Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy and the Brave


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Gastronaut extract
Teaching Grandmothers to Suck Eggs

I love old ladies. I’ve rarely met a bad one. In fact, if I didn’t relish the prospect of being a pipe-smoking, Boo Radleyesque, grumpy, slightly stinky old man quite so much, I would like to have been one when I grow up. One thing has always troubled me, though: the idea that you can’t teach them (or, specifically, grandmothers) to suck eggs.

This is one of a family of wide-ranging culinary assumptions such as ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ and ‘A watched pot never boils’. These really ought to be proven before they are allowed to become aphorisms (I presume there’s an aphorism council that decides such things), so I’ve taken my favourite one to test.

The aphorism ‘You can’t teach a grandmother to suck eggs’ is generally used to imply that what you are saying is obvious, that you’re telling someone a fact that they already know. It works on the assumption that our elderfolk are wise and sage about everything. Now, I love a granny as much as the next man, but to grant them omniscience is pushing it a bit. So I decided to test the theory in an unbiased, strictly controlled study. First, I needed to become an expert at egg-sucking, then I needed to get me some grandmothers (a quorum of 20, say) and try teaching them.

So I decided to test the theory in an unbiased, strictly-controlled study. First, I needed to become an expert at egg-sucking, then I needed to get me some grandmothers (a quorum of 20, say) and try teaching them.

The body of literature on egg-sucking is small. So small that I couldn’t find any. I bet there’s a church pamphlet on creating Easter displays that contains everything you need to know, but luckily in its absence there is a strong word-of-mouth history, which reveals that egg-sucking is mainly used to remove the insides of eggs so that you can preserve the shells for painting, with brightly decorated eggs traditionally used at Easter. Eggs are, of course a potent symbol of new life in lots of religions, especially Pagan, Christian and Jewish.

So how do you suck an egg? I had to ask…well…a grandmother. Grandma Gates, my long-suffering Mum and grandmother to my daughter Daisy, has sucked eggs in the past - not for any religious occasion, but because she wanted to preserve some wild bird’s eggs (we’ll skip lightly over the legality of this as it was some time ago) and was taught by my grandfather, Wilfred. The technique is pretty obvious: take your egg and using a needle or thin point of a knife, make a small hole in the top and bottom. Then suck the egg out.

I resolved to become an expert, so I sat down with half a dozen eggs and gave it a try. It quickly became apparent that if you use unwashed eggs donated by your friend’s chickens you are apt to get a shitty mouth. I washed the second egg but the process was still disgusting. Having a mouthful of cold, raw egg made me want to vomit. It also struck me that raw eggs aren’t the best things to ask people to eat, especially the old and, quite possibly, infirm. I put this to my mum. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘I think we actually blew the eggs rather than sucked.’ Thanks, Mum.

After extensive experimentation, I ascertained the following:


Take the eggs out of the fridge to let them warm a little, making the insides less viscous and more manageable.


Use a pin to make the hole and then widen it with the point of a knife.

3. Don’t make too small a hole otherwise the pressure of the exiting egg will cause more damage, collapsing your egg.
4. I may be particularly malcoordinated, but one third of the eggs cracked too much to be useable.

It took me five eggs to get it right. Now I needed some grandmas. I originally had visions of going to a retirement home and gathering a group of willing, lovely ladies to teach. I realized, however, that this might be seen as patronizing – who would ever agree to that? So I got hold of the phone numbers of 18 grandmas through friends and family, and called them up. Not quite my quorum of 20, but near enough.

Out of my 18 grandmas, seven of them politely declined to take part, and hence couldn’t, indeed, be taught to suck eggs. One was just too talkative and managed with devilish skill to change the subject, so I never did get to the teaching. One was my mum, who taught me in the first place, and therefore couldn’t be taught herself. This left nine grandmas, eight of whom claimed that they already knew how to suck eggs. There was, however, one wonderful lady, a friend of my mum’s, who thought the whole thing hilarious, and who I managed to teach successfully, albeit over the phone, so I can’t guarantee that she pulled it off to complete satisfaction.

So, from this I concluded that on the whole the idiom is true – you can’t teach all grandmas to suck eggs. You can, however, teach one grandma to suck eggs, and if I found one, there might be others. But the idiom is one of those absolutist conceits – if even one grandmother can be taught, the whole thing goes out of the window and hence the aphorism is proved false and should be struck from the aphorism register immediately.

But I won’t stop playing with old ladies. If you know any grandmas who are in the dark about the egg-sucking thing, please send them to me complete with a box of half a dozen free-rangers, and we can suck some eggs and maybe drink some tea.


In 2003 Alice Shirrell Kaswell solved the age-old problem ‘Which came first – the chicken or the egg’ once and for all. She mailed an egg and a live chicken in separate packages from Cambridge. Massachusetts to New York City, following the US postal service’s advice on the mailability of adult chickens. The chicken arrived within 48hours 51mins, followed by the egg 11hours 6mins later. She concluded that the chicken came first, and the egg second. Her research was published in the brilliant Annals of Improbable Research ( who also published the reply of an outraged reader.

Ó Stefan Gates 2005