“Do you like eggs?”
She laughed. She looked at me, so I laughed too.
Wolfe scowled. “Confound it, are eggs comical? Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?”
“Yes, of course.”
“To use Mr. Goodwin’s favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don’t. I’ll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we’ll see. Tell me forty minutes before you’re ready.”
Her eyes widened. “Forty minutes?”
“Yes. I knew you didn’t know.”
—The Mother Hunt, by Rex Stout
I grew up in New Delhi, India, and Christmas for my family was always a futile exercise in approximating an American-ness we rarely felt; everything about the way we celebrated the day smacked of approximation, a failure to remake in our own experience an image plucked from holiday greeting cards. My father would go out and get a tree every year, but it was unlike any you would associate with Christmas pine; even the pictures we have lack the ratty inadequacy of the Christmas bush I have in my mind.
Our presents, too, served to illustrate how alien we were from our culture; we loved receiving gifts, sure, particularly since many of them had been bought on our family’s last trip to the States, hoarded away, safe in that uniquely sturdy packaging that was the telltale sign of the Global North. These were products of American provenance, and they were evidence that we were in fact, sometimes, maybe every other summer, Americans for a little while. And yet, if a certain toy had a replaceable part, or, say, a present was refillable, we were immediately reminded of our distance from our putative home. We couldn’t go to the store to get that part, and mail order was prohibitively expensive—I remember very well my disappointment upon seeing a Pez dispenser in my stocking when I was eight or nine.
That same dynamic worked with respect to our food. Every year, our Christmas breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, and a virgin Mary, made with some Bloody Mary cocktail mix, specifically brought home for the occasion from the most recent trip abroad. But the bacon available to us wasn’t the belly bacon available here in the US; it was loin bacon, or Canadian bacon, and, to boot, it was bad. But these days, I remember those breakfasts fondly, and it’s mostly because of those scrambled eggs. The recipe was taken from The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, which features dishes that appear in Rex Stout’s long line of Nero Wolfe detective novels. (For those who are unfamiliar, Nero Wolfe is both a genius detective and an obese gourmand; he never leaves his home to work on mysteries, sending out his factotum, Archie Goodwin, to sleuth in his stead.) Nero Wolfe, as the epigraph above denotes, refuses to eat scrambled eggs that take fewer than 40 minutes to prepare.
The recipe essentially calls for suspending a cup of cream in a half-dozen eggs. But it wasn’t ‘the richness that was the allure for us as kids. What was so special was the process, the ritual; my father would cobble together a janky double-boiler, and then spend 40 minutes in a state of heightened tension, trying to constantly stir the custard even as he took care of the mocktail mixing and the heating of our terrible ham. Invariably, he’d overcook the eggs, because he didn’t actually like the intended consistency; the final curds would be a little weepy, but nevertheless still rich. But the coup de grâce was the butter and vinegar sauce that the eggs are meant to be served with. Wolfe’s recipe calls for clarified butter and tarragon vinegar; we had ghee on hand, of course, but for some reason my father just used melted butter and red wine vinegar. And yet there was something so decadent, so luxurious, about that sauce on what were soft but otherwise unremarkable eggs, something that spoke of not just the United States, but also of a kind of uptown, brownstone elegance that was uniquely American. It made, as if by magic, our ratty bush into a true Christmas tree, our New Delhi Christmas celebration a little less expat.
Nowadays, ironically enough, my wife and I eat dosas and country ham for Christmas breakfast. The combination is more complementary than it may seem; each has a fermented tang that complements the other, and a red eye gravy spiked with brown sugar offers the illusion of balance to the meal. We arrived at this combination through a happenstance, mostly; we used to get South Indian for lunch before going to my family’s Christmas dinner in Connecticut, and one year I had some Benton’s country ham in the fridge and decided to cook that up with dosas made from a (very serviceable) prepared dosa batter I buy at Kalustyan’s; this is now a household Christmas tradition, two years strong. But I believe this year I’ll add in some scrambled eggs, too.
Not the Nero Wolfe/French-fancified version, though. I’ll go the soft-scrambled route, instead. I’ll mix up a couple of eggs each for me and my wife, add in a bit of cream, some butter, a little salt, and then I’ll pour it all in a cold nonstick pan. I’ll stir the mixture frequently as it slowly warms and transforms into small, soft curds. It won’t take forty minutes—more like five, really—but the consistency will be pretty similar to the eggs I grew up eating on those distant, Indian Christmas mornings. And, of course, to top them off, I’ll melt a tablespoon of butter in the same pan and, just when it starts to foam, swirl in a dash or two of red wine vinegar, just for a small, nostalgic taste of home.