It's a fitting ritual, no matter your beliefs or religious affiliations, the welcoming of spring with baskets of eggs, dyed by children's hands in pastel colors. An egg, a universal symbol of promise and potential, fertility and mystery, a potent symbol of the season and the times. Also, a nutritious food, containing healthy fats and protein.
We set out on a springtime whim, to create our own dyes with foods found in the garden and the market. The internet is rife with ideas, some more helpful than others; we did successfully make and dye both white and brown eggs in pastel shades of primary colors. Do you feel the invisible asterisk floating above these words? It's there, hovering, like a star in the early gray hours, in a sky half-clouded with silver linings. Make a wish, starlight, star bright. Here is what we learned.
For those of us who were raised on Red Lake #40, the color that boiled beets impart to an eggshell is bound to underwhelm at first glance. It seems to brighten, however, if one banishes the thought of cherry plastic red candy-color from the mind, and instead summons up images of sunset, roses, and flushed cheeks. The same is true of yellow. Even turmeric, that most tenacious yellow stainer, seemed less vibrant than we had expected--until we adjusted our expectations. How is it that a root (fresh, or the powdered, dried form of the spice) can stain wood, skin, even stainless steel, but impart only a bright lemony wash to the blank canvas of a white eggshell? But look again. Is the hue lacking, because it is not a violent, brilliant, fluorescent color? Or is it a truer reflection of the season, steeped as it is in the possible, the attainable, the pure and close at hand?
The color of meringue, or souffle; delicate clouds of lemon-yellow possibility. Doubtless there is a chemical answer, and surely more rigorous testing might have been done. Still, equipped as we are, with a pair of 3 year olds, and a 5 and an 6 year old we set out on a mission to create egg dyes that we would feel safe eating; no easy task in this day and age. Furthermore, we resolved not to waste anything that we used, a promise that we ended up keeping only if you consider that feeding organic spinach and cabbage to the pigs is not considered wasting. Here are the the results of our admittedly unscientific survey, conducted this fine spring day, in the open air, with the help of beloved children who shall remain nameless, though their contributions were manifold. The results are arranged by color.
It's the first color of the rainbow, the color of blood and passion and beets. Yes, beets. No red is richer than the inside of a beet, concentric rings of crimson layered upon one another like the growth of tree rings, or centuries of sedimentary rock. Anyone who has cooked beets knows well the stain that they leave, on plate or pot. Generally, if beets are to be boiled, they are best left with their tops and tails intact, to preserve their vital nutrients; these can be trimmed off after cooking. However, in the interest of getting the most potent hue to dye eggs in, we quartered 4 or 5 of the beets and let them boil for about 30 minutes, until they were ready to eat.
Then we scooped them out, to eat with that night's dinner. (Beets with goat cheese and dill, if you wondered.) The beet tails and tops were run through a food mill and tossed back in to boil for another 15 minutes. In the end, we got about a pint of brilliant red juice to use as a dye. It was perhaps the most instantly gratifying of the dyes, producing a light pink wash on contact. It was difficult to convince our young testers to let an egg soak in the dye for very long, but the longer it soaked, the deeper the rose color became. The color seemed most rich on farm fresh brown eggs. The natural coating that covers each egg as it comes from the chicken seemed to absorb the color best; however, it took longer to dry, and could be wiped off with the swipe of a finger if handled before the dye dried. This coating, which keeps the egg fresher for longer, is required by law to be washed off of eggs that are sold to the general public. A white egg from a local farm, washed and sold in the grocery store, absorbed the dye quickly, but did not attain as rich a hue as the brown eggs.
It seemed a slam-dunk, to those of us who regularly cook with turmeric. The tropical root, native to India, colors everything it touches with a persistent yellow stain. We chopped the fresh, ginger-like root up into small pieces and boiled it for 30 minutes, a method which yielded a bright yellow broth. Wanting a greater intensity, however, we added a heaping tablespoon full of powdered spice, which thickened and concentrated the color.
An egg dipped into this mixture acquired a cheerful yellow hue, the color of yellow Rosa Banksia in bloom; pale, soft, sunny yellow, seemingly redolent of pie crust and amber.
It's a fine line between the two, when you are dealing with vegetable dyes. We boiled red cabbage for 2 hours, until it paled and began to loose it's color. We then fed the cabbage to the pigs, but left the 2 quarts of liquid to cook overnight in the Crockpot, where it slowly reduced down to about a pint. Though purple in color, it made a gorgeous blue/violet dye, reminiscent of denim, or a stormy ocean. The longer it soaked, the deeper the hue became.
We also read on the interwebs, that Red Zinger tea makes a lovely lavender colored dye. We experimented with a hibiscus tea, similar to Red Zinger, that was a gorgeous crimson color when brewed. Strangely enough, it did make a pale lavender dye! Although the two colors seemed quite similar in the pot, the colors they imparted to the eggs were very different.
We like to pride ourselves here, on giving advice only when we know what we're talking about. We're the first to admit if we don't have the answer. So in a sense it's strange, to be talking about this at all; perhaps there are some actual fiber artists or other dye experts shaking their heads out there at our bumbling experiments. Certainly, there is more to be learned here.
But we learned plenty, on this sunny spring day. Sure, there were lessons about color, and process, and we have a better appreciation for the art and science of dyeing because of this little experiment. But mostly we learned to carry on and interpret a tradition in a natural way that made sense for our bellies, our kids, and the planet. We also learned that left to their own, three year olds can peel and eat up to eight hard boiled eggs before slowing down.
And that if you chop up the rest of the hardboiled eggs, no matter what color, and mix them with mayo and zucchini relish and chopped onion and bell peppers and pickled asparagus and salt and pepper, it makes a darn fine egg salad.
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