Breakfasts in Art: Oeufs a la Camus
L'Etranger by Albert Camus
by H.P. Seuss
In my adolescence, I was briefly but fervently an existentialist. I would skulk to school worrying that I might slay a passing pupil for the sheer hell of it, just because the sun got in my eyes. I would mistake indigestion for profound realisations of the essential now-ness of existence. And I would foist Camus's L'Etranger on all my friends.
Not all of them found inspiration in his scorched streets and crystal seas. However, one read the novella at least as voraciously. But you can never predict another's reaction, and to the question "which is your favourite bit", he cited not the famous opening line; not the dazzling scene of the Arab's slaying; not the bit where Meursault nobly faces his execution at the hands of an incomprehending state; but the following sentence: "Je me suis fait cuire des œufs et je les ai mangés à même le plat". Or: "I cooked some eggs and ate them out the pan". This he regarded as the pinnacle of Camus's acheivement.
With the benefit of my years, I realise my frend's instincts were more acute than I first imagined. For though I grew out of my existential phase fairly promptly, I have never quite grown out of my taste for oeufs a la Camus, a dish that captures the very essence of French intellectual chic and teaches us something of life.
The preparation could not be simpler. Crack two eggs into a thin slick of oil in a frying pan, cook to your taste and consume them with a fork, standing up ("j'ai fait ma cuisine et j'ai mangé debout" Meursault explains later). A piece of buttered baguette may accompany your eggs, though strictly speaking, it would be inauthentic (Meursault eats his feast "sans pain parce que je n'en avais plus et que je ne voulais pas descendre pour en acheter"; however, I take it that he would have eaten bread were some lying around, so I see no reason to forgo carbohydrate for the sake of it). One important point: a stick frying pan should be used as non-stick is liable to scratch on contact with fork, but this being a rather bourgeois concern, I will emphasise that seasoned metal imparts a better taste to the eggs and Meursault would not have encountered Teflon in 1950s Algiers. A wok, it occurs to me, might provide an interesting variation; I don't know, I have never tried using one.
One obvious advantage of the dish is that the eggs do not get cold. But this again seems a trifling care, so instead I will emphasis the dish's philosophical worth in freeing us from the absurdities of bourgeois routine; in making an urgent appeal to our senses; and in isolating the
life-force of the egg, distilling breakfast to its very essence, reminding us that existence precedes it.