“Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
George Santayana’s axiom has special meaning for one of the most nourishing items in a healthy diet, the humble egg.
Two weeks ago, the federal Food and Drug Administration recalled 380 million eggs that were linked to outbreaks of illness nationwide caused by salmonella, a bacteria that leads to food poisoning. This past week, the massive recall expanded to more than half a billion eggs.
During Easter week, 1989, public-health authorities in the United Kingdom warned the British public about dangerously high levels of salmonella bacteria in fresh farm eggs. Any egg boiled less than seven minutes might be considered dangerous!
My wife Liz and I were about to fly to the UK for Cal Poly’s wonderful London Quarter program.
Our lifelong friend, Kathy Tither-Stephenson, wrote us from London: “The whole issue of unsafe eggs is causing national psychological stress. Children aren’t allowed to dunk fingers of toast (called ‘soldiers’) in the runny yolk of their boiled eggs. That’s such a traditional food for small kids.”
The soft-boiled egg has almost a sacred place at the English breakfast table. But the boiled egg remains an English institution.
Humpty Dumpty never would have delighted children in quite the same way without the experience of their cracking open the morning eggs.
It’s done with a swift striking of the spoon to the top of the narrow part of the egg. Despite my many visits to England, I confess to never mastering the art.
Walter Bagehot, the 19th century’s preeminent authority on British political behavior, once summed up the English approach to political life by referring to the advice he gave a slightly clumsy nephew at the breakfast table.
The boy was having trouble breaking open his egg. Bagehot said: “Hit him harder, Bertie! He has no friends.”
Many English critics of Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister from 1979 to 1989, found the “friendless egg analogy” describes an epoch of insensitivity to the weakest and most defenseless people in British society.
Historically, the egg has held a special place in British society since the time of the Bronze Age “Beaker People” more than 5,000 years ago.
The egg was a symbol of fertility and the renewal of life, found repeatedly in early Bronze Age ornamentation. The Druids, the priestly class of the Celtic invaders who came to England more than 3,000 years ago, also venerated the egg.
The Romans and Greeks gave the egg its special place in Christian culture.
The tradition of the Easter egg is actually a pagan rite of spring that was accepted into Christian practice. And after the Christian Middle Ages, the boiled egg became a favorite meal for those whose lives might be imperiled.
The humble egg also became a part of the Jewish Passover meal or seder. Halves of hard-boiled eggs would be partially dipped in salt water to remind the celebrants of the tears of the Israelites as they left Egypt.
My wife celebrated seders with her Jewish relatives in Los Angeles throughout her growing-up years. Her favorite symbolic food at the Passover meal was the salty eggs. We still have them in our home every Passover.
By the 19th century, the child’s morning egg in an appropriate egg cup by Wedgewood, Spode or Doulton became a mark of distinction at the breakfast tables of the middle class.
The English responded to the “egg crisis” of 1989 by developing a salmonella vaccine for laying hens. That simple but decisive step virtually wiped out the health threat.
Our Food and Drug Administration created new egg safety rules that went into effect last month. The FDA declared that there was not enough evidence to conclude that vaccinating hens would prevent people from getting sick.
Learning from the past may be dependent on how you value what’s at stake. For the English, eggs are a part of life itself.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.