It's March 24, day 15 of my self-quarantine, and my wife and I are maintaining sanity by burning through seminal HBO drama The Wire. It takes about half a season to take hold, but there is an immaculate moment in season two, episode two, that will be with me for the rest of my life.
In the scene, a group of longshoremen gather at Dolores' Bar the morning after a night of hard drinking. “Who wants breakfast?” one of them exclaims, walking into the bar with a dozen extra-large white eggs. One by one, the longshoremen take an egg, crack it into their pint glass, and suck it down.
I clamber for my remote.
I replay the scene again and again. There it is: a barroom full of blue collar boozehounds making breakfast out of Coors Light, albumen, and vitellus. I know egg whites are common in cocktails like gin fizzes and beer flips, but those are delicacies. Here we have corner store eggs plunked into a lager and gulped Rocky style. When the hell did this become a thing?
They would crack it and drop it into a glass of beer and drink it. Sometimes they would even put pepper in it.”
Turns out The Wire isn’t the only pop culture precedent for the practice. Paul Newman’s drunk lawyer treated himself to one in The Verdict, the eggs laid nonchalantly on the bartop. In Cocktail, a fresh-faced Tom Cruise is taught how to make a Red Eye—a beer-and-egg variant with tomato juice and aspirin. Rainn Wilson’s character also did it in the pilot for short-lived series Backstrom, but one thing is consistent across all the forums I scour looking for answers. Whether it be Reddit or Quora or, um, eGullet, the inquiry starts with someone seeing it on TV and being flabbergasted.
The answers are also uniformly the same: just a bunch of internet so-and-sos commenting, “Oh yeah, people used to do that all the time.”
Speaking to MyRecipes, culinary historian Richard Foss explains that, in Elizabethan England, doctors would prescribe eggs and alcohol to help balance the body’s humors. The cultural impact carried over to the United States, mutating over the centuries. The oldest written record stateside I can find relating raw eggs and beer is from a 1907 column in The Lafayette Advertiser. In 1910, a man in Newark made news because he accidentally swallowed his false teeth after friends advised him to drink an egg in beer. In 1915, a Seattle liquor wholesaler named J. Aronson raised a stir for selling raw eggs in beer for 5 cents. The judge assigned to the case remarked to the Seattle Times that, “None I ever heard of has experienced egg in beer.”
From these early clippings, there are a handful of epithets given to the egg-beer combination. That first record calls it a “graveyard cocktail.” A 1916 Oregon newspaper called it a “spring tonic.” The Hangover Handbook calls it an “egg burp.” But by far the most common name is “the miner’s breakfast.”
Mark A. Noon’s Yuengling: A History of America's Oldest Brewery contains just about the only by-name mention of the miner’s breakfast in an academic text, and any and all recent reporting on the subject contains some sort of reference to this passage: “The miner would first gulp a shot of whiskey and then sooth his burning throat by chugging the raw egg and beer concoction. Then, it was off to the mines, perhaps planning to return to the bar on the way home.”
Photojournalist Jim Burger grew up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where his dad owned a bar. In blue collar hangs like his, eggs, believed to be good sources of nutrition and excellent hangover cures, were passed out as snacks—hard boiled, pickled, and yes, sometimes raw. “They’d be in a bowl on the bar,” Burger remembers. “Guys ate it, and the shells would be all over. Some guys would come in and ask for a raw egg. They would crack it and drop it into a glass of beer and drink it. Sometimes they would even put pepper in it.”
Burger moved to Baltimore in 1978, and he saw stevedores and tugboat captains doing the same thing in bars along Fort Ave. But the practice of egg-and-beer mostly disappeared in the 1980s after a deadly Salmonella outbreak in New York City. At the same time, factories were closing, and blue-collar dive bars went with them. “The whole work environment changed,” Burger says. “I could assure you, I never saw a banker ask for a raw egg to throw into his beer.”
My father put egg in his beer before going to work, and sometimes he'd put a raw egg in wine when he said he needed more iron in his blood.”
To get some insight as to how the concoction ended up in one of the seminal dramas of the early 2000s, I try going directly to the source by contacting series writer David Simon, but all he offers is another matter-of-fact anecdote. “Baltimore longshoremen told us of that particular working breakfast,” he says, blessing my Twitter mentions.
Season two writer Rafael Alvarez offers more of an explanation. The son of a tugboat engineer, Alvarez was a city reporter with The Baltimore Sun for 23 years before Simon brought him onto The Wire for 14 episodes specifically to flesh out the lives of the longshoremen. Alvarez cites one of his sources, Carroll Callinan, an 85-year-old retired longshoreman. Callinan, his father, and his grandfather had been working the Baltimore docks since the early 20th century, and they did their drinking in a bar on the 1700 block of Thames Street.
“My father put egg in his beer before going to work, and sometimes he'd put a raw egg in wine when he said he needed more iron in his blood,” Callinan says. “Who knows if it worked, but that's what he believed.” Carroll drank more than his share of beer in his day, always without the egg. “The oldtimers said it would fill their stomach before going to work, but I never grabbed onto it.”
So, that’s why, the day before Easter, when I wake with a knock in my cerebellum (I’d spent the night before—day 26 of quarantine—Zooming and drinking too much grapefruit vodka), I amble down to the kitchen and pour half of my last can of Bell’s Light Hearted into a dimpled stein. I crack an egg on the rim. The yolk sinks right to the bottom, a bulb of protein sitting tauntingly beneath the foam. I drink it fast, and it goes down like medicine. It lasts only a moment, but it’s a dreadful moment. I burp in big, sulphuric bursts for the rest of the day.
Mine is a greenhorn gut. My dad worked in elevator pits, but there are no calluses on my drinking hand. What I drink as a curiosity is a habit of a bygone way of life, preserved only in TV and movies and a few scattered message boards. The drink has rejected my body, not the other way around.