My great-grandpa John Jacob Howard (1846–1931) returned from the war in 1865, married Sarah Amanda Coldiron in Bell County, Kentucky, and raised eight kids — five boys and three girls. To all accounts, Great-Grandma Howard (1848–1924) had a knack for elevating stereotypical farm fare far above the level of filling fuel and glorifying them into frankly fabulous fêtes. She supervised her household, attended to the accounts, and saw to it that her family was well fed and well clothed. She was intimately familiar with homespun, but when occasion demanded it she saw that the family could afford “store bought.” When family, neighbors in need, or occasional strangers fell ill or got injured, she helped nurse them back to health. Her remedies were as easy on the eye as on the digestion and ranged from beef tea and toast water to pounded hominy and wheatlet pudding. Her white soup was so popular with her patients that they “pined for it” after recovery, and she refined a recipe fit for company.
Whole eggs (patient portions)
1 cup milk
1/2 cup broth
2 tablespoons cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch soaked in 1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Whisk together milk, cream, broth, corn starch, and salt and bring to a soft boil. Carefully crack the eggs onto a plate and gently slip them into the pot. Cover and simmer for four minutes. Plate poached egg(s) on buttered toast and spoon on the soup.
This dish is easily prepared, easily plated, and, consisting as it does of what amounts to warm milk and soft-cooked eggs over toast, is easily digested and nutritious — just the trick to raise spirits, reduce stress, induce rest, and speed recovery.
Now, the “fancy version,” designed for sit-down meals, special occasions, and entertaining, proved much more problematic (for me). Ladling the hot soup over the beaten yolks can cook and curdle the yolk, creating a speckled appearance and grainy texture. Likewise, heating the milk too fast and/or allowing it to boil can cause the milk to separate, form a skin, and curdle. Great-Grandma’s recipes are more than simple lists of ingredients, but they often gloss over details such as temperatures, cooking times, and mixing techniques. She recommended tapioca, flour, or corn starch as thickening agents (presumably to prevent the milk from separating). All can be made to work, but I found that the tapioca pearls detracted from the overall appearance and, again, created a granular or curdled look and texture. Also, as I read her recipe, she poached her eggs in the milk soup base. She would have been using fresh, almost hen-warm eggs — which retain a protein memory that instantly clinches the white around the yolk in simmering water, creating a tight, smooth egg-shape.
I found that the opaque, milky soup made it difficult to see what the eggs are doing, and since I was using supermarket eggs with slightly watery whites, the egg white tended to spider away from the yolk, detracting from the appearance of the poached eggs when plated and leaving strings of albumen in the soup. Also, fishing around blind with a slotted spoon to retrieve the poached eggs can break the yolks (pouring the soup through a sieve or colander proved a bit more successful). I wound up opting for corn starch as a thickener and poaching the eggs separately in water.
I’ve portioned this recipe for six. Like many, if not most of her recipes, this one seems daunting at the first read, even with my 21st-century hacks. I’d recommend cutting it in half again on your first try. With a few repetitions it becomes effortless.
6 rounds of buttered toast
4 egg yolks
4 cups milk
4 cups broth (Great-Grandma specified clarified/clear broth; any light broth will do)
1/3 cup butter
2 tablespoons minute tapioca, corn starch, or flour
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste (this is one of the few recipes I prefer white pepper)
One palm-full of freshly chopped parsley to finish
Heat the broth, thickening agent, and butter slowly to a rolling boil, stirring together to prevent scorching on the sides of the pot (which might color the soup). Cook for five minutes, whisking to incorporate butter and thickener. Whisk in the milk and bring back just below a rolling boil (do not let it boil up or foam). Break the eggs onto a plate and gently slip them, one at a time, into the pot (I recommend poaching them separately in simmering water). Keep to a gentle simmer, and cook 4 minutes.
While the eggs are poaching, add the egg yolks to a deep serving dish or soup tureen and whisk together. When the whole eggs are poached, temper the yolks by gently whisking in a ladle’s worth of soup, before slowly whisking the rest of the soup into the terrine. Place one buttered toast round in each individual serving bowl, top with a poached egg, ladle on the soup, garnish with parsley, and serve. This can also be done at the table, or the egg-topped toast rounds can be served on a warm platter and the guests allowed to serve themselves. Alternatively, the eggs can be poached a day or two ahead, shocked in ice water, refrigerated until needed, and warmed (just a quick dip) in boiling water before plating.
This is a delicious, comforting, satisfying, and oddly filling dish (after all, it’s just milk, egg, and a scrap of bread) — and I can fully appreciate its beneficial effects on the physical health and psyche of invalid patients. The “enhanced version” is almost too substantial for a first course and today would make a meal all by itself, served with a salad and a basket of bread or rolls.
I don’t suppose eggs were eaten with each meal, or even each breakfast, back then. Biscuits with jam or gravy, cereals and hominy, pancakes and/or corn bread with or without a little bacon or fatback probably fortified man, woman, and child for the day ahead. I know that trout was popular — and features in many of the recipes, often including eggs. But if they kept a dozen or so hens, it wouldn’t be difficult to amass a supply of two or even three dozen eggs at a time to create dishes that pleased the eyes while pleasuring the palate. Other favorite egg dishes included barreled eggs, creamed eggs on toast, trout and mushroom omelets, and eggs and onions, but it is hard to beat Great-Grandma’s white soup for satisfying heart, mind, body, and soul.