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November 22, 2017

What are the origins of the deviled egg?

'Infrequently Asked Questions' seeks the answer

Versatile as the egg may be, few recipes are as classic and universally enjoyed as the deviled egg – salty, creamy and slightly spicy.

So, to the point: Where'd they come from?

Curious, we reached out to food historian Megan Alias, director of gastronomy at Boston University and author of the University of Pennsylvania Press-published "Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture." 

A good place to start: How would you define a "deviled egg," in both preparation and ingredients?

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I’d say a deviled egg, in 2017, is a hardboiled egg with the yolk taken out, mixed with mayonnaise and flavorings, and spooned — or piped – back in. Flavorings can be anything a person likes, but some common ones are pickle relish, mustard, curry powder. It used to be the thing to dust the egg with paprika, but I don’t see that much anymore.

Is there an origin story for how they first came to be prepared? 

Not that I know of. They were called "stuffed eggs" until the late 19th century when the craze for “deviling” things arose. Deviled crab and lobster were especially popular in the United States among the middle class. To "devil" something was to add some hot spices like mustard powder or cayenne.

Yolks were mixed with butter and cream before commercial mayonnaise became available.

Stuffed eggs often were a kind of middle ground between what we know as deviled eggs and Scotch eggs. Eighteenth-century recipes have them cook bread [between] the stuffed egg and bake it, for example.

Deviled eggs were first consistently served cold toward the end of the 19th century when iceboxes — a kind of proto-refrigerator – became a more common feature in middle-class homes.

Refrigeration as we now know it gave deviled eggs a big boost and really changed their taste. Now we expect them to be chilled. Shelf-stable mayonnaise also made them much easier to make — no need to cream butter.

Has it traditionally been meant more as a snack or an appetizer?

Snacks as a food category is a pretty recent phenomenon. People have snacked forever, of course, but identifying some things as snacks and others as meals is a late-20th-century phenomenon. Deviled eggs were an hors-d'oeuvre or a lunch dish, traditionally.

Any tie to Pennsylvania or the Northeast? It seems like more of a Northeast comfort food. 

They seem to have a strong presence in the South, too, and I think they are really pretty common everywhere in the United States.

Has the deviled egg been reclaimed in recent years? Fresh takes on the recipe, etc.

Definitely! Deviled eggs were part of the comfort food revival in the 1990s and they continue to appeal to people interested in perpetuating American “classics” like macaroni and cheese. They’re also part of the new Southern cooking scene. And people do try to bring contemporary twists to them — Sriracha, for example. And bacon, of course. There isn’t that much material to work with, though — a tablespoon of yolk mixture at most!

Is there a culture that traditionally uses eggs in this way, with the egg as the main attraction of the dish, than others? 

Eggs in general, and deviled eggs, in particular, were very much a part of the social lunch culture that middle-class women presided over between the end of the 19th century and World War II. Not yet in the workforce, but also not typically doing their own housework, middle-class women had time to entertain and to visit other women. Deviled eggs were fun and light dishes to serve to friends at lunch parties. Another popular lunch dish was eggs a la goldenrod, which is essentially chopped hard boiled eggs under béchamel sauce, served on toast.

Deviled eggs also appear on the menus of the restaurants that began to cater to women in the late 19th century. As middle-class women began spending time in public spaces like department stores and museums, restaurateurs saw them as a new market. Because it was not considered respectable for a woman to eat lunch in a saloon, where men lunched, new establishments opened that catered specifically to “ladies.”  Deviled eggs were a cheap but attractive food to put on the menu.

At the saloons where respectable women dared not go, eggs tended to be served pickled, pulled out of a large jar on the counter.

Anything to add?

Because deviled eggs present some structural challenges in serving – they slide, they fall over, etc. – there are special plates designed to hold them. Decorative deviled egg plates were once the kind of thing people got as wedding presents. Often chicken-themed, of course.