The Curious History of the Complimentary Bar Egg
Peanuts and pretzels may be commonplace on bar tops today, but back in the 1800s, a different snack was available to saloon-goers: hard-boiled eggs. The point, then, was to offer some sustenance to counter cocktails so patrons wouldn’t get sloppily drunk, but the eggs were also there to make people thirsty enough to order more drinks. Now, nary a hard-boiled egg – with shell – can be found on bars, mostly because of legal sanctions.
“Hard-boiled eggs on the bar were a big deal for our fearless leader, Keith McNally,” says Joel Lee Kulp, once part of the opening bartending staff at New York’s Pastis, and now co-owner of The Richardson and Grand Ferry Tavern in Brooklyn. “The eggs signified this real ‘everyman’ environment, even within the walls of the hottest restaurant opening of the time,” he says. Unfortunately, the health department wasn’t so keen on the idea and cracked down with an extremely strict window of time when the eggs could be placed out for the taking.
When the eggs did make their appearance, they were either viewed as a curiosity or a welcome indulgence. “While some guests found it strange, it was the European clientele who had the least issue of simply digging in and asking for a side of salt and mustard, which we gladly supplied,” says Kulp. “The egg-eaters were mostly men, and the most experienced of them had an actual technique allowing them to crack, roll, unravel, and eat an egg while leaving nothing behind but shell pieces within a folded napkin.” Unfortunately for the bartenders, this grace does not extend to all patrons.
The Hard-Boiled Bar Egg in Days of Yore
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but there was a time when bar eggs came pretty close. “Any bar was going to have eggs in the first place because they were used in so many punches and egg flips,” explains Richard Foss, culinary historian, author of “Rum: A Global History,” and California curator of the Museum of the American Cocktail. “But starting in New Orleans in the 1860s, you have the tradition of the free lunch on the bar. Hard-boiled eggs are stable and can stay there for an hour or two.” Plus, even among the hands of all those customers, the shell of a hard-boiled egg keeps it unadulterated, so you don’t have to worry about the purity of your fare.
But how did eggs find their way into bars in the first place? Near the mid-1800s, pickled eggs were a staple in German saloons in the United States. “The influx of Germans changed America’s taste about beer drinking,” says Foss. “I would very much suspect that they might have brought in a taste for these pickled things that go very well with lager as well,” he adds, explaining that the pickled egg is still a very popular bar snack in Hesse, Germany. “The pickled egg I had near Frankfurt was precisely the same flavor as the one at Joe Jost’s,” a tavern founded in 1924 in Long Beach, California, where, Foss says, “there is an offering of lurid, green, pickled, hard-boiled eggs.”
That absinthe-like color scheme is not a constant, however. Though a NYC man now, Kulp’s roots are more industrial and so is his exposure to egg variations. “Growing up in post-steel industry eastern Pennsylvania, hard-boiled eggs at the bar were a given. In my neck of the woods, they were pickled, usually beet red, in a large plastic jar behind the bar – and always next to another plastic jar containing pickled, hot, ring bologna.”
Some bar patrons are just a bit suspicious of anything too commonplace being elevated to another level. “I think fancy artisanal pickled eggs are another permutation of the broader trend of things that used to be folksy and kind of blue collar being gussied up and made into a luxury for yuppies,” says Pete Cunningham of New Haven, Connecticut.
Regardless of its trend-value, the hard-boiled egg is logical. “It’s cheap, appealing and portion-controlled,” says Foss. “People tend to take one or two, but they’re not going to wallow in them.” While you’re still likely to encounter many a pickled egg in bars, the tried-and-true hard-boiled egg is a rare find. For those who haven’t given beer and eggs a shot – neon, pickled, or otherwise – keep an open mind. And keep your eyes open for the erstwhile complimentary egg.