Malleable, creamy and smoother than a you-know-what, the pickled egg is something of an unsung hero, never quite enjoying the status of extended family members like the salt-of-the-earth fried, or the poached, which, being a little more selective about both the location and company in which it chooses to appear, can be found parking its substantial behind on slices of ham, smoked salmon, and hot buttered muffins in smart eateries and hotel restaurants around the world.
Even the humble boiled egg rears its head in nursery rhymes and lateral thinking mathematical teasers, whereas its hard-boiled cousin had its fifteen minutes of fame appearing in a 1970s tv advertising campaign for a Germanic-branded creamed sauce, which claimed the reason God created eggs was so we could hard-boil them, slice them in half, scoop out their insides and fill them with the above-mentioned condiment. It also made similar claims for the dimple of a tomato and the guttering in a stick of celery: in response to such levels of patronisation my mother threw the last bottle we had in the bin and vowed never to buy another. My Uncle Alec, upon my relating the incident to him, replied by telling me: “Don’t let anyone dissuade you of the power of the menopause to lay waste to even the most rational of minds.” When I told him I had absolutely no idea as to what he was talking about, he chuckled and said: “Of course not, what was I thinking? What are you now, seven?”
“Yes, I knew that,” he said. He then drew up a chair and, producing a small notebook and pen from an inside jacket pocket, continued to illustrate through a series of diagrams, arrows and words that my young brain could not comprehend, exactly what was going on inside my mother’s body and head. “If you ever need someone to talk to,” he concluded, tapping the side of his nose with his pen, “you know where I am.” He lived in Kent.
Whatever, Mother and I converted to mayonnaise and, notwithstanding a rocky patch during the early nineteen-eighties, when an attempt to broaden the appeal of the nation’s number one brand saw an advertising campaign featuring a well-known children’s entertainer who compared his mother’s string beans to, wait for it…real string, that’s how it remained.
If all this tells us anything, it’s that even a raw egg that’s been beaten to a pulp and blended with a cold-pressed, lubricated fruit juice gets its own mention on the jar – it’s egg mayonnaise, not olive oil mayonnaise. Such status you’d think, then, would see even the outsider of the family in receipt of at least a little respect. But the pickled egg? That grubby variety act in a checked jacket stinking of tobacco and Double Diamond? No chance. Which is a shame as for some time they’ve been a source of fascination for me: so clinically sterile do they appear in those jars of theirs, I often think they’d be more at home in the disinfected storerooms of some Victorian biological geneticist’s laboratory than a kitchen cupboard or barroom shelf.
In fact, biting into one does seem, in itself, like an oral act of scientific trickery, the acidic vinegar sting of the first mouthful giving the feeling that you’re lowering your gut into instantaneous, mobile acid bath. But, as you take your second bite, hoping your nearest 24-hour Asda’s got a gallon of Gaviscon knocking about on the shelves, the neutralising effect of the yolk nullifies the acidity and calms the storm. It’s almost like a speeded up version of eating a very hot chilli pepper without the agony or the chemical rush as the painkilling endorphins kick in.
It’s not as if the yolk hasn’t been permeated by the vinegar, either. Take a scoop from a dissected egg and you’ll soon discover that, miraculously, the vinegar has penetrated the rubbery sheath and made its way to the centre. Now that, I would suggest, is an act of God.
Perhaps my fondness for a pub snack that many might consider grazing only the very lower echelons of a definitive top-50 pub snack chart, relates to the fact that the pickled egg actually takes me back to certain moments in my life that feature the very uncle referenced above.
The first of these incidents occurred in a beer garden on a golden, August afternoon in Canterbury when I was seven years old. Mum had put us both on the bus from Cardiff to see how he was coping after his recent divorce and I’d begged him to take me out for a spin in his brand new TR7. Under strict instructions from Mum to provide me with lunch, Alec chucked the two pounds she’d given him at a pack of ten cigarettes, a pint of bitter, half a lemonade, and a pickled egg, which we shared – as we did my lemonade, into which he baptised his nose, thick black hairs and all, when he took a swig from the tiny half-pint jug ‘to see what it was like.’ He later took my apparent lack of thirst as a cue to neck it down in one, after he’d finished his beer, his eyes streaming as the ice-cold bubbles exploded up against the back of his nose and throat. As for the food, Alec held the egg on a fork toward my face like a swordsman, beckoning me to partake, but I was in no mood. He then went on to gorge it down in two big bites, murmuring and grunting approval as he chewed it all up. “Good,” was the only word I managed to catch fully.
The next egg / Alec incident occurred at a Cardiff pub some ten years later. As a lecturer in architecture, he was in town for a conference and, as a very nerdy, extremely young-looking A-level student, I’d wanted to meet him for a coffee to have a chat about university options.
Alec had insisted on meeting in the famous City Arms pub on Quay Street, however, reassuring me when I’d voiced concerns about my age and youthful appearance, that if they didn’t want me in their pub, they’ve have him to answer to! Things started to make sense when he arrived with Anne, a woman in her mid-forties, in possession of thick, curly, black hair, which she stacked up on top of her head; and a loud, dirty, room-emptying laugh which, judging by the number of times it was given an airing, she no doubt considered an asset.
Upon entering the pub, Anne went to the toilet while Alec ordered at the bar. When she arrived at our table, the sight of two pickled eggs, arranged suggestively on a white plate by Alec, had her cackling at full volume while he looked up wearing a cheeky smirk. Making a note to keep him away from my pint, I still nearly choked when he held one of the eggs between his teeth, as if offering her a bite. When she accepted the invitation, Alec catching the broken fragments in a cupped hand beneath both chins, I became very interested in an old black and white photograph of Cardiff docks on the wall, going on to become immersed in a book of poetry as they went on to paw each other in full view of the whole pub.
Some fifteen minutes into our meeting, I was invited to leave by the pub landlord on account of my ‘not even looking fourteen’, to which Alec remonstrated with the words, “Oh come on!” as he stood earnestly, one hand holding his pint, the other outstretched, seeking reasonable outcomes. He did manage to look crestfallen as I made my way out but when I returned five minutes later to retrieve the Brian Patten poetry collection I’d left on my seat, I saw that he and Anne had moved to a table in the corner of the lounge where, engaged in the most desperate of clinches, Alec repeatedly grabbed at Anne’s large backside, repeatedly pulling it towards him in much the same way you would if you were trying to haul something heavy, like a back of boulders, or a mule, over a wall. I remember his stopping only to grab her hand when she made for the buckle on his belt; they then held and caressed hands in mid-air, as if engaged in some sit-down version of ballroom dancing as I made my way out.
The third instalment of Alec and the pickled egg occurred three years later in 1987, in The Cambridge, a pub at the University of Liverpool where I was a student. Alec was doing year at Manchester Poly, though on this occasion he was somewhat less carefree, having just been informed that he’d impregnated a twenty-one year old student.
I can still see him ranting in the pub, crimson and furious, shouting and whispering at the same time, managing to repeat the phrase, “I was wearing a fucking condom,” on at least half a dozen occasions. As his voice became louder, I became more worried. “Look,” I said, “if you’re going to sleep with your female students, then pregnancy is an outcome you risk. I run the same risk when I’m sleeping with women, too.” (Looking around, I’d become fearful that other punters – some of them familiar faces – might think this was some kind of awful business between the two of us.)
It had taken some effort erasing the images of Alec and Anne from my mind and the thought of him, now fifty, with someone younger and probably more attractive did not please me. His insistence on being so forensic, detailing every incident in an eventful day hardly helped, either: the meeting in the pub with ‘Britt’, her friends having to leave early, the beers, the game of pool, his favourite Cream track on the jukebox, her favourite Chris Rea, too: then the nitty-gritty, the walk back across the campus, the room, the taking of the condom from a drawer in her bedroom, the application of the said item: the worst of it is the statement, “It was fucking full.” This from a man whom my mother thought might offer paternal guidance after the death of my father all those years ago.
As for the relevance of the pickled egg in this incident? Well, there was no pickled egg, but there should have been, as I couldn’t stop thinking about how his visual stunt in the City Arms didn’t seem that funny any more; and how purchasing one in The Cambridge, along with a line or two about him being in a bit of a pickle might have worked, but probably wouldn’t have. As for any other word-play, or thematic connections with references to the lines above, I’ll leave that to your own imaginations – for the time being, recollections of the above incidents has provided quite enough exercise for mine.
I’ll be bringing myself to write a pickled egg / beer match soon. Unfortunately, talk of Alec and his intimacies has necessitated a break of at least a few days before I can return to the subject. Watch this space!
Just a note on the illustration above, which was composed by local Cardiff photographer and, now, illustrator Daz Phillips. I asked Daz to replicate the pickled eggs of the City Arms, plus something to evoke the Victorian imagery of the opening paragraphs, which he was more than able to do. When I asked him to identify the object, he said it was an old find from Cardiff Railway station and dated back over one-hundred and forty years! Daz actually provided a water-colour, originally, but was able to knock up a sketch within minutes of my requesting a black and white image. Incredible that he’s able to work so quickly and well worth the £50 fee!