Life’s an omelette: The tale of eggs and poetry

Life’s an omelette: The tale of eggs and poetry

By SUMANA ROY | 18 July, 2015
Omelette as life’s chronicle.

A vegetarian grandaunt considered it blasphemy, even an intentional call to warfare: How could egg-eaters call their favourite dish "Om"-let? "Om" was, after all, a "sacred sound" to several religions that had been born in the Indian subcontinent. Was it this, then, that made the Bengalis change "omelette" to "mamlet"? Whatever it is, an omelette by any other name would taste just as ...Why "mamlet"? Ma, mum, mam, all variations of mother, attach themselves to "let" – here was an etymologist's test.

Now, it would perhaps be right to say that there are as many omelettes as there are eggs, for there really are no two omelettes which resemble each other. Every culture and every cuisine has its own omelette recipes, and it's interesting to see the English omelette, for instance, gather spices while on its travel through Europe and Central Asia to India where it becomes a "masala" omelette. In India too, there are two kinds of omelette eaters – the first is an older generation which did not have easy access to cheap poultry as we do now; the second is ours, for whom breaking an egg into a pan was often the first step to a cooking career. Eggs were inexpensive, they were easily available, they were terribly easy to cook.

My favourite omelette stories have to do with the genre of the bachelor's omelette. Burnt and scalded on the outside or with a runny and uncooked stomach, the bachelor's omelette could be put on a shrink's dissection tray for psychoanalysis of the man's life and living conditions. Many years ago, I ate a bachelor's omelette prepared by my young uncle — he had thrown the previous day's leftovers inside the egg's stomach. Cabbage, chicken, a few threads of noodles — as I sat eating it, on a low stool outside his university hostel, it did not take me long to imagine what my uncle had eaten for dinner the previous night. Omelette as chronicle.

I know a woman who refused to leave her country — Poland — to live with her husband in America because she found the eggs there, and the omelette made out of them, unpalatable. The hens, like the men, are different there, she explained. And then, as if to convince me, she set about preparing a giant omelette, breaking eggs without keeping count, and slicing stiff boiled potatoes before arranging them on the body of the omelette like a pie. Returning home that cold winter night, I kept asking myself whether hens enjoyed eating potatoes.

Now, it would perhaps be right to say that there are as many omelettes as there are eggs, for no two omelettes resemble each other.

"A man is known by the company he keeps" changes into a man is known by what he puts in his omelette. There is a resident Parsi inside all omelette makers, I am certain. For it's a truism, no one cooks eggs better than the Parsis. One cannot explain these things of course, but Dom Moraes's poem, 'Omelette', keeps coming to me every time I think of the extravagant Parsi pora.

"All my friends: Gill, my sister with full breasts

and Saxon hair and a womanly smell, leaned

over behind me, hands on my shoulders; Del,

with brown hair, an expert on Chaucer's verse;

the priest Peter with black hair; and Julian,

bespectacled like a gauleiter, with no hair, almost,

save fine wisps at the back of his head. He said,

'Gill, chop the mushrooms very fine. And, Del,

you shred the garlic. Peter, you do the onions.

I trust you with those, all Catholics cry anyway.

Dommie, beat up the eggs. I'll grind the spices.'

I remember all this, how he bent over the cooker,

sprinkled the spices. Then he was busy with butter,

skillets, and other such matters. It took no time

for the omelette to make itself, the wine be poured:

our last supper together at Oxford or anywhere.

The different colours of hair and the bald head bent

over the trestle table. Sometimes our glances collided,

and perhaps showed peculiar love, a permanent care,

as though even in death we would not be divided.

It was a good omelette. I wish you'd been there."

The mushrooms and the onions, the butter and the spices, and their textured invasion and settling down into the flattened body of the beaten egg, all these resulting in the appetising aroma that people like my cook thinks is sufficient to eat a large portion of rice without any other accompaniment.

Being a part-time addict of cookery shows, I have noticed many amateur cooks being asked by resident chefs about their omelette making skills. I see the confidence on the faces of these celebrities light up, and I wonder whether the omelette is the new dating prop. The "morning after" isn't about the pill alone. The man must gift wrap the delights of the stay, the night, into a winsome omelette the next morning. My pop psychology skills fail to find great meaning in this, but it must be romantic, to find a lover arriving with layers of soft egg folded onto a plate.

The connection between making an omelette and lovemaking must exist. Why else have so many poets written about them? Here is Eileen Myles's "Prophecy":

"Transparent cool

you don't look like home

my belly is homeless

flopping over the waist of my jeans like an omelette."

But perhaps the most famous, the one that holds in it the passion of Moraes's poem is Nikki Giovanni's "I Wrote a Good Omelet": "I wrote a good omelet...and ate/a hot poem... after loving you".

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