E. B. White – ‘Riposte’ (1971)


One snowy New England morning an aged farmer returns from his barnyard chores to warm his hands and read the daily newspaper. To our farmers’ delight, the Times has published an article on one of his most beloved topics: the chicken egg. The column, by English journalist J. B. Priestley, is entitled “The Meaning of Brown Eggs”. In it, Mr. Priestley extracts the deeper meanings of American culture for his American readers by explaining their relationship with brown and white eggs. He postulates that Americans despise and throw away brown eggs because they associate the color with Nature, and overwhelmingly prefer the white egg because of its sterile aesthetic. This behavior, he concludes, is most unlike the English, who prefer brown eggs because they all dream of one day moving to the countryside.

Our farmer is bemused by the journalists’ theory. He wonders why so many Englishmen seem unhappy until they’ve explained America, while it is the rare American that is distraught over having yet explained England.  And he is further perplexed when he references the papers’ produce report, noting that yesterday a dozen brown eggs sold for 3 cents more than a dozen white.  Our farmer decides he must understand and rectify the disconnect between his reality, and that of Mr. Priestley.  Taking pen to paper, he spends the remainder of his morning pursuing the truth of the matter.  His riposte at last complete, our farmer is able to continue his daily routine, and wonder about his neighbor down the ice-covered road, who has plans to breed green chicken eggs.

Excerpt (of our farmers’ riposte)

Accompanied by Mozart’s’ Violin Sonatas, performed by Szeryng – Haebler

“The Americans, well outside the ghettos,” writes Mr. Priestley, “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.” My goodness. Granting that an Englishman is entitled to his reflective moments, and being myself well outside the ghettos, I suspect there is a more plausible explanation for the popularity of the white egg in America. I ascribe the whole business to a busy little female–the White Leghorn hen. She is nervous, she is flighty, she is the greatest egg-machine on two legs, and it just happens that she lays a white egg. She’s never too distracted to do her job. A Leghorn hen, if she were on her way to a fire, would pause long enough to lay an egg. This endears her to the poultrymen of America, who are out to produce the greatest number of eggs for the least amount of money paid out for feed.  Result: much of America, apart from New England, is flooded with white eggs.

When a housewife, in New York or in Florida, comes home from market with a dozen eggs and opens her package, she finds twelve pure white eggs. This, to her, is not only what an egg should be, it is what an egg is.  An egg is a white object. If this same housewife were to stray into New England and encounter a brown egg from the store, the egg would look somehow incorrect, wrong. It would look like something laid by a bird that didn’t know what it was about. To a New Englander, the opposite is true. Brought up as we are on the familiar beauty of a richly colored brown egg (gift of a Rhode Island Red or a Barred Plymouth Rock or a New Hampshire) when we visits New York and open a carton of chalk-white eggs, we are momentarily startled. Something is awry. The hen has missed fire. The eggs are white, therefore wrong.   


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