Eggs to dye for

Story and Photos by Laura Wainwright - April 13, 2006

A basketful of decorated eggs from Laura Wainwright's collection.

As I was walking around Duarte's Pond this morning with my dogs, the geese and ducks were swimming in pairs, honking madly. Now is time for egg laying and rearing young. Everything alive is leaning into the new season. It's no surprise that this is a time of celebrations across the world, especially in the Northern Hemisphere.

For me, nothing expresses the joy and hope of spring more than an egg. There is something fundamental and deeply satisfying about an egg. I love to hold one warm just after it's been laid, marveling at its lovely shape and the life it holds within.

I look forward each year to decorating eggs and putting them up on an egg tree or in baskets around the house. I have a growing collection of blown eggs, beautifully painted. Some we make at home, poking the raw eggs with needles and carefully blowing out the contents, so as not to break the delicate shells. Others are from different places we've visited, such as Mexico and Italy. Many are gifts from friends. Every one tells a story and triggers a memory.

I have always associated the egg at springtime with the celebration of Easter. However, the egg has been a symbol of creation and rebirth and an important ingredient in spring festivals for at least three thousand years. Egyptian, Indian, Phoenician and Persian people believed the earth was produced by the breaking or hatching of an enormous world egg.

To dye eggs the natural way, here's what to do:

Put eggs in a single layer in a pan. Pour water in pan until the eggs are covered

Add about a teaspoon of vinegar.

Add the natural ingredients for the color you want your eggs to be. (The more eggs you are dying, the more dye you will need.) ??

Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove the substance you used to color the eggs. Put eggs in a bowl. If you want your eggs to be a darker shade, cover them with the dye and let them stand overnight in the refrigerator.

Eggs were colored and exchanged (and eaten) at ancient spring festivals the way we now trade valentines. The Chinese exchanged red eggs as part of spring festivities as far back as 1,000 years B.C. Lovers used them as tokens of devotion. Parents gave them as special gifts to children.

The decorations on eggs were usually inspired by nature. Flowers, leaves, trees, and fruits were common images. Geometric shapes had specific symbolic meanings and personal messages could be secretly encoded. Each color also had a specific symbolism, which added to both the meaning and the beauty of the finished egg.

The early Christians had the good sense to perpetuate existing local customs like egg painting and layer them with new meanings. The symbolism of the egg was changed from representing nature's rebirth to man's redemption through Jesus Christ. But the tradition of coloring and exchanging eggs was continued. It was actually intensified, because the eating of eggs was forbidden during Lent, the period leading up to Easter. People who kept hens would boil their eggs, color and decorate them and store them until Easter time, when they could be exchanged or given and, finally, eaten.

When I lived in Florence, Italy, each year my Austrian friend, Eve, would have an egg painting party and young and old from many backgrounds and cultures would cluster around her dining room table blowing eggs and delicately painting them. We'd each return home with a small branch of an olive tree from which dangled with our newly painted eggs.

This year when I paint and dye eggs with my family and friends, I plan to buy Island eggs, instead of the imported white ones. I love the variety of colors in a box of local eggs, ranging from blues to pale tans to rich browns. I know these will be much healthier and tastier when I turn them into devilled eggs or egg salad after the hunt, or make a frittata with the innards of the blown eggs.

I'm also going to experiment with using natural dyes by boiling the eggs with leaves or petals of certain flowers, herbs, and vegetables like our ancestors did. I will make pale red using fresh beets or cranberries. For orange I'll boil the eggs with yellow onion skins. Pale green will come from fresh spinach leaves and yellows from carrot tops, celery seed, ground cumin, and turmeric. I'll make blue dye using red cabbage leaves or canned blueberries. Finally, after we're done, we'll put them on a cherry tree. A tree symbolizes life, but a cherry adds to this a wish for happiness and love.

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.