Hindsight is a funny thing, loaded with irony and regret and a kind of impossible nostalgia, a quality that should, by definition, require more than a few months to accumulate meaning. Think about politics, of course. Think about eggs. Eggs? Well, yes, because we’re talking about Lucky Peach, the recently-shuttered food magazine, and “All About Eggs,” the fourth and final cookbook by the editors of that publication, which came out in April.
So you read this last Lucky Peach cookbook, written by Rachel Khong with more than 50 ancillary contributors, in a kind of vertigo, flipping the pages — and sometimes the actual eggs — with a heady mixture of hunger, amusement and sadness. It is almost impossible not to find a double meaning spilled through the pages like curry sauce. This, of course, has always been part of the fun of Lucky Peach, a publication that was known for its mash-up assembly of excellent writing about food and culture, science and irreverence.
The conceit of this cookbook is that it’s a primer about eggs, that most basic of ingredients, the dish that many of us first learn to cook — “everything we know about the world’s most important food,” according to the subtitle. And the book delivers on much of that, providing 88 recipes and many stories, tips and anecdotes culled from a multicultural and multinational array of great chefs, contemporary food writers, pastry chefs, food scientists, television personalities, physicists, novelists and more.
“And so we come — almost! — to the end. Eggs existed before you and me, and eggs will outlive us all. This thought is either comforting or terrifying, depending on the sort of day you’re having,” writes Khong in the preface to the eighth and final chapter of the book: Immortal Eggs. This is both the tone and content that she set in the first page (“This is a book about eggs. But more than that, it’s a book about mankind — it’s a book about us all.”) and has continued throughout, as have her fellow writers. (It should come as no surprise that Khong, who was a contributing editor and worked at Lucky Peach since its start in 2011, is also a San Francisco-based novelist: Her first novel comes out in July.)
That said, “All About Eggs” can read like a cacophony at times, and it’s sometimes hard to figure out which voice is which, and whose recipe is exactly whose. The photographs (which along with the playful illustrations are by Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford), on black background and oddly stark, are cordoned off into one yellow-edged section midway through the book. This is also where you’ll find the index, which is separate from the list of contributors, which is itself at the end of the book. All this means that you end up toggling back and forth a lot, trying to match the bits of prose with their authors.
It should also be said that some of the recipes in the book presuppose a certain expertise. Daniel Boulud’s famous “perfect” omelette farcie, for example, is both daunting on the page and in execution, and I found myself watching the legendary French chef demo the dish on YouTube before I got it right. (Even if you’ve already mastered the dish, I recommend doing this.) And the Hong Kong-style egg tart recipe from San Francisco restaurant Yank Sing required a few test runs in our Test Kitchen to get the mechanics of homemade puff pastry just right. Other recipes worked perfectly on the first go-around. This kind of inconsistency can be comforting (leave the omelet to the experts and flip to the bit about egg crystals on Mauna Loa Mars) or terrifying, depending on the sort of day you’re having.
But this also makes Khong’s original point, which is that eggs are harder than they look; there is a reason that making an omelet is the cook’s traditional, oft-cited rite of passage.
Quite aside from being a useful cookbook, it’s an utterly marvelous, often hilarious read. Where else can you find a few pages from Harold McGee next to a recipe for Arzak eggs, a literary anecdote about an egg collector (“Claude lived alone, a melamine surrounded by his arias”) near a bit about what to name your chicken (Barbara, or maybe Eldrida) and something called Chickens of Portlandia? Writing about a dish called Eggs Kejriwal, yet another in the procession of gifted writers notes that one will need “a processed white cheese that melts like rubber and tastes like nostalgia.” Exactly. This is a cook’s cookbook, a writer’s cookbook, a reader’s book. RIP LP.
Cookbook of the Week: “All About Eggs,” by Rachel Khong and the editors of Lucky Peach (Clarkson Potter, $26)