Here’s the jar in front of me: the liquid is pink. The lid is grimy. The logo is a cartoon pig in overalls, a buxom pig looking saucily at you, resting her cheek on her hoof and showing, inexplicably, a fair bit of cleavage.
This is a jar of Hannah’s Pickled Eggs. I’m in BJ’s Food Mart, a gas station in Asheville, N.C., reaching a pair of tongs deep into the vinegar to chase an egg (are they moving?). I finally catch one, drop it into a plastic baggie and put the tongs on the hot cocoa machine grate where I found them. The egg has the color and shine of a red clown nose. Behind me, people are playing the video slots.
So are these popular? I ask this of Harold Ameen, who rings up my egg. Eighty-five cents.
“Oh yeah. People come after work and get two or three beers and two or three eggs,” he says. “Especially the forty-ounce beers.”
Pickled eggs. Pickling turns mild flavors acidic; eggs are products of avian ovulations. Together, they’re an acquired taste. My first encounter was in a dare scenario with friends (I opted out), under green neon signs at Max’s Tavern—the inspiration for Moe’s Tavern in The Simpsons, where Moe kept a pale jar on the counter—in Oregon. The chewing and swallowing and the yellow sickly yolks peeping out in green sickly lighting—to me, it made a queasy scene. Of course, to many, there’s nothing queasy about it.
As the philosopher Carolyn Corsmeyer writes, “the disgusting and the delicious do not always function as opposites.” What repels can also attract. Pork rinds, bleu cheese, Cool Whip ambrosia, squid ink risotto—these are all evidence that foul and tasty coexist. One friend calls gas station eggs her guilty pleasure, along the lines of Ding Dongs dipped in sour cream.
And the disgust factor, in truth, is largely my modern projection. Pickled eggs’ popularity at BJ’s Food Mart shouldn’t surprise me—they’ve been a hit for centuries. When eggs were still seasonal, immersion in vinegar preserved them for winter. Beer halls and public houses in parts of Europe kept stores of them, typically offered for free, like today’s Cajun snack mixes, to incentivize drinking.
In the States, kids munched them at church picnics and barflies had them with beer. In Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, pickled eggs made a “sour” note complementing the “sweet” of meat and potatoes, according to a 1941 LA Times piece. Every general store in the South had a jar, says food historian Rick McDaniel, “usually with a side of Penrose pickled sausages and pickled pigs’ feet on either side.” Versatile, cheap, consistent and plentiful, they did the job: “Pickled eggs make fine appetizers. They’re good in salads or as a snack with crackers and cheese.” That, in 1965 Washington Post article, is a sentiment that seems to have crossed social classes.
Anyone can make them: eggs are boiled, peeled, then—bam—steeped in vinegar. Some recipes call for juice from pickled beets, infusing eggs with a beetish purple. Colors range from rosy to stained-tooth yellow to plain white, depending on what spices join the vinegar (and, today, what food dyes).
You’ll still find them bulging behind glass in gas stations, country stores, pantry shelves, and dive bars, where barkeeps will slide you a bottle of Tabasco—though you’d be harder pressed to find them now.
Now, they’re migrating up. In chic eateries, eggs get small-batch pickled and plated beautifully. Take the saffron-pickled egg arranged with aioli, marmalade and a house-made saltine at Bhramari Brewhouse in Asheville. “A lot of people do order it as their first pickled egg,” Allison Simpkins at Bhramari tells me. “And the reaction is generally very positive.”
So what is the pickled egg’s role in bar culture now? Is it in the league of the pickleback (whiskey chased with pickle juice) and Krispy Kreme burger (a meat patty between two doughnuts)? That is, wicked dare material. Foods that delight and disgust, the disgust being central to the delight.
Or, is it closer to the league of the fried gizzard and candied watermelon rind, beloved foods with thrifty origins? Foods that, like the pickled egg, are still vernacular but can also be updated, gussied up, and folded into modern high cuisine.
From what I gather, both. “The cultivation of ‘good taste’ arises out of substances that have a disgust quotient,” in some cases, Corsmeyer writes. But that disgust quotient is also a cultural construct. So it makes sense that pickled eggs are at once a friend of Miller Lite, an opportunity for an edgy small plate, and something to keep down while people cheer you on.
At BJ’s, Ameen digs them. “Put a little salt and pepper on there,” he says. “Yeah, they’re good.”
Later, I take a knife to the egg I bought, slicing the thinnest sliver. It tastes like I expected. Okay, worse. Like a briny rubber toy. With no one cheering me on, no beer, I spit it out. I feel untough and sort of snooty, like if I let my throat burn heartily with vinegar and bourbon, I’d gain more self-respect.
I wrap the egg back up and put it in the fridge, just in case a roommate wants a snack.