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Sunday, April 15, 2012

All, Most, Many, Some

I have boiled eggs for breakfast.  I realize that this is an inauspicious beginning for an essay, but bear with me.  I peel the eggs, save the egg white and discard the yolk.  I used to give the yolk to my dog, when I had a dog.  This was an assuaging of an ancient guilt osmotically acquired from depression era parents, but today, sans dog, I just throw them away.  Since I have eaten egg whites every morning for many years, and the eggs have come from many sources, from the most chicken-like of chickens to the sad egg machines caged in foot-square solitary confinement, I have noticed that some eggs peel properly and some do not.

Skeptics may offer that I am inconsistent in boiling and finishing the eggs, but I can assure you that I am depressingly consistent.  The fact is that there are some eggs that peel and some that don’t.  In general, the wild ‘live it up’ chickens produce eggs that always peel and the ‘stay at home’ slave chickens produce eggs that must be chopped and scooped (I hope I am not being too graphic).  There is a range between these two extremes, and thus the essay title.

The scientifically minded reader will be wondering what makes one egg peel and another’s (paper thin) shell cling to the egg white in eternal partnership.

What makes the difference are the nutrients that the bird ingests and the physiology of the egg making process.  Eggs are not simply made in a tube with a bird wrapped around it, with every egg just a natural product of that functioning; the condition of the bird determines whether the egg will be fully formed or an egg-like thing devoid of certain qualities. When the shell membrane is improperly formed, the egg will not peel.

The exigencies of business have come to determine the physiology of the chicken egg.  It is an explicit decision made by the farmer (sic) as to how many eggs will peel when boiled.  The eggs of a healthy wild chicken all peel when properly boiled and finished. The eggs of an egg farm chicken that has some space, is given a little time each day in the exercise yard and a reasonably balanced diet produces eggs that mostly peel.  A caged chicken with a diet for an average healthy egg-layer, delivered by the numbers, produces many eggs that will peel.  And solitary confinement chickens feed exactly enough to keep them laying eggs with shells just thick enough not to break in the sorting machinery make eggs that will sometimes peel.

But peeling is not a disconnected quality of the egg.  Something is missing when eggs don’t peel.  I have to assume that the nutrient quality of a non-peeling egg is diminished.  And this observation must be generalizable to all manner of food products that are grown or collected especially in factory like operations.

It was, in our origins, a biological axiom that eating sufficient calories insured that all essential nutrients would be delivered in relative abundance; in what is an irony in the language only, today’s ‘essential’ nutrients are those that were so commonly a part of available foods that it was not ‘essential’ that the organism be able to manufacture them from scratch.  The most basic biological default position is to have pathways to make every molecule that the organism requires, that would ultimately be everything but  CO2, H2O and minerals, however, as certain molecules became commonplace, species began to lose as redundant the pathways that made them.

As economic motives, rather than biological motives, have come to be a vital determinant of the nutritional content of our foods, rather than traditional biological imperatives, we have ‘progressed’ from all, to most, to much, to some of our food being fully nutrient and wholesome.  I am reminded of this every time I peel a reluctant egg.

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