The Omelet King.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When it comes to eggs, over-easy is usually how I like them. There isn’t a recipe that a fried egg can’t improve when its edges are lacey and its yolk runny. Maybe fruit salad. But you get the point.

One night recently, I was frying kimchi with garlic and sugar for something I make often when I want to eat quickly. But instead of the typical rice bowl with an egg, gochujang, and salted gim, I decided to detour. I was going to make a kimchi omelet. The hardest component I’d thought I already had, and that was good kimchi.

How many an omelet does one have to obliterate before one achieves the divine? All fluffy and soft and mellowed yellow in color? Since just last Friday, my count is at three, and by now I’m more determined than ever.

The first omelet of the week was the closest I’ve ever come to success. I took out our smallest pan and poured in two whisked eggs, letting them cook slowly over a delicate flame. I covered the pan, and after a minute or two, I spooned fried kimchi over the bottom half of the full moon egg. I folded over the omelet and slid it onto a plate. I scattered sliced scallion over the top. It looked like it was going to taste amazing, but when I cut the first bite, the inside was oozy and undercooked. I shrugged and ate it all that way, mostly out of pride.

A couple of days later, I turned a kimchi omelet into kimchi scrambled eggs when I couldn’t get the eggs to release from the bottom of the pan. I’ll never flip an omelet for fear of overcooking. Better undercooked than overcooked when it comes to eggs, which, of course, is a matter of opinion.

I attempted again last night after I read about a new tactic from a San Francisco-based chef. He suggests adding cold cubed butter to the eggs after whisking, claiming that the butter works the same magic on the eggs as it does with puff pastry. And Ian Muntzert is right. It did fluff up the eggs nicely, but I slayed them with a spatula before they had a chance to pass as an omelet. I couldn’t get the top side to cook, again. The marriage of egg and kimchi was dynamite. But it was the omelet I was after, and not the visually unappealing plate of mush I’d created.

When I was growing up, my dad had four specialties in his cooking repertoire: grilled burgers, beef pot roast, vegetable stew, and omelets. He used to cook breakfast for my brother John and me at least three times a week, and when he’d ask us how we wanted our eggs, we knew what he meant: either sunny side up or as an omelet. He used a pan he’d had forever with thin scratches in the teflon, a white plastic spatula that was melted at the top, and Velveeta. Not the single servings wrapped in plastic, though he bought those, too. For his omelets, he’d cut smooth wedges with a cheese slicer from a foil wrapped industrial-sized block of it. Sometimes his omelets would still be runny on the inside when he served them. As a dramatic teenage daughter, I felt the same way about runny egg whites as I did about the bathroom I shared with my younger brother. Both made me want to scream. But those days, we weren’t allowed to leave the table with a scrap of food left on our plates, and so I’d gobble the eggs down quickly and swallow them with a swig of skim milk to mask the slimy texture of any uncooked egg, holding my breath as inconspicuously as possible, hoping that the memory would fade by lunchtime.

The worst thing John and I could have done in the morning was to piss him off after he’d made us breakfast, and the quickest ways to do this were to bicker with each other at the table or to show any signs of distaste for his food. With his eggs, he’d either serve sausage patties, sausage links, or strips of bacon. Each morning was a surprise of porky proportions. Sometimes the sausage links were like long, withered raisins, if raisins were long and gray and marbled with fat. Sometimes they were firm and juicy and tasted like maple syrup. Patties were either hot or mild, always Jimmy Dean. The bacon sat next to our eggs, wading in grease, and as a teenager, I didn’t have the same sort of admiration for bacon fat that I do as an adult. He once caught me with my napkin over my plate as I quickly tried to soak up a grease pond while his back was turned. I don’t remember his exact reaction, but I know he wasn’t tickled, and it was the very last time I tried to pull anything like that. 

Our refrigerator door held jars and bottles of condiments well past their prime. In 2001, the year I graduated high school, we had salad dressings with expiration dates in the mid-nineties. At the time, he still had his late mother’s spice collection, something he had chosen out of her belongings when he and his siblings cleared her home. It had been ten years since she’d died. He was, and still is, immensely sentimental, and his music wasn’t the only thing he liked vintage.

We didn’t have a garbage disposal, and he was viscerally opposed to wasting anything that can be put in a plastic bag, sealed with a twisty tie, and frozen for later consumption. I often read stories about adults who, as kids, snuck undesirables to their dogs or wrapped them in napkins to throw away later, and I always think, “How?!” We didn’t have a dog. We didn’t have a garbage disposal, either. Any food we’d thrown away he’d be sure as hell to find.

We never heard about children starving in such-and-such an undeveloped country. We heard about him milking cows at four in the morning from the age of five. Though it’s difficult to imagine the kind of early life he lived, and the kind of childhood he didn’t have, I know by the way he raised us and by the way he treated the act of eating that it wasn’t easy for him.

He grew up on a farm, so his respect for good work ethic and appreciation of someone else’s labors runs deep. These things he taught us by example. Many of his tactics, however manic they seemed to John and me at the time, have served us both okay now that we’re adults. We still bicker, just on a rarer occasion, and mostly because we live on opposite sides of the world. But we’ve both learned to truly appreciate any effort someone makes to put food in front of us, even if it tastes like burnt dirt and has the texture of water-logged styrofoam, which, come to think of it, would actually rank quite high on a scale of culinary accomplishment.

Some days, he’d get the omelet exactly right. I don’t even know if he knew what he’d done differently. The cheese would be evenly melted (an easy feat with Velveeta) and layered between the thinnest pocket of lightly, but fully, cooked egg. But it was the edges of the omelet, browned by the butter he’d used to slick the pan, that made it so good. That flavor of browned butter and cheese in eggs cooked any way is something I’ve chased my whole life, and he wasn’t the only one of our parents who’d gotten it right.

“Really good, Dad,” I’d say.

His response was usually the same.


He didn’t show any other signs of being pleased, but I know he was happy to hear it.

Whenever I’m back in Minneapolis, I always hope he’ll offer to make me breakfast so that I can ask for an omelet and bacon. And he does. I’ll keep trying to perfect it on my end, until desperation makes me crack and sends me home from the store with a block of Velveeta. Even then, I don’t think it’ll taste remotely the same.