“At Random” column for March 31, 2013

Holiday eggs date back many years

BY DANNY HEITMAN

For this Easter, I decided to tint a few eggs the way my late Aunt Clara once did — by steeping them in red onion skins instead of commercial dye. Aunt Clara learned the technique on a Depression-era farm, where store-bought egg dye wasn’t handy. She was still coloring Easter eggs with onion skins by the time I came along.

As a child, I regarded Aunt Clara’s onion-dyed eggs as a homely expedient, but over time, my affection for her method grew. The color produced by an egg dyed with red onion skins is sublimely understated — and not easily described. It’s equal parts maroon and crimson, with an undertone of LSU purple and a hint of brown. Comb the catalogs of high fashion and interior design, and you won’t find a color this rich or subtle. Aunt Clara’s been gone many years now, so I hadn’t seen an egg dyed in red onion skins for a long time. But a few weeks ago, while thumbing through “Chickens,” Janet Lembke’s new book on poultry, I found a clutch of onion-dyed Easter eggs greeting me from the page.

Lembke doesn’t fret about the old question of whether the chicken or the egg came first, but she reasonably assumes that writing about one involves writing about the other. Her book about these domestic birds features a chapter about the history and lore of eggs, including their role in Easter.

Reading “Chickens” reminded me why I like Lembke so much.

An expert researcher, a clever translator of Greek and Latin classics and a perceptive enthusiast of nature, Lembke has a formidable pedigree, but her books are never stuffy. In previous works, such as “Shake Them ’Simmons Down,” her book about trees, and “Despicable Species,” her survey of plants and animals widely regarded as pests, Lembke mixed erudition with good humor, even throwing in a few recipes. I loved her suggestion for dealing with problem squirrels, which involved serving them in Brunswick stew.

In “Chickens,” as in her other books, Lembke consults antiquity as casually as a phone book, reminding us that the ancient past still keeps an address not far from where we now live. She notes, for example, that egg decorating draws on traditions even older than Easter.

“Painting eggs certainly predates Christianity,” she tells readers. “Zoroastrian new year celebrations using decorated eggs date back 2,500 years. And for millennia, the Jewish Passover Seder has featured hard-cooked eggs.”

For Christians, Lembke adds, “eggs were long a forbidden food during Lent; the dawning of Easter Day meant indulgence at last.”

Lembke also touches on the holiday practice of “egg fighting,” where contestants bump one hard-boiled egg against another until “the winner is the person who holds the last uncracked egg.” She mentions a niece of Armenian heritage who counts this pastime as a cultural treasure, although Lembke does not, alas, refer to the Cajuns who also like to knock — or “pacque” – eggs each Easter.

I bet the Cajuns could give the Armenians a run for their money.