“Eggs are the ultimate shapeshifter,” says Lizzie Stark, author of the new essay collection, “Egg: A Dozen Ovatures.” Their versatility cannot be understated, both in the kitchen and outside of it. An essential part of many culinary traditions, they are also used liberally in various origin myths and are a fundamental tool in medical research and vaccine development. Eggs provide a convenient metaphor for life; new beginnings and fragility that make them a common trope in art and literature.
Stark sees the ubiquity of eggs as one of their superpowers. “I found that idea kind of exciting,” she says, “and as I was writing the book, I thought about how I could embody that through my writing by finding unexpected stories.” Stark’s 12 essays cover an impressive amount of ground and successfully highlight the surprising relationships between different human cultures and eggs.
Based in Massachusetts, Stark has made a name for herself writing immersive, investigative nonfiction that blends biography, research, and hands-on participation. Her first book, “Leaving Mundania,” involved three years of exploring the live-action role-playing community, and her second, “Pandora’s DNA,” was a forthright look at the history of the BRCA gene, using her own family as an example. As a carrier of the gene, Stark elected to have her ovaries removed at the age of 39 while she was writing “Egg.”
“It didn’t escape me that I chose to write a book about eggs when I was going through the process of having mine removed,” she says. “You don’t have to be Freud to see the connection there.” In one of the later essays, she writes, “Through the absence of my own eggs, I’ve come to understand them better and perhaps to love them even more.” These personal touches help elevate “Egg” into something more than just a collection of trivia.
There’s more to the humble egg than meets the eye, and, for Stark and her readers, this otherwise unassuming ovoid becomes an entrée into worlds both obscure and confounding. Throughout the book, eggs transcend their status as a source of life or nutrition, and become a vehicle for cutthroat capitalism, artistic expression and rapacious obsession.
From the inner workings of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which busts up rings of inventive, yet pitiably pathetic kleptomaniacal poachers in the UK to the Clowns International Egg Registry, which holds eggs bearing the unique makeup designs of prominent clowning performers throughout history on their shells, Stark is adept at finding eggs in weird places and providing a thorough and respectful account of the parties involved. Her profiles of Egg Registry artist Debbie Smith and RSPB detective Mark Thomas are informative and eye-opening. Every story is a window into a little niche that makes you marvel at how fascinating our world really is.
Stark says she had no shortage of compelling material to work with. “One of the big challenges of this book was cutting down the information,” says Stark. “Once you start looking into it, there are an astonishing array of egg stories. They are truly everywhere, and given how many wild stories I found, I’m surprised we aren’t talking about them more.”
Though each of the book’s essays has a singular, unifying theme, Stark can’t help but let them wander when necessary, chasing tangents or peppering in little bits of disconnected knowledge when the opportunity presents itself. “This is a typical story featuring eggs,” writes Stark. “We start with one thing, but end up with quite another.”
For Stark, eggs are first and foremost a reminder of home—her earliest egg memories involve learning how to cook them with her father. “It’s hard for me to talk about eggs without talking about my dad,” says Stark. “Eggs are really the origin point for my relationship with him.” While writing the book, Stark and her father spent hours in the kitchen, experimenting with different recipes while pontificating on what drives their pursuit of the perfect egg. “My interest in omelets grew because they are hard to make correctly,” her father told her. “If I could make them right every time, I’d probably be less interested in them.”
In one essay, we see Stark and her mother experimenting with the Ukrainian decorative art of pysanky, an old folk tradition almost eliminated during the Soviet era. “My mother is always up for some cute, decorative stuff,” says Stark. Their “clumsy attempts” don’t turn out as expected, but Stark found comfort in the process. “It’s my hope that people are inspired to get into their kitchens or their art studios,” says Stark. “I hope it sparks some fun and delight. I want people to have their own little episode of egg-based glee in these dark times.”
While the book’s cavalcade of fun facts and weird anecdotes is both enlightening and entertaining, where “Egg” really succeeds is in reminding us that even the simplest, most mundane objects may contain multitudes. We just have to be willing to slow down and look closely.