Monday, June 13, 2011


Brown Eggs

J.B. Priestley, "The Meaning of Brown Eggs," The New Statesman (December 10, 1971) p. 815, rpt. as "Brown Eggs" in Outcries and Asides (London: Heinemann, 1974), pp. 124-126:
Let us make a modest start—as I do four mornings out of five—with eggs. Now here in England most of us, all ages, prefer brown eggs to white eggs. In America, brown eggs are despised, sold off cheaply, perhaps sometimes thrown away. Can any sense be made out of this queer difference in taste? I believe it can. But will it take us anywhere? Yes, I believe it will. Not only that—behavioral sciences, take note—it will move us almost at once from the visible world of white eggs and brown eggs into the vast invisible world where our lives are shaped.

We English prefer brown eggs because they seem to us to have a more reliable look of rusticity. They are closer to Nature, and appear to promise us a richer and more sustaining interior. A brown egg, we feel, has come to us, magically perhaps, straight out of the ancient pastoral world. Unlike the white egg, it has escaped factory farming, machines and mass production, higher productivity. It belongs to the enduring dream of the English, who ever since the Industrial Revolution have created wretched towns chiefly because they never really accepted urban life, always hoping to move sooner or later into the country. What we English want is to live in the country, with some splendid free-range fowls just down the road, none of your deprived and pallid prisoners of the battery, desperately ridding themselves of smaller and smaller white eggs; and then to enjoy every morning a big brown egg. Any public man in England who does not understand this cannot understand the English, and should retire from public life—into the country.

The Americans, well outside the ghettoes, despise brown eggs just because they do seem closer to Nature. White eggs are much better, especially if they are to be given to precious children, because their very whiteness suggests hygiene and purity, for which Americans have a passion that we English do not share. It is as if Nature, after being taught some hard lessons, had been forced to attempt some progressive hygienic packaging with that white shell.

It is a mistake—and one that is all too common—to accuse Americans of being 'materialistic'. They are far less so than, for example, the Chinese and the French, the best cooks in the world. The weakness of American civilization, and perhaps the chief reason why it creates so much discontent, is that it is so curiously abstract. It is a bloodless extrapolation of a satisfying life. For all those thick steaks and gammon rashers, all that scotch and bourbon, a melancholy enchantment seems to turn it into statistics and mere images of good living. You dine off the advertiser's 'sizzling' and not the meat of the steak. Sex is discovered in manuals and not in bed. And as soon as guaranteed egg-substitute has been packaged and marketed, from a huge factory in New Jersey called 'Old Mother Giles', then real white eggs will be even more sharply despised than brown eggs are now.
An odd essay, one that doesn't square with my experience as an American born and bred. For the first seventeen years of my life, so long as I lived under my parents' roof, I neither saw nor ate any eggs except brown ones. Every week the "egg man," a local farmer, knocked on our door, peddling fresh brown eggs. It was a shock to see white eggs for the first time in a grocery store, and to this day I prefer brown ones.

E.B. White answered Priestley in a New York Times article, "Farmer White's Brown Eggs," reprinted as "Riposte" in his Essays (1977; rpt. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), pp. 60-61.

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