What came first, the soft-boiled egg or the egg cup?

I have a confession to make. I’m a pocillivist. I’ve been engaging in the practice for nearly four decades and I’m not about to stop.  Oh, there are worse things but it’s not that bad. There’s not a 12-step program for it or anything, and if there were I wouldn’t need to join one. But I just learned that there’s a word for my interest in soft-boiled egg cups and I wanted to use it. The word comes from the Latin pocillum ovi, meaning a small cup for an egg. The earliest use of egg cups, owing to their Latin moniker, was traced back to at least 79 A.D as they were found in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum after Mt. Vesuvius exploded and covered the towns in deep layers of hot volcanic ash. My thoughts turned to egg cups this morning when I viewed pictures on Instagram of the delicately-hued and speckled eggs that a former coworker’s hens lay. “Those would look so hot in just the right egg cup,” I thought.

I’ve been interested in egg cups ever since I first had soft-boiled eggs served up to me as a 16-year old in an intricately designed antique sterling silver egg cup, accompanied by its own special knife, in Paris.  Never mind that I’d never seen one before in my life, nor had I ever eaten a soft boiled egg, I was pretty intrigued that there was a special cup, with nearly two millennia of history, just for the lowly egg. It gave new meaning to the lyrics of the WW1-era song “How Ya Gonna Keep Em Down On The Farm Once They’ve Seen Paree”. Both the type of boiled egg and the small vessel it rested in was a revelation to me. They can be had for a cheap price in antique stores, especially in Europe, and I’ve brought several home with me on my travels to use at home or give as gifts. The one featured in this post I brought home from Prague in the Czech Republic. You can even buy new ones pretty inexpensively on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Egg-Cups-Boiled-Eggs/s?k=Egg+Cups+for+Boiled+Eggs

The egg cup gained new post-Roman interest in Elizabethan England, and, too, in 17th- and 18th-century France. There are accounts that Louis XVI would impress dinner guests at Versailles by “beheading” an egg in a cup with one clean swashbuckling swoop of his knife. Given Louis’ fate at the guillotine, the irony there is rich. Later on in the early part of the 1900s, the dish was popularized in America by the art-deco movement, then made available to the everyday public through mass production. The egg cup is certainly not a fancy-schmancy object today, but centuries of opulence rattle within every soft boiled egg that is cracked open in one.

I know an awful lot of people are curiously intimidated by making hard-boiled eggs so I can imagine what’s going though your mind when you read the words soft-boiled egg. What makes soft-boiled eggs so much better than their hard-boiled counterparts? Well, first is the fact that they take less time. Granted, boiled eggs aren’t exactly a time-intensive undertaking, but when you’re hungry a few minutes can make a difference, right? And, you can even make them in an Instant Pot (see below) Next, they just taste so much better. The yolk is bright and rich (not pale, rubbery and smellier than a sulfur pit) and the velvety texture is amazing. The soft creaminess of the soft yolk is perfect on its own with a small dash of salt, with a small spoon of caviar for a special treat, or with a small splash of hot sauce (my preferred way). Finally, you guessed it…you can serve them up in their own special cups instead of banging it like a neanderthal on your plate to crack the shell, then pawing at the shell that is stuck to the egg  (because you overcooked it!) while you cuss at it like a sailor.

A word about the safety aspect of eating soft-boiled eggs. Eating soft-boiled eggs is no more dangerous than eating a poached or over-easy egg. If you have an illness or condition that would make it problematic to consume eggs that aren’t fully cooked, then avoid soft-boiled eggs. But a soft-boiled egg is no different from a poached egg, it’s just served in a different way. Below are links to recipes for soft boiled eggs made on the stove top, and another for how to make them in the Instant Pot. Now, the next thing on my list is to message my friend Elizabeth to see if I can get my hands on some of those eggs!

How to make soft-boiled eggs on the stove: https://www.foodnetwork.com/how-to/packages/food-network-essentials/make-soft-boiled-eggs

How to make soft-boiled eggs in the Instant Pot:https://recipes.instantpot.com/recipe/soft-boiled-eggs/

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