This old egg-and-bread dish goes by many names. At my childhood table, it was known as eggs-in-a-basket. Later I found it was hens-in-a-nest, toad-in-the-hole by Brits, and one version simply called egg toast. But when I published a recipe for eggs-in-a-basket some time ago, the actress Susan McPhail pointed out that, “Tennessee Williams calls them ‘Eggs Birmingham’ in Baby Doll.”
Well, I’ll be damned (I thought). You’d think growing up less than 200 miles from Birmingham (Alabama), I’d know of eggs Birmingham; moreover, you’d think a Southern food writer with a degree in literature would have found this blip on my radar decades ago. But no. Fortunately, I happen to know a lot of people—like Susan—who are smarter than I am, which is bruising to my self-esteem, but provides me with some assurance of being well-informed, or at least the comforting illusion thereof.
Baby Doll (1956), produced and directed by Elia Kazan and starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, was shot on location at the Burrus House near Benoit, Mississippi, which at that time was in a state of considerable decay. Williams wrote the script, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Kazan claimed in his autobiography that Williams was only “half-heartedly” involved in the screenplay), drawing from his previous works 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, a 1946 one-act play that Williams referred to as “a Mississippi Delta comedy, and The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, a moving short drama about the turning out of an old servant, published in 1946 along with 4 other one-act plays in American Blues: Five Short Plays.
In 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Jake, a middle-aged, shady cotton gin owner with antiquated equipment burns down the mill of the Syndicate Plantation, a rival in the cotton business where Silva Vicarro serves as Superintendent. Vicarro, who knows what happened but cannot prove it, gets revenge by raping Jake’s young and voluptuous but childlike and naïve wife Flora.
The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, depicts the story of Archie Lee and his Baby Doll Meighan (parallels of Jake and Flora in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton) who are reluctantly providing a home to Aunt Rose, an elderly relation who has been passed around among the family to house. An “unsatisfactory supper” cooked by Aunt Rose, who neglected to light the burner under the greens she’d put on the stove earlier. She offers to make eggs Birmingham to appease him.
ARCHIE LEE. What is eggs Birmingham?
AUNT ROSE. Why, eggs Birmingham was Baby Doll’s daddy’s pet dish.
ARCHIE LEE. That don’t answer my question.
AUNT ROSE. (As though confiding a secret.) I’ll tell you how to pre- pare them.
ARCHIE LEE. I don’t care how you prepare them, I just want to know what they are.
AUNT ROSE. (Reasonably.) Well, Son, I can’t say what they are without telling how to prepare them. You cut some bread-slices and take the centers out of them. You put the bread-slices in a skillet with butter. Then into each cut-out center you drop one egg and on top of the eggs you put the cut-out centers.
. . .
ARCHIE LEE. (Roughly, his back still turned.) I don’t want Eggs Bir- mingham.
BABY DOLL. He don’t want Eggs Birmingham and neither do I. But while we are talking, Aunt Rose-well-Archie Lee’s wondered and I’ve been wondering, too. . .
AUNT ROSE. About what, Baby Doll?
BABY DOLL. Well, as to whether or not you’ve—made any plans.
AUNT ROSE. Plans?
BABY DOLL. Yes, plans.
AUNT ROSE. What kind of plans, Baby Doll?
BABY DOLL. Why, plans for the future, Aunt Rose.
Rose, in despair, with characteristically Williamsian pathos, rushes to the yard to gather roses in an approaching storm: The blue dusk deepens to purpleand purple to black and the roar comes on with the force of a locomotive as AUNT ROSE’S figure is pushed toward the rose-bush.
In Baby Doll, “Aunt Rose Comfort” offers to make Archie Lee (Karl Malden) “my Eggs Birmingham” when he rejects her undercooked greens. Vaccaro (Wallach) offers to hire her to cook for him in her home and make eggs Birmingham for him there, a much more humane fate for Rose, but a move designed to needle Archie Lee, who asks, “Anything else around here you wanta take with yuh, Vacarro?” insinuating Baby Doll herself.