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Wednesday 23 January 2013

Egg Money


Old Woman Frying Eggs: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), 1618, oil on canvas, 101 x 120 cm (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

Eggs were widely eaten. Doctors repeated the old precepts of the Salerno School -- let them be eaten fresh and not overcooked: Si sumas ovum, molle sit atque novum. And there were numerous recipes for keeping eggs fresh. Their market price is a valuable indicator: eggs were a cheap commodity, and their price accurately followed the fluctuations of the economic situation. A statistician can reconstruct the movement of the cost of living in the sixteenth century from a few eggs sold in Florence. Their price alone is a valid measure of the standard of living or the value of money in any given town in any given country. At one time in seventeenth-century Egypt, 'one had the choice of thirty eggs, two pigeons or one fowl for a sou'; on the road from Magenta to Brusa (1694) 'provisions are not dear: seven eggs can be bought for one para (one sou), a fowl for ten, a good winter melon for two, and as much bread as you can eat in a day for the same price'. In February 1697 the same traveller, this time near Acapulco in New Spain, noted 'The innkeeper made me pay a price of eight (thirty-two sous) for a fowl, and eggs were one sou each.' Eggs were an everyday food for Europeans.  Montaigne's surprise in the German inns was therefore understandable: they never served eggs there, he wrote, 'except hard-boiled cut into quarters in salads'. Montesquieu, leaving Naples and returning to Rome (1729), was astonished 'that in this ancient Latium the traveller finds neither a chicken nor a young pigeon, nor often an egg'.

But in Europe these were exceptions and not the rule that applied to the vegetarian Far East, where China, Japan and India never made use of this rich and commonplace item of diet. Eggs were very rare there and formed no part of ordinary people's fare. The famous Chinese ducks' eggs, preserved in pickling brine for thirty days, were a delicacy of the rich.

Fernand Braudel: from The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible (Les Structures du quotidien: le possible et l'impossible), 1979, Volume 1 of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th century (Civilisation materielle économie et capitalisme); translated from the French by Sn Reynolds, 1982



Breakfast: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), c. 1618. oil on canvas, 109 x 102 cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

Peasants at the Table (El Almuerzo): Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), c. 1620. oil on canvas, 96 x 112 cm (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)

Kitchen Scene with the Supper in Emmaus: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), c. 1618. oil on canvas, 55 x 118 cm (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)


Nin Andrews said...

I took care of the chickens and gathered the eggs as a girl, and there were endless egg discussions. Were they bad or good for you, and were they to be in the fridge or on the counter. We kept them on the counter. In an unairconditioned house. Salmonella be damned. And what about the fertile eggs that guests refused to eat? Always a cause of family laughter. Now, the whole business is into some sci-fi creepy zone, the way they make chickens lay them 24-7 year round and do all kinds of horrible things to chicks and chickens, which I prefer not to mention right now. And I will add, that despite what folks think of birds, being bird-brained and all, they are affectionate. Like maybe everything else, they do like to be adored.

Mose23 said...

The old woman's hands, the white spreading through the oil, the young boy shrunk a little into himself; this is a wonderful painting, a perfect composition.

Thank you for the Braudel, TC. It's always easy in the face of beauty like this to forget the economic structures that inform such cultural productions.

I guess factory farming would have to figure for us now. Could the old woman hold such a product in her hands with the same elegance?

TC said...

Structures of Everyday Life, the first volume in Braudel's magisterial history of Civilization & Capitalism in the 15th-18th centuries, treats the preindustrial modern world in exacting close detail, showing how it was people who made the economies function. Not the independent "big" events, wars or revolutions, grand political or diplomatic upheavals, the ruptures and discontinuities, but food, drink, fashions and social mores -- the stuff of quotidian existence -- are shown to be decisive, constructive of both mental and environmental structures; which in turn, in this view, become the true stuff of history. It is the long haul -- the longue durée, as Braudel called it -- that engages interest. Continuities, stages of inertia, the slow and unremarkable effects upon human behaviours and attitudes of space, climate and technology -- not the doings of the dwarfed individual human players -- are his subject. He does not build theoretical constructs and avoids placing persons with names, aristocrats, members of the dominant (literate, wealthy) classes in the role of architects of the structures and infrastructures, the patterns of life that compose history. Instead it is the marginal people, slaves, serfs, peasants, the urban poor who become the true material of civilization, in the Braudel long-view. For these people he shows a compassion other great historians often do not.

Here's a useful short review of The Structures of Everyday Life.

As to the worried issue of factory farming...

Peter Singer, in his classic Animal Liberation (1975) : "Replace factory eggs with free range eggs if you can get them; otherwise avoid eggs."

A's father, a strict vegetarian, made exceptions ("rather ruefully") for eggs and certain dairy products, on grounds of practicality.

These are problematic questions. A, raised in NZ, has for most of her life not eaten meat. I myself (raised in the slaughterhouse capital of the universe) went off meat not long after we two got together. That's going on a half century now. Following her father's ethic, she still consumes eggs and milk from cows. I do neither of those things. A bit of soy milk, but from soybeans not genetically modified. Not that I haven't always cultivated my own private bad habits.

The Singer book is a catalogue of horrors. Images of veal calves raised in boxes, so that they are unable to move -- thus rendering the meat more tender. And the factory farm photos -- and the animal experiments -- shocking, even when you have already guessed what's coming.

A few miles from here, in our time, a lovely grove of trees was destroyed to construct an enormous "hardened" animal experiment facility.

Leonardo da Vinci was a convert to vegetarianism. He was aggrieved by the sufferings of animals. So would be any person worthy of the epithet "humane".

It is to be supposed that Velåzquez ate something or other, but he can't yet have had the chance to be eating so very much of it by the time he executed these astounding paintings of "everyday life" -- all those shown here made by the time he had reached the age of twenty.

Anonymous said...

when I am doubtful if they are fresh I put them into water to watch how deep they can go...

Nora said...

I'm a nearly lifelong vegetarian, and have gone back and forth on whether or not to eat eggs. Most recently, I've taken to getting them as an occasional treat from the farmer's market. I've met humans and animals in sacrifices), that's probably an argument against their being vegetarian. Somehow.

TC said...


You have just been appointed the Scientific Advisor to this blog. That experiment is wonderfully practical.

It puts me in mind of a horrible "test for witches" applied by the Puritans in the 17th c. If a person was suspected of being a witch (neighbour gossip of course), that person was immersed in water. If the person sank, that was taken as proof the person was a witch.

Humans -- so very lovely.


Alas that tempting link sank to the bottom like a witch attached to a bad egg.

Something tells me, though, that a bad egg or two may have been involved in there somewhere -- ?

Nora said...

I could go back and try to reconstruct my original comment, but I kind of like how it turned out.

TC said...

Liking how things turned out is the ultimate form of benign witchcraft, I reckon.