Any time you enter a beer joint or beer store in the South, you’re likely to find a big jar of pickled eggs on the counter next to the beef jerky, the pieds de porc à l’écarlate and all the other Bubbas that belly up to the Southern sideboard. But pickled eggs, like Prince Hal, are tainted by their dissolute company. This bar sinister is itself a shame, but pickled eggs—which, if you think about it, are a rather delicate dish in the first place—have also been brutalized by mass marketing. Those over-boiled, nitrate-infused super-ball eggs in roadhouse jars are the ovulaltory equivalent of mealy winter tomatoes, and while witnesses will gleefully attest that I have eaten my share of them—and some might even mention the resulting gas—I’ll be the first to admit that they’re just not good food.
On the other hand, properly pickled eggs are a treat; they’re a great side with cold meats, poultry or game, and good in tuna, chicken or over vegetable salads. One recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Craig Claiborne included a pickled egg recipe in his New York Times Cookbook (wouldn’t he just?), and Rita Mae Brown, one of our best Southern writers, employs this dish as a culinary bone of contention between two cantankerous sisters in her riotous novel, Six of One. The white of a pickled egg should be firm, not tough or rubbery, and the yolk should be moist and almost creamy, not crumbly and dry. They should also have a light, balanced tangy/sweet flavor as a platform for other seasonings: I like a couple of slit hot peppers, a slice or two of garlic and a bay leaf to flavor mine, but dill, caraway or even cloves figure among other attractive possibilities.
For pickling, boil a dozen medium eggs until just done; you can easily fit a dozen in a quart jar. Then stuff the (peeled) eggs into a glass jar along with whatever accompaniments you like (jalapenos, onion, garlic, bay leaf, etc.). In order to find out how much liquid you need to cover the eggs, fill the jar with a mixture of white vinegar and water (4:1) just to the top; make sure to get rid of air bubbles by tapping or tipping the jar. Add a tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of pickling spices to the liquid. If you miss the barroom rose, use beet juice for color. Heat to almost boiling then back over the eggs; if there’s not quite enough liquid to cover them entirely, add a little more warm water. Then tilt again and seal the jar. Store in a cool, dark place overnight, then refrigerate for at least a week before eating.