Food for Thought – Hard to Swallow: Savage Motherhood—and Eggs
by Tara Stevenson
Ideas Are Food
Eggs Are Motherhood in Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Medea is the epitome of savage motherhood: upon hearing that her husband, Jason (of the Golden Fleece/Argonauts), is going to marry another woman—despite saving his life many times over and using her magic to help him defeat many enemies—Medea kills their sons in revenge. Chapter one of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones not only introduces the allusion of Medea; it immediately establishes three additional parallel stories concerning motherhood and birth: the death of Esch’s mother in childbirth; China, a pit bull, giving birth to her puppies; and Esch’s realization of her own pregnancy at fourteen years old. This story is about a Black family weathering and surviving storms—racism, abuse, alcoholism—in Esch’s Mississippi Gulf Coast town, Bois Sauvage, as they prepare for Hurricane Katrina to strike. The work itself is also a conversation about inclusion. As Jesmyn Ward writes, “It infuriates me that the work of white American writers can be universal and lay claim to classic texts, while Black and female authors are ghetto-ized as ‘other.’ I wanted to align Esch with that classic text, with the universal figure of Medea, the antihero, to claim that tradition as part of my Western literary heritage.” Motherhood is expanded upon throughout the story, culminating in Hurricane Katrina, the mother of all storms, and Medea’s destructive force is then paralleled as well. The Medea story is a thoughtful touchstone that illustrates the efficacy of a well-drawn allusion.
So today I’m making eggs three ways: deviled eggs, eggs in clouds, and eggs in purgatory, because what is motherhood other than all the spiritual realms of existence? And eggs themselves are hugely symbolic, of course: ovaries, fertility, fragility, potential. At forty-one years old I am twenty weeks pregnant—I had no idea my own eggs still had that potential.
Esch and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum; her pregnancy at fourteen and mine at forty-one highlight the wide range of motherhood available, for whether we are prepared or not, our bodies are. When I missed my period and had to question whether I was pregnant or entering perimenopause was a sign that my eggs were still focused on their job even as I was blissfully ignorant of their myopia. Esch’s eggs are so young, innocent of the fact that Esch herself is still a child. But the eggs are biological beings, outside the realm of society, maturity, retirement. Maybe that’s why they’re so versatile.
Esch introduces the Medea allusion in that first chapter, explaining that she is reading it for school in her Mississippi town: “The chapter I finished reading day before yesterday is called ‘Eight Brief Tales of Lovers,’ and it leads into the story of Jason and the Argonauts. I wondered if Medea felt this way before she walked out to meet Jason for the first time, like a hard wind come through her and set her to shaking.” This first discussion of Medea not only parallels Esch’s excitement to see Manny, the boy who has gotten her pregnant, but it also foreshadows Hurricane Katrina, as the powerful force that will shake up all of their lives.
Deviled eggs are a tasty little appetizer that, like motherhood, require you to cut the hardboiled egg in half, scoop the insides out, mix with other ingredients, and then fill the hollow shell with the new mixture once again. The basic recipe is hardboiled eggs, mustard, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, paprika. Hard boil the eggs, peel the shells, cut the egg in half, scoop the yolks into a bowl, mix with mustard and mayo to taste, add a dash of vinegar for twang (my aunt’s word), salt and pepper to taste, , then scoop the mixture back into the shells. Sprinkle paprika on top of each for the devilish red splash and a hint of smokey flavor. I have many fond memories of eating this version with my aunt Sandy on her walnut orchard in Northern California for every occasion imaginable.
Esch identifies with the heartbroken Medea, with the hurt and questioning that lead up to Medea’s breaking point. She often references Medea in questions: “Is this what Medea saw, when she decided to follow Jason, to flee her father with her brother?” and “Is this how Medea ran with her brother, hand in hand, away from their father’s hold to join the Argonauts?” She parallels the events in her life to Medea’s, suggesting that there is an inevitable end for her as dramatic and destructive as Medea’s. She even compares herself to China after China has eaten her own puppy, of course also referencing Medea’s murder: “China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?” Esch is so lost, and without her own mother, that these are her thoughts. It is important to note that throughout the text, she constantly longs for her own mother, who died when she was much younger. Later, during the storm, she connects her mother to the rawness of an animal: “The dog barks loudly, fast as a drum, and something about the way the bark rises at the end reminds me of Mama’s moans, of those bowing pines, of a body that can no longer hold itself together, of something on the verge of breaking.” Conflating the dog’s bark with Esch’s mama and a broken body reminds the reader, and Esch, of the possible destruction of a storm, and Ward explores this further by leading us into the moment when the family hears of Mama’s death: “This your little brother . . . You mama didn’t make it.” The dogs, the storm, and the brutality of nature are all entrance points to the discussion of motherhood, and the constant allusion to Medea only serves to underscore that brutality.
Now, my mother-in-law, Donna, makes a very fancy version, and they’re to die for. Same process, but the mixture also includes a teaspoon each of cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. And brown-sugar-candied bacon (flavored with cinnamon and cayenne pepper) and chopped scallions. I mean, heaven and hell combined.
However, by the end, Esch recognizes the power in motherhood. When Manny, the boy Esch loves, and Skeetah, Esch’s brother and China’s owner, are discussing China, Manny says, “Takes a lot out of an animal to nurse and nurture like that. Price of being female.” Skeetah responds, “You serious? That’s when they come into they strength. They got something to protect . . . That’s power.” Esch’s power is released on Manny, the father of her child, just as Katrina’s power is released. When Manny denies both Esch and their unborn child, Esch finally identifies with the destructive forces in Medea. “This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting. I rake my fingernails across his face, leave pink scratches that turn red, fill with blood.” She is Medea. The fear, the quiet that she felt trapped by earlier in the story has dissipated, and as she gains power, so too does the storm.
Eggs in purgatory are a new discovery and much harder for me, primarily because they’re a bit more labor intensive and require some precision in timing. Both things I’m not great at. First, I make a spicy tomato sauce, starting by sautéing garlic and red pepper flakes. Then I add canned diced tomatoes, salt, pepper, and basil, and I simmer this mixture until it turns into a sauce (about 25 minutes). During this process, I add Parmesan and butter to taste. When the sauce is thick and delicious, I use a wooden spoon to create little wells—6—and then crack an egg directly into each. The egg poaches right there in the little nest! I cover the pan with a lid and let it cook for 3 minutes for a runny yolk, longer for a hard yolk. I like a harder yolk, so 4 ½ minutes is perfect for me. Then I serve it with garlic bread, sometimes over pasta, sometimes over roasted veggies. The red sauce, the spicy red pepper flakes, sets your mouth on fire, but the smoothness of the eggs, the slight sweetness of the yolk, mellows the whole thing. Purgatory.
Esch feels the storm gathering power. Eventually, the personified storm becomes a violent, vindictive Medea. “I have been waiting for you,” and “The hurricane says ssssssshhhhhhh,” and “The hurricane laughed.” Just as Esch had become Medea so too Hurricane Katrina becomes Medea, a violent and destructive force. When Esch, her brothers, and Big Henry go out to survey the neighborhoods after the storm, Esch reflects on the hurricane and, again, the direct comparison to Medea is made clear:
I will…tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.
In this final contemplation of Medea and motherhood, the most destructive forces are revealed. The storm has reached epic proportions and reduced the people and the land to infants, wiping everything clean, mercilessly. Motherhood leaves the land broken and bare, but alive. It is a dramatic and tragic end to a story, but there is redemption and hope in the idea of motherhood, in the idea of power. Esch finally claims it in the end as they all wait for China, together as a family. She no longer wants to question China about motherhood, and she is done with the book of mythology, swept away in the storm. She knows China will see her for what she is. “She will know that I am a mother.”
Eggs in clouds are interesting—you treat the eggs separately and then combine them. Using 4 raw eggs, I place all the egg whites in one bowl and place the yolks in 4 separate bowls. I whip the whites together until they’re fluffy with stiff peaks (this takes some time;be patient). I then softly fold ¼ cup cooked, crumbled bacon, ½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, and ¼ cup chopped chives into the egg whites. I’m careful with this bit; I don’t want to compromise the air in the yolks—a gentle fold. Then I spoon 4 heaps of the egg white mixture onto a cooking sheet, creating a little divot in the top. I cook this at 450 for 3 minutes, and, after, I add the egg yolk to each divot. Finally, I put it back in the oven for another few minutes, until the yolks are the slightly-over-medium consistency I like. Most people like a runnier yolk, so 2–3 minutes is fine. The bacon adds a nice amount of saltiness, but a crack of pepper tops it all off for me.
So who are we as mothers? Can we be Esch and China and Katrina all at once? Is Medea our true North? Why do so many egg recipes rely on the separation of egg whites and egg yolks? Is it because we’re torn in two through the birthing process and then repeatedly severed from our former lives, former selves, over and over and over again? Why the hard boiling, the whipping into submission, the baking and rebaking? It’s unpopular to think of motherhood other than as a desirable, blissful experience, but it’s a nasty, destructive force that often leaves the mother hollowed out and depleted, only to be filled again by a mixture not quite of her own making. And of course, at the end of it all, we place that egg directly in our mouths and consume it.
Tarra Stevenson holds an MA from Loyola Marymount University and an MFA from UC Riverside-Palm Desert. She teaches at an all-girls school in Pasadena where she is a fierce proponent of women’s rights (and wrongs). She has poetry and short stories published in Vinyl, Shirley Magazine, the LA Miscellany, and Writer’s Resist, and she is the Book Reviews editor for The Coachella Review. She is working on a novel