For generations we New Englanders just assumed that our neighbors shared our preference for brown eggs. All the while the heretical white egg was making in roads along our southern border.
There’s been a war raging in New England not generally recognized by those who take part in it every time they crack an egg into a frying pan. Whether an egg has a brown or white shell may not seem to be a matter of world-shaking significance, but it is well to remember that a shooting war broke out among the Lilliputians over whether the morning egg should be opened at the big end or small end of the shell. Already we are a country divided here in New England — while the rest of us insist by a margin of 9 to 1 that brown eggs are aesthetically, morally, and gastronomically superior, Connecticut residents are evenly divided in their preference, splitting geographically at the Connecticut River. The brown-egg eaters east of the river will therefore be considered as belonging to New England eggwise, while the white-egg eaters west of the river for the moment will have to be regarded as allied to New York, and for that matter, to pretty much the rest of the United States in the brown egg-white egg controversy.
This puts me somewhat on the spot as a transplanted Vermonter living in enemy territory, so to speak, since I live west of the Connecticut River, if only by a few miles. My taste in eggs was irrevocably determined by my boyhood experiences. We didn’t buy eggs at the grocery store; they were delivered to us twice a week by a farmer. These eggs were brown and they were fresh. White eggs were sometimes available at the grocery store, usually in time for Easter. They were called cold storage eggs, not really edible, but they were thought to be indispensable for Easter egg coloring. As I remember, the eggs were hard-boiled (it seemed the safe thing to do, my parents thought) and were dipped into a dye solution that reeked of vinegar. And there the connection was made; to this day I cannot see a white-egg display in a supermarket without smelling vinegar. This is my cue to look for some brown eggs, and in this border territory they can be found, although they cost perhaps three cents a dozen more.
Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but the cultural commitment to brown eggs was one of the oldest elements of my Yankee heritage. The Chinese were the first egg producers, and their chickens, which laid brown eggs, were brought to New England aboard Yankee clipper ships which had visited ports in China and Indonesia. These birds were recognized for their vigor and stamina and soon became invaluable to the colonists. In the early 1800s a thriving poultry industry developed at Little Compton, Rhode Island, and here originated the famous Rhode Island Red, one of the first domestic brown-egg breeds. This breed was further developed into the New Hampshire Red. Today one of the most favored brown-egg layers is the Silver Cross, the result of mating a Rhode Island Red rooster with a Barred Plymouth Rock hen. E. B. White in one of his essays says of this bird: “Her egg is so richly brown, so wondrously beautiful as to defy description.”
Why, then, if brown eggs are so much a part of our history in New England, so desirable, should the brown-egg industry feel threatened by white eggs? Don’t we have the courage of our convictions? Are brown eggs losing ground?
The answer lies in the realm of economics. Brown-egg layers are bigger, sturdier birds. They eat more, and transportation costs make feed more expensive in the East. Add to the cheaper grain costs in the West and South the White Leghorn hen, described by E. B. White as the greatest egg-machine on two legs, and the only conclusion one can arrive at is that supermarkets can bring white eggs into New England and undersell brown eggs by anywhere from three to ten cents a dozen.
New England brown-egg producers are doing what they can to lower production costs. In the meantime, the battle goes on. The egg producers of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts agree on one point: New England’s egg production from seven million laying hens (excluding white-egg Connecticut) would be just about right for New England’s 7.8 million residents (excluding Connecticut), if consumers would remain loyal to brown eggs.
It was evident that what was needed was a strong advertising campaign charged with the responsibility of waging more aggressive war against white eggs. What emerged was the New England Brown Egg Council, and the money to run it comes from the egg producers. Most of the ads are aimed at the Boston, Providence, Portland, Springfield, and Worcester markets.
In selecting an advertising theme, the Council was faced with the fact that there is no known nutritional difference between a white egg and a brown egg, nor is there any detectable difference in taste. Brown eggs do have thicker shells, which slows air penetration and helps maintain freshness, but white eggs are “oiled” at the processing plant to maintain this same freshness. Brown eggs tend to be larger, but this doesn’t affect shoppers. Some people claim brown eggs are better for boiling because the shells are less likely to crack, but that is not much of a selling point. The slogan finally selected simply reinforces what New Englanders have always believed: Brown eggs are local eggs … and local eggs are fresh.
All this may have aroused a brown-egg patriotism. Previously color-blind organizations such as the Maine Egg Festival quickly gave their sanction to the brown egg, and the University of Massachusetts has adopted a brown-egg purchasing policy. When McDonald’s Corporation staged a New England egg giveaway and started handing out white eggs, all hell broke loose. After a barrage of phone calls and mail from governors, senators, congressmen, state legislators, New England’s Commissioners of Agriculture, and egg producers, the company acknowledged that it had egg on its corporate face — officials said that unfortunately they had purchased several carloads of nonreturnable white eggs. Many Burger King outlets put up signs saying they use brown eggs.
In any war it makes good sense to move into the enemy territory after the homeland is secure, and New England brown-egg producers would like to sell a few brown eggs beyond the borders of New England. In charge of this infiltration is Dave Hefler of Acton Food Services in Turner, Maine, an experienced brown-egg salesman. When I caught up with him recently, he handed me brown-egg promotional folders printed in Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese. When the currency exchange is right, which it isn’t now, he told me that it is profitable to ship brown eggs abroad, where they have a ready sale. Here in the states, displaced New Englanders in Florida and California demand brown eggs. Areas with strong minority representation also consume more brown eggs because of ethnic preferences.
Promising brown-egg areas include New York City, the Detroit area and almost to Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, the Virginias, and recently some areas in Minnesota. An amazing ten percent of the eggs sold in Washington, D.C., are brown. Appalachian mountain people also prefer brown eggs.
With all due respect to the New England Brown Egg Council and its advertising efforts, I am a bit annoyed. What about brown-egg eaters like me stranded in white-egg country west of the Connecticut River? I think that the first order of business in this war should be to reunite New England under one brown-egg banner, to push that line of demarcation all the way to the Hudson River. I await the day of liberation, when I can enter a supermarket without being assaulted by the smell of vinegar wafting my way from that monstrous pile of white eggs in the dairy aisle.
Excerpt from “The War of the Eggs,” Yankee Magazine, July 1984.