Visiting my relatives in California is always a pleasure. They’re a West Coast group and we’re Midwestern, so we can go decades without seeing each other. As we’ve aged, visits have been fewer and farther between.
Over easy is easier said than done.
For us to connect requires a flight to Las Vegas and a four-hour drive through Southern California, which, in contrast to the lush green foliage and raging humidity of Ohio, zips by in a blur of majestic mountains, infinite sands, and crystalline blue, cloudless sky.
After arriving on an Easter Sunday afternoon a few years back, I spent the rest of my day catching up with cousins I hadn’t seen since the early ‘80s. Luckily, age dimmed the memories of my big hair and their parachute pants. Unluckily, their mom--my Great-Aunt Margaret--had stacks of photo albums documenting every last, sordid fad.
Monday morning, I woke to the scent of frying pork. I jumped in the shower, threw on my clothes, and scurried downstairs, to discover my great-uncle microwaving ham’s delicious cousin, bacon.
“Smells delicious.” The shiny, light-pink scars on Uncle Don’s scalp from his January brain surgery caught my eye. “What’s for breakfast?”
“Whatever you make. Your aunt’s hip is giving her trouble today, so she’s putting you in charge of the kitchen.”
Shock stalled me. Left in charge of Aunt Margaret’s kitchen was uncharted territory. During the few month-long summer stays my siblings and I had enjoyed in years past, we weren’t allowed to get so much of a glass of water by ourselves. Women on Mom’s side of the family guarded their kitchens with meat mallets and whisks.
Being appointed to produce a meal was more than a privilege. It was a rite of passage.
“What would you two like?” I asked, twirling a spatula as a scepter, full of my own power. “I can make anything, you know.”
“Oh, eggs are fine,” he replied, his voice soft as he clicked two pieces of bread into the toaster. I flipped the burner on medium and dropped a spoonful of real butter into the pan. Lost in my suddenly adult ego, I barely heard him above the sizzling fat.
“Your aunt takes her eggs scrambled. I take mine over easy.” His age-speckled hands smeared soft, yellow butter on dark toast.
OVER. EASY? My heart stopped. Sizzling crescendoed. Eggs cooked any other way were a cinch. Light and fluffy scrambled, slightly slimy poached, hard-boiled with no green sulfurous ring around the yolk. Even slender-threaded, noodle-like slivers that fill a hearty pot of egg drop soup did not elude my culinary prowess.
But over easy? Those delicately flipped, perfectly timed weirdos of the breakfast food family laughed often in the face of my spatula.
Fortunately, Uncle Don was the consummate gentleman. He believed in removing his cap indoors, never shouting, and ladies first. This knowledge soothed me; knowing that he’d take Aunt Margaret her plate first gave me more time to plan my attack.
As I cracked, whipped, and flipped her eggs into a golden, fluffy pile, I strategized my upcoming performance much the way Michael Phelps envisioned his seven Olympic medal-winning swims before he plunged into the water.
My keys to victory? Lots of butter, low heat, and scrape deep.
I dumped Aunt Margaret’s eggs onto the brown pottery plate, spatula shaking in my hand. I battled the strongest urge to turn out the two best eggs of my life. As if everything depended on it. Stronger than the fear that Aunt Margaret would call Mom to announce that “the visit with Beth was delightful. We had a wonderful time, but that girl of yours can’t cook over easy eggs worth a darn. You need to teach her some kitchen skills before you send her back here for a visit again.”
I lowered the heat. The remaining bits of scrambled eggs browned, crackled and popped from the skillet surface as if jumpstarted from a miniature defibrillator. My plan of slicking the pan with a thick layer of butter that made Paula Deen’s recipes seem healthy evaporated.
Based on Uncle Don’s two recent heart attacks, I doubted his cardiologist would approve of my idea to serve over-easy eggs with a side of butter. I added a smidge to the pan and hoped for the best.
With the precision of a surgeon, I cracked one egg and gently slipped it into the limited buttery goodness. I contemplated running out back to Uncle Don’s workshop to see if I could sharpen the spatula to lower the friction on the yolk once upside down, but there was no time for last-second heroics.
I cracked the second egg and slid it in beside the first, their collective albumens mingling to solidify into a soft, white puddle before my eyes. From clear to white to crispy-edged in a matter of minutes, their transformation reminded me of the goodness of simple food from the earth.
A quick dash of salt and pepper while the edges turned crackly brown, and the decisive moment arrived.
Time to flip.
With more care than I ever took with my son as an infant, I shimmied the spatula under the now-joined eggs and tilted the pan to disturb the wobbly, bright yellow yolks as little as possible, flipped them sunny-side down and held my breath.
Nothing yellow squished out. Beth, 1 -- Eggs, 0.
Now for plating and the moment of truth: Was I a success or was I doomed to a lifetime of holiday meals sitting at the kid table? Were they over easy or hard fried? Waiting seemed an eternity with endless questions. Were they ready? Were they runny? Was there a white skin? Was the yolk cooked through? Would they stick? Would they be slimy?
I grabbed Uncle Don’s plate and steeled my emotions against the potential of failure in the transfer. There was no shame in scrambled, and no crying in egg frying, I told my heavy heart before I flipped my offering onto the plate.
That small action confirmed my true calling: I was the goddess of over easy eggs. A gorgeous, white-covered yolk speckled with black cracked pepper flakes stared up at me. The peachy-yellow smiled just beneath the thin white skin, awaiting a toast corner to release its over-easy, non-hard-yolk goodness.
Uncle Don buttered another slice of whole grain toast, oblivious to my success. After he finished the last piece, I handed him his plate.
“Order up, Uncle D.” He divided the four pieces between our two plates.
“Thank you. They look perfect.”
If he only knew. His compliment filled me with a strange sense of completion, more meaningful than my temporary over easy euphoria. I scrambled a few eggs for myself and joined my aunt and uncle for breakfast, our meal mingling with happy memories of the years that have brought us to this point.
As I closed the gate to their driveway before pulling on to the dirt road, Uncle Don waved goodbye from the sandy strip of driveway edging a California desert-sized plot of green grass.
Tempered by a day of reminiscing and family storytelling, the excitement of my breakfast success faded into a pleasant memory. I waved goodbye back at the only man to see me face my fear in a non-Teflon skillet and win.
Mom’s “hello” held the indefinable quality I’d come to recognize as an upcoming turning point in my life: Grandpa’s heart attack, Grandma’s car accident, Kelly’s unexplained blood clot. My lungs tightened as my mind reeled.
“What’s wrong?” My heart knew the answer before I finished the question. What I wanted to know was why, the question never answered.
“Uncle Don died. About an hour ago.” The pretense of false bravado lingered in her tone. “He fell while working in the yard and hit his head.”
I recalled his silvery surgery scars in the early morning sunlight.
“He hung on long enough for the boys to say goodbye.”
She continued rattling off details about organ donation, cremation, and obituaries, the kind of details that make the finality of death feel like a just another event to be crossed off the calendar of life. Over the drone of her voice, I heard Uncle Don’s last words to me like a whisper.
“They look perfect.”
He was the last person I’d hugged, the last person I’d kissed on his whiskery, age-slackened face. The last, and only, person to have my first perfect eggs over easy.
And I was the last person to have made him a meal on Earth. With Aunt Margaret’s limited mobility, he’d been the chef du jour, his dinner no doubt reheated Easter leftovers, a meal as simple as him.
As sure as that golden sun had risen slowly over the desert mountains, the reason for my over easy compulsion became crystal clear. My eggs had never been perfect before because they’d never had to be. In this first, last, and final contribution from the kid in the kitchen to the man who’d meant everything to his family, my eggs had become more than a part of breakfast--they were a symbol of a beautiful life lived.
Beth Morrow is an author, educator and a co-program director for Camp Hamwi, a week-long, residential camp for teens with diabetes. Reach her at Beth@BethMorrow.com.