The Taste of Summer

The perfect meal, searching for seafood tamales, eating wild strawberries stoned, and more memories of heat and hunger

Deviled Eggs, Angelic Eating

Not too long ago, I attended a potluck buffet where, as is my habit, my contribution was a big platter of deviled eggs. I learned long ago that this humble staple of church covered-dish suppers, family reunions, and summer picnics is an infallible winner at any social gathering, be it ultrahip or down-home. Except for unfortunate die-hard egg-haters, my experience is that everyone loves a deviled egg or six.

Clearly, it isn't only that these piquant little mouthfuls taste incredibly good, or that they are inexpensive, pretty easy to prepare, and ultimately transportable, but somehow -- I don't know why, exactly -- they seem to be iconographic sustenance to an awful lot of people from a panoply of backgrounds. Deviled eggs just resonate, tuning in to memories of happy taste buds and pleasant occasions.

Even during that benighted period of the Eighties and Nineties, when fat was all bad and eggs were anathemas, I was always secretly amused to observe that even the most body-conscious among us gravitated to the plate of deviled eggs like flies to a honey pot. "Omigod, Buffy, eggs are just soooo bad for you, and I never eat them, but, well, maybe just one ..." Praises be that the food-fashion tide has turned, the egg has regained its nutritional reputation, and we can again indulge both our taste buds and our food memories with guilt-free aplomb.

This last party was no exception. One of the guests, with tears sparkling in her eyes and a deviled egg in each hand, recalled her infirm grandmother sitting in the kitchen, gesticulating imperiously with her cane as she directed whomever was making the eggs exactly how they must be done. Between bites, my friend waxed nostalgic about the heirloom egg plates she'd inherited from the grandmother, and how she planned to pass them on to her nieces, along with the sacred family recipe.

According to the Food Timeline (a wonderful online resource for food history), some variation of hard-cooked eggs, the whites halved to form little delivery vehicles for a yolk mixture blended with condiments, has been with us since ancient Rome. The culinary term "deviled" developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to denote something prepared with such hot seasonings as cayenne and mustard. (Deviled kidneys were a popular British dish, and don't forget the little cans of Underwood Deviled Ham. Just FYI, the Underwood red devil is reputed to be the oldest food logo still used in the U.S.)

Over the decades and in various regions of the country, the term deviled eggs has come to include what are technically stuffed eggs, whose yolks are mashed up with flavorings that are not necessarily spicy. Everyone has a special blend, but mayonnaise, vinegar, and pickle relish seem to be almost universal. My own family's Gulf Coast formula includes a touch of sugar and plenty of French's mustard (makes for a vibrantly yellow mixture) finished with a generous sprinkling of spicy red paprika on top (quite eye-catching in conjunction with the yellow filling and white yolks).

I confess to straying from tradition at times, successfully experimenting with such condiments as dill, cilantro, chives, yogurt, crème fraîche, and minced capers, and someone was telling me recently about eating deviled eggs perfumed with truffle oil (in New York, of course). I have also heard of deviled eggs sprinkled with caviar, and that sounds pretty good, too. Maybe on my birthday ...

Remember what I'm telling you the next time you're called upon to bring a dish to a social occasion. Just don't overcook the eggs (they get rubbery) and don't forget to keep them chilled. You will be continuing a fine American tradition, your friends will thank you for it, and you'll always bring home an empty plate. And if you don't get around to it this summer, Nov. 2 is National Deviled Egg Day.

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