Eggs are a fact of life. You, like millions of Americans looking for a solid source of protein, may have even started this morning off with eggs, and if you happen to be reading this over breakfast, there’s a good chance you’ve got an egg somewhere in your general vicinity.
The prize for most eggs consumed per capita goes to Mexico, at 321, but the United States is definitely holding its own at 255. Last place is held by India, at 40. Worldwide, around 65 million tons of eggs are produced each year, and the number is constantly rising.
Playing Chicken with History
And it has been for thousands of years. Chicken eggs, grocery store mainstay and far and away the most popular egg for eating the world over, have been cultivated by humans for at least eight thousand years.
Over the next few millennia, chickens spread across the globe, securing their place as the egg-producing bird of choice and replacing such alternatives as the quail, the ostrich, and even the pelican.
How not to crack an egg
Today, eggs are a staple food in the American diet, and about 70% of the roughly 750 billion eggs produced yearly come from factory farms, and arrive safely cradled in a styrofoam or cardboard egg carton.
The egg carton, used today not only to prevent broken eggs but also as a key element of a broad range of childhood craft projects, was invented in 1911 by a newspaper editor from British Columbia named Joseph Coyle (thus its original, somewhat clunkier name, the “Coyle Egg-Safety Carton”).
It was originally invented as a response to a dispute between a farmer and a hotel owner over a delivery of eggs that arrived broken. In what now seems like a herculean feat of artisanship, Coyle’s original cartons were produced by hand from paper for the first eight years of their existence, until he designed a machine to make them.
Caviar, more than just a fish egg
Traditionally, “caviar” refers only to eggs harvested from wild sturgeon from the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, and partially for this reason the delicacy may be perpetually associated with Russia.
Russia, along with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, does produce 90% of the world’s caviar. But the word “caviar” actually comes from the Persian word for egg.
Aficionados of these particular eggs will pay through the nose for even a taste, and the most expensive caviar can go for $1000 per ounce.
Caviar’s intense, briny taste may lead many first-timers to wonder just what makes it so uniquely prized, but those who love it promise it’s an acquired taste.
Plus, like so many rare and expensive foods, it has its own legendary side benefits: historically, it was used as a treatment for depression, and it’s also rumored to be a powerful aphrodisiac.
I came first
Of course, the history of the egg outside of its use by humans extends much further back into the past, granting the egg a decisive victory in the familiar “chicken vs. egg” dilemma.
After all, birds aren’t the only ones to lay eggs. Although they are very rare, dinosaur egg fossils are still occasionally discovered.
Chemical analysis of the shells, much more commonly found than whole eggs, show that they are in fact very similar to chicken eggshells, lending credence to the theory that modern-day birds are genetically similar to the extinct reptiles.
The first dinosaur egg was discovered in 1859 in southern France, and since then, others have been found across the globe, including in the western United states and Asia.
Far from an accessory to the domesticated birds we associate it with, the egg has a rich biological history of its own.
A Good Egg
The human race’s relationship to the egg extends much further than its all but indispensable role as a food.
For obvious reasons, eggs are one of the most common symbols of rebirth, and they are intimately associated with spring holidays in many different cultures.
One of the most familiar, the practice of dyeing eggs, is now associated completely with Easter celebrations, although it is in fact believed to be much older than the holiday itself, and eggs are an integral part of the celebration of Passover.
Christianity adopted and adapted many folk religious traditions as it became the dominant religion worldwide, and egg dyeing is believed to be a prime example of this phenomenon.
Ancient Persians are believed to have exchanged eggs as gifts around the spring equinox, a tradition that continues to this day in Iran, at Nowruz, the new year celebration, and in ancient Rome, an egg painted red was a traditional gift for the new year.
Red is one of the most popular colors for dyed eggs in many different traditions, and in a Christian context the color is often associated with the blood of Christ shed in the Easter story, especially in Orthodox Christianity.
The House of Fabergé
Some of the most elaborate and well-known decorated eggs were produced by the House of Fabergé, a jewelery company founded in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1842.
The company became known for its delicate, ultra-ornate designs for bejeweled Imperial “eggs” that were originally used as Easter gifts by the Russian royal family, whose designs were kept a closely guarded secret until the moment they were given.
Even in recent years it has produced designs that rival its original creations in opulence and lavishness; in early 2015, it created the Pearl Egg in cooperation with a Qatari pearl firm. The completed egg contains 139 pearls and 3,305 diamonds.
The World Egg
The egg’s associations with beginnings extend back practically to the earliest period of recorded human history, and figure heavily in international creation myths.
Hindu scriptures describe the beginning of the world as an emergence from a cosmic womb or egg floating in a void. The world is described as having been formed from the broken shell of this egg, with one half forming the sky and the other the earth.
In Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, and Chinese mythological traditions, among others, eggs feature prominently, and they can often be found at the heart of the story of the creation of the world as we know it.
The egg’s deep symbolic potential has also been recognized in art–Salvador Dalí was extremely interested in the egg as a symbol, almost to the point of obsession. His interest went so far that he decorated the roof of his house with huge white eggs.
Countless cultures have used eggs as a metaphor to help themselves understand the world around them up to its highest levels, and the trend continues even today.
The galactic egg
In 2006, a group of Italian scientists examined new data gathered by NASA from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which gathers data on fluctuations in cosmic radiation.
Based on their research, they hypothesized that, contrary to the prevailing assumption of a spherical universe, the universe itself might be–you guessed it–shaped like an egg.
The egg exists at a convenient nexus of necessity and imagination–so much of life on earth occurs because of the egg, human life included, and this reality is inescapable when the symbolic use of the egg is considered.
What may seem like a surprisingly interesting if mostly insignificant part of daily life on closer inspection proves to be very close to the roots of human consciousness and culture.
Next time you encounter an egg, you can take the time to consider it from all sides (if an egg can be said to have sides), in the knowledge that you’re holding a true repository of human experience.
A Moveable Feast: Ten Millenia of Food Globalization, by Kenneth F. Kiple
Eggs: A Global History, by Diane Toops