the simple happiness of poached eggs on toast


poached eggs on toast, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Sometimes the simplest foods can just sigh in my mouth.

Yesterday, about 1 pm, I was hungry. Now, this isn’t unusual. These days, I always have that feeling of food just waiting to be eaten. But I’ve learned not to pay attention to it until it gnaws at me, physically. Until my stomach shouts, “Hey! Stop writing and give us some food!” Well okay. And of course, then I’m happy, gazing into the refrigerator, looking at my cookbooks, wondering what I should make next. Every meal excites me now. I don’t eat anything without choosing it. And that makes all the difference in the world.

But yesterday, I knew exactly what I wanted. After all, it was the end of the month, so time for EoMEoTE. The lovely Jeanne, at Cook Sister!Cook Sister!, sponsors this blog competition (or really, just a gathering) every month, encouraging people to do something with eggs and a carbohydrate. Maybe later I’ll grow more daring, but yesterday, I just wanted poached eggs on toast.

When I was first diagnosed with celiac, I had endured nearly two months of not once experiencing the physical feeling of hunger. For all that time, I could not eat more than a quarter-cup of food at a time. If I did, I felt enormously full, as though I had just eaten Thanksgiving dinner—on five spoonfuls of baby food. Oh god, it was awful.

But at the end of the first week of eating gluten-free, after the pain in my stomach disappeared (day one), and the brain fog lifted (day three), and my energy started to rise (day five), I was walking through the hallways of my school and thought, “What is that weird feeling? Why do I feel light-headed? And why is my stomach so empty?” And then it hit me. I was hungry. For the first time in two months, I was actually hungry. I broke into grateful tears.

The pain, the lethargy, the brain fog, the needing to sleep 18 hours a day—it had all been bad. But strangely, what bothered me most is that I had no feeling of hunger. Imagine having no hunger.

So I love being hungry all the time these days.

And yesterday, I remembered this again, and blessed the chance to have some poached eggs on toast.

Great cooking, for me, comes from the freshest, best ingredients, the love of the process, and knowing how to do the simple things well. And it wasn’t until this year that I learned how to make great poached eggs.

It’s so simple. I filled my trusty sautee pan with water, a giant splash of rice wine vinegar, and a healthy pinch of my favorite sea salt. (I swear, my sautee pan could tell great stories by now. I’ve cooked so many wonderful meals in that Calphalon.) I waited for it boil. And with the clear-glass lid, I can peer in and watch the little bubbles start to roil and rumble. Do you remember being a kid, and wanting to understand how everything works? I’m still like that, really. I used to love listening to the washing machine spin, the refrigerator whine in its coils, and the television buzz out into that little dot after I turned it off. I’m enough of a researcher that I could explain how it all works. But I still don’t really understand. Even the fact that water comes to a boil still delights me, really.

Then, I needed eggs. Luckily, I have a steady supply from my brother and sister-in-law, on Vashon Island. They have a lovely home, on five acres of land. I never tire of going there, particularly to see my darling nephew. And when I leave, I have a dozen eggs in my hands. Why? Well, there were, at last count, 18 chickens roaming around the grass surrounding their house. Dana is a veterinarian, and she loves animals. And they have animals. There’s a hen house, which my brother built, orange, with a painting of Ed Norton on the side. (Don’t ask.) And in it, around it, clucking and squawking, scramble dozens of chickens of all varieties. Andy and Dana started with four, when they still lived in Seattle, some of whom are still left. (And strangely, they were all named after foods from New Orleans. I think only Beignet is still with us. That’s the only reference I can make to the horrors there right now. Everything else I’m writing feels ridiculous in comparison. So I’ll stop. But I’m thinking about it all the time.) And then they kept getting new ones in the mail. At one point, in the spring, there always seemed to be baby chicks peeping in the bathtub, under heat lights in a box. Noisy, boisterous, a little smelly—yes. But pretty damned adorable. These days, however, they’re all grown up and doing their little dance in the grass.

And then there are the roosters.

At the end of July, Andy and Dana celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. To celebrate, they invited all of us who had been at the wedding to come over for a picnic and camping party. Dozens of people milled around with the chickens in the grass during the afternoon and evening. By the time night fell, only a dozen of us remained to camp in the pasture land that’s intended for goats soon. My nephew, Elliott, was beside himself with excitement. He couldn’t sleep, no matter how late it was. After spending the afternoon running around with other children his age, plus seeing his parents, his grandparents, and his aunt there, all at once (plus, Dana’s brother Ryan brought him a skateboard without wheels to “ride” down a pile of dried grass, a two-year-old’s greatest dream), he just couldn’t sleep for the excitement. We all sat around an imaginary campfire—a pile of cinderblocks with three citronella candles lapping at the darkness—and talked. And Elliott keep looking up from his mom’s lap and saying, “I’s camping, Shauna! Eiyot is camping!” Yes, little guy. It was adorable.

What wasn’t so adorable was early the next morning. I rarely sleep that well in a tent. Does anyone? The ground bumped under me, the air mattress sagged, the rain dripped through the mesh lining onto my legs, and raccoons scratched in the grass behind my head. I had barely slept anyway. (Also, I had forgotten a flashlight, so I couldn’t even read the copy of The New Yorker I had brought with me. I know, I’m ridiculous.) But at 4:45 in the morning, I was awake, for good. Here’s what I heard: Cronk-croak-cock-a-doodle-doooooh. THUMP!

Over and over and over again.

Why the thump? Well, Andy had assured all of huddled around the citronella candle the night before that the roosters wouldn’t crow in the morning. “I read an old farmer’s tip, online. If you put them into a small space, with a low ceiling, they can’t stretch their necks all the way up, and thus they can’t crow.” So Andy and Dana had confined all the roosters into the little basement space of the hen house, and shut them in for the night. So, what I heard, early in the morning, was all nine of them, crowing and crawing, then banging the tops of their heads on the ceiling. It didn’t stop them. It just made them noisier. And as much as I love pratfalls, this wasn’t making me laugh. Oh, and on top of it all, the crowing set off all the other roosters in the neighborhood, who could crow freely. At 5:15, I gave up, unzipped my tent, and made my way, fuzzily, inside the house, where I heated up a cup of coffee, left in the pot the day before, in the microwave. Not the best way to start the morning.

Yesterday, as I slipped two eggs into the boiling water I had just turned off, I remembered this again, and started laughing. As long as I get a story out of it, anything is worth it.

I let the eggs cook in the heat of the water, lid on, heat off, for four and a half minutes. I like my poached eggs a little hard, so if you like it runny, try a little less time. And then, when the timer beeped, I pulled them out of the water with the slotted spoon, shook off the excess water, and piled them onto a toasted piece of raisin-pecan bread (gluten-free, of course). And then I dotted them with the leftovers of the spinach/yellow/tomato/goat cheese/shallot vinaigrette salad from the night before.

By then, my stomach was singing for its supper. And I was happy to oblige. I left the table satisfied. Like I said, it doesn’t take much. A story, lots of laughter, a clear day to cook, writing stretched out before me, and well-cooked eggs in my stomach. And I’m done.