Thursday, March 12, 2009

Early World Eggs

Question: What do you get when you cross a microwave oven, a boiled egg, and the Early World restaurant in Los Angeles in the early 1980s? Answer: A protein-rich breakfast bomb, as my mother discovered one morning, sitting in our favorite booth (the last in a row along the right-hand side, before you reached the counter area of this old-school coffee shop; the upholstery was brown, and the table bolted to the wall was some grainy wood veneer, I'm pretty sure). When we lived in L.A., we would frequently have breakfast at Early World, on San Vicente Boulevard in the neighborhood of Brentwood. Turns out you can still find Early World, at least online, and even see their menu in its hopelessly outdated font. According to some reviews, the place is expensive (considering the type of restaurant), but I'm pretty sure it wasn't costly then. It was an average coffee shop. Average in its looks, average-to-good food (breakfast being quite good), average and friendly service. It was nothing special, which is precisely what made it special—at least to the regulars. The regulars, it should be said, did include a fair number of celebrities, but it was not a see-and-be-seen place; on the contrary, it was where you'd go when you wanted to avoid being seen, when you wanted to be just an average customer having a completely satisfying yet unremarkable meal. And our meals were uneventful, other than the fact that, in retrospect, they stand out collectively as a ritual of family time spent together in a cozy, pleasant way . . . and all except for that one violent morning, when my mom ordered the exploding egg. These days, it probably wouldn't happen; we've learned what does and doesn't go in a microwave by now. But back then, microwaves were not ubiquitous, and who knew how long Early World had theirs, or, even if it had been in commercial use at the restaurant for some time, who's to say whether the person responsible for operating it on that day would have been familiar with this type of oven and its idiosyncrasies. To our family, microwaves were still "newfangled," and certainly we did not know how to cook with them. I don't think we had one until a few years later, and even when we did have them in our various kitchens, it took a long time before any of us actually used it for anything other than a couple of timid operations. Maybe heating a cup of soup, a mug of tea. Popcorn was still the Jiffy Pop kind you did on the stovetop. But about this egg. I never liked boiled eggs as a child (but enjoy them now, so long as they aren't deviled with mayo). My mom did like them, and she ordered one on the morning in question. Were we naive to think that the short-order cooks kept a pot of boiling water at the ready? Maybe. I'm pretty sure my mom wouldn't have minded waiting the extra minutes it would have taken to actually boil the egg especially for her. But what obviously happened instead (pieced together after the fact, pardon the Humpty Dumpty-like allusion), was that they took an egg from the refrigerator—could it have already been boiled and otherwise destined for a chef salad?—and decided to reheat or cook it in the microwave. It was brought to the table, wobbling in its small dish, looking perfectly normal . . . and then it exploded. I don't remember whether it made noise (I don't think so, or if it did then it was a muted sound). I don't remember whether it flew up high into the air, or if when blown apart it covered a great surface (again, I don't think so). Now that I think it over, I'm pretty sure it did not rank very high on the scale of dramatic action: I seem to recall that my mom had to call the waitress over and explain to her what had happened. (In my book, if you have to explain an explosion, it can't possibly be very significant in size.) Still, "explode" was definitely the word we immediately associated with it. It took us both by surprise and stuck in memory over the course of nearly thirty years. Recounting the episode to others back then, we had a hard time convincing people it was a true story. My dad's initial reaction was along the lines of "Oh, come on . . . ," basically incredulous. I don't think my friends believed me when I told them, either. But my mom and I knew that it happened. Now, it's become a documented phenomenon; due to reports of injury, there have even been appeals (in the U.K. and maybe here, too) to get some kind of warning displayed more prominently on the microwave ovens themselves. Let me say it here, loud and clear: DO NOT "BOIL" EGGS IN YOUR MICROWAVE OVEN! If you want to read, from a more scientific angle, why you should not nuke your eggs, you can check out this article in New Scientist, which explains the chain reaction of elevated temperature, white albumen and vaporizing water, tough shells, and excess pressure. Or you can just take our word for it.

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