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The Ambiguous History of ‘Egg in a Hole’

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How did a simple dish — fried eggs in toast — end up having so many names?

Leigh Anne Meeks/Shutterstock

Whether you're calling it egg in a hole, egg with a hat, or gashouse egg, a fried egg in toast is having a moment. Regardless of its name, the dish (and cooking process) is the same: A slice of bread toasts in a buttered skillet, minus its center, which has been cut out with a glass or a ring cutter. In the meantime, a fried egg cooks in the hole, seasoned as the egg sets. The cook then flips, browns, and serves with whatever accompaniments it warrants.

The breakfast can serve as a reminder of childhood, a dish that's less absurd than Cap'n Crunch-encrusted French toast or an order of pancakes with Mickey Mouse ears. And it's a win for restaurants, since the ingredients aren't expensive, it calls for minimal technique, and it's an easy upsell. At a restaurant, the ingredients without sides cost less than $3 a serving, even if the dish features $9-per-dozen organic eggs with bright yolks, a slice of artisan bread, and new crop olive oil or cultured butter. But how did the humble dish, served across European cultures, end up with myriad names on restaurant menus everywhere?

Photo: sasaken/Shutterstock

Origins

While egg in a hole (or egg in a basket, or egg in a frame, if you prefer) originated at the turn of the last century around the same time as eggs Benedict, the latter has a firmer origin story. Eggs Benedict, featuring poached eggs, bacon, and hollandaise sauce atop an English muffin, was supposedly created at the swanky Waldorf Hotel €— it was allegedly made at the request of a hungover Wall Street banker with the surname Benedict, and the name stuck. A dish of more humble origins, a fried-egg-in-toast was cooked across cultures, brought to America by home cooks who spoke a library of languages. The recipe passed along like a folk tale, by word-of-mouth.

An official recipe called "egg with a hat" first made an appearance in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer in the 1890s, calling for a two-and-a-half-inch cookie cutter to remove the bread's center, which, served atop the cooked egg, becomes the "hat." With no recipe intro and fewer than 100 words, it's a quick instruction, but the cookbook's 13 print editions passed the recipe down through generations.

But as the hat in Farmer's recipe may suggest, the dish, in the late 19th century, would have gone beyond everyday effort, in part because of the cutout and perhaps because egg production wasn't as prolific as it is today — especially in cities, where there was little chance for raising chickens in a yard. Around the same time that Farmer's recipe appeared, many an Italian-American home cook who arrived during the migration waves between the 1860s and 1920s assembled a more rustic version, uova fritte nel pane, with peppers or tomatoes on the side. (The name is more fun in Moonstruck, the 1987 movie about an Italian-American family, during which the Olympia Dukakis's character calls the dish "egg in a trashcan," or uova nel cestino.)

Pop culture could have helped popularize other names for the egg-in-a-hole.

Popular culture could have helped to popularize other names in the mid-20th century. The 1941 film Moon Over Miami with Betty Grable uses the term "gashouse eggs," which may be a transliteration of the German word gasthaus, the word for a country house or an inn.

While you'd rarely find people tinkering with the name eggs Benedict, what to call a fried-egg-in-toast remains in flux today. It's earned a slew of monikers, from the strange to the provocative: bird's nest, egg-in-a-basket, the Popeye, the one-eyed jack, and in a confusing twist to Brits, a toad-in-a-hole.

Do not confuse the egg-in-toast rendition with the British dish of the same name, which is basically "sausage links baked in a popover-like Yorkshire pudding batter," cites Chris Ying of Lucky Peach in the upcoming cookbook, The Wurst of Lucky Peach: A Treasury of Encased Meat. An early recipe for the British toad-in-a-hole is found in Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery from the mid-1700s, with pigeon instead of sausages. Then it shows up, with the permission to use any variation of leftover meat, in an 1861 recipe by the Victorian Charles Elme Francatelli, an Italian living in England. This version originated in a country with a common language as the very British Yorkshire pudding, and the dish earned a name that sticks. But like its American egg-in-a-hole cousin, the naming origin of the meat-in-pudding dish is also lost to history.

An iteration of toad-in-a-hole at Whitfield restaurant, Pittsburgh. Photo: courtesy Ace Hotel

Why We're Seeing It

At the breakfast-focused restaurant Egg in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, its $13 rendition of egg-in-a-hole is named for the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Eggs Rothko has remained the most popular dish since Egg opened in 2005. "It ended up on our menu because my friend Melissa, who helped me get the restaurant open, was Mark Rothko's great-niece," said owner George Weld. "As I recall, lore in her family held that this was his favorite or go-to breakfast dish."

At Egg, the addition of colorful cheese and tomatoes reference the artist's colorblocking. The kale is the vegetarian option for a side, while the others are bacon, candied bacon, sausage, country ham, and scrapple. "I'm not sure exactly how Rothko liked it," Weld said, considering the artist grew up in Portland, Oregon having emigrated from Russia as a child. "I'm not even sure whether he served it with cheese."

In a restaurant setting, the dish shows "a confidence and a self-assuredness in the kitchen."

But Weld sometimes wishes he called the dish a "bird's nest" instead. "The Rothko is the only dish with a proper name on our menu and it always seemed a little out of place," said Weld. "But before I could get around to changing it, it was too popular to mess with, or so I thought. And it seems to have stuck. It's even in an Action Bronson song."

Halfway across the country in Pittsburgh, a-fried-egg-in-toast helped Bethany Zozula land the executive chef gig at Whitfield, the restaurant inside the Ace Hotel outpost that opened in December. At the time, she served it with a homemade, super-hot pepper jam, winning the approval of culinary partner Brent Young (also of the Meat Hook and Meat Hook Sandwich Shop in Brooklyn).

And while it's the same on the restaurant's brunch menu —€” served everyday until 3 p.m. —€” "we've toned down the heat," she said. Zozula first had egg-in-toast when a high school boyfriend made it for her, calling it "the Betty Jane." Today, it's listed on her menu as toad-in-a-hole for $7. And yes, Zozula's version is gaining popularity at Whitfield, with some diners ordering it during dinner or doubling the eggs. "The first time someone asked for that, we were like, 'What does that look like? Is that two eggs in one piece of toast? Or two pieces of toast?' It felt kinda dirty," she joked.

Young was impressed when Zozula made this dish. "I think it showed a confidence and a self-assuredness in the kitchen," he said. He, like the generations of home cooks before him, was captivated by its simplicity — no matter what the time.