Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
The tragic tale of Humpty Dumpty is a good proxy for the state of the egg on today’s bar menus: It was riding high for a minute there, but we just can’t figure out how to put the pieces back together.
Eggs used to be standard fare at classic drinking holes throughout the Western world; in fact, they were often the free snack of choice, which likely sounds like an old-timey relic to most. At least, it did to me—milk used to come in glass bottles delivered to your door—but alas, the world of drinking back then was rounded out by far heartier snacks.
There is some well-founded nutritional logic to the pairing of eggs and booze: cysteine, a key amino acid in helping the liver function, is present in eggs, which is why that bacon, egg and cheese does wonders for your hangover. In fact, we humans are intuitively smarter in terms of our food pairings than we are in other areas of our existence. But food historians like to gangbuster into our instincts and give them a date, time and reason, and in the case of eggs and drinking, we may have copped it from the French. The tradition of serving free hard-boiled eggs “was reputedly born of a surplus amount of eggs [in France] and a requirement that establishments serving liquor also serve food,” The New York Observer reported back in 2011.
The hard-boiled egg was also a staple ingredient in the saloon “free lunches” of the 1800s. “Most of the foods offered up at free-lunch counters were mainly an enticement to attract people and, hopefully, get them to order a second beer,” says Christine Sismondo, the author of America Walks Into A Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. Those lunches were so popular that one Chicago saloon reportedly went through 45 dozen eggs per meal, according to Sismondo’s research.
As the bar egg evolved in America, three main types staked their claim, all of them originating from across the pond: the pickled egg, the deviled egg and the inimitable Scotch egg. Deviled eggs have the most ancient history. The Romans were known to take apart and stuff their eggs as early as 61 ACE, if not earlier. In fact, as the History Channel points out, “serving eggs while entertaining was so common that the Romans had a saying, ab ova usque ad mala—literally translated as ‘from eggs to apples,’ or from the beginning of a meal to the end.” By the 13th century, the practice had spread to modern-day Spain, where eaters would whip together egg yolks with seasonings, refasten the egg whites around them with a stick and douse them in pepper.
The term “deviled” was coined in Great Britain in the 1700s as a very cool shorthand for the practice of making foods spicy. But squeaky-clean churchgoers didn’t like that term and took to calling deviled eggs a range of other things, like “stuffed eggs,” “dressed eggs,” “salad eggs” or, my personal favorite, “mimosa eggs.” America was late to the party, but did add its own twist: mayonnaise. The 1896 classic Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer was one of the first places to suggest using mayo as a binder for the yolks. In today’s bar culture, that classic comfort food is definitely new again: Restaurant research firm Datassential reports that the percentage of restaurants serving deviled eggs has increased over 70 percent in the last four years. This data, however, isn’t bar-specific, so it’s no indication that drinkers are benefiting from the deviled egg trend as much as sit-down diners.
Even more involved in execution is the Scotch egg, whose name suggests a Scottish origin but reportedly claims an English birthright. Covered in sausage, breaded, and fried, it is the holy grail of egg-related bar snacks.
The pickled egg has a much humbler history: throw eggs in vinegar, let sit forever. Pickling eggs was de rigeur in England as far back as the 1830s, when a public house known as the Pickled Egg (on—where else?—London’s Pickled Egg Lane) was supposedly the place to be. Americans favored pickled eggs in their dive bars and taverns, too: Sismondo says that a jar of pickled eggs is one of the foolproof signs that you are, in fact, in a dive bar. “My favorite image of a pickled egg jar is still Moe Szyslak (of The Simpsons fame) fishing around in a jar that had a dead cockroach [in it],” she says.
In most cases, these delectable, eggy snacks went underground the way so many great American drinking traditions did: Prohibition. Though finger foods were most definitely a presence in speakeasies, some historians believe that the firm hand of the law is what ultimately drove the egg from the bar.
“The city health department pretty much wiped out a lot of the bar food from that era,” says Linda Pelaccio, host of Heritage Radio’s history show “A Taste of the Past.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find an egg at a bar these days, save for some retro-cool deviled egg preparations and a Scotch egg here and there and, in rarer instances, a pickled egg. A food history blogger who goes by Brooks of Sheffield lamented on his ironically now-defunct blog Lost City: “Today, the food you find on most bars is the salty kind: chips, pretzels, etc. As anyone in the bar biz knows, these are not meant to provide sustenance. They’re meant to make you thirsty, so you order more liquor.”
We’re hopeful that the days of nourishing bar snacks aren’t behind us. After all, food is having a serious return-to-the-classics phase: we’re seeing it at top-level bars and restaurants, and at classic haunts that are keeping the traditions alive. At this rate, Humpty Dumpty might have a second act after all.