omelet is that you can make one with darn near anything lying around the cupboard. From experience, I strongly recommend against omelets composed of frozen peas or cabbage or cold pizza found in a couch. My most successful experiment-due-to-necessity was an omelet filled with crunchy peanut butter. The secret is to cook the folded egg just long enough to slightly soften the peanut butter, but not melt it. During the 1980s, I went through a health food phase, initially motivated by economics, but also driven by the desire to seduce scrawny young women who wore black clothes and ate fruit, vegetables, and grain. One weekend I invited a young lady to my house. I had not a nickel to my name, but possessed eight eggs and a sack of wheat germ. Yes, I did. Yes, it tasted terrible. Yes, she left forthwith.
I never returned to the Grand Canyon but have visited my parents many times. They’ve lived in the same house for fifty years. Gone is the push-button stove that taught me to read, replaced by a fancy rig with flat burners and conventional knobs. The counter still holds coffee and bourbon. Mom doesn’t recall teaching me to make an omelet but she does remember saving eggshells for various craft projects such as a Christmas wreath made of old newspaper. In her kitchen, I found a heavily used community cookbook that included an omelet recipe.
The cookbook was titled Ask Your Neighbor and was “presented” by WBLG Radio 1300. There is no copyright page or publisher listed. My mother’s highly legible cursive, penned in what was known as a “secretary’s hand,” includes a date: December 30, 1969. The book itself has yellow cardboard binders and measures 8 1/2 inches by 5 1/2 inches. It consists of 210 pages, typed in Courier and crudely reproduced with a mimeograph machine. The book is loosely bound by a brad on the left edge, with its prongs feeding through two holes punched in each page. The prongs then fold over themselves on the back cover and tuck beneath a metal band to hold them in place like a belt loop.
The cover is remarkable for its line art, which is indecipherable in design and intent. The title is centered within an asymmetric oblong, possibly representing a food tray or a television screen. Two corners show a black pictogram that could be the silhouette of a railroad trestle. The upper right corner has a small photograph of Terrell Whitaker, a dashing radio personality who presumably edited the cookbook.
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. milk
1/8 tsp. pepper
Melt butter in omelet pan or small skillet. Beat eggs, milk, and seasonings and pour in pan. Cook and fold over. Pour filling in center of omelet when it is almost done and fold omelet over
My early employment served me in good stead for many years. I have held jobs in sixteen restaurants and worked as a house painter several times. I gave up hitchhiking but still read a great deal of poetry. Recently I learned that Walt Whitman ate four raw eggs per day for the last twenty years of his life. He died at age 72, extremely old for a man born in the year 1819, when the average life expectancy for men was age 31. I’ve decided to maintain the dietary habit of America’s preeminent Egg Man, who wrote: “I will take an egg out of the robin’s nest in the orchard.”
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