It all started when a friend and I had been shopping and wanted a fast, healthy lunch. Whole Foods was the closest place. I headed for the salad bar and roasted veggies and she made a beeline for the deli counter for a pint of egg salad (at least one of us was going for healthy).
We both dislike the salad bar there because the vegetables are usually bland and undercooked (they were both that day), but the egg salad was delicious: bright yellow, big pieces of egg white, just enough creaminess, a little scallion garnish. I’d never bought it, since egg salad uses so few ingredients it’s silly not to make your own. This one, with cage-free eggs, costs $8.99 a pound; you can buy a lot of cage-free eggs for that.
It’s a curious thing about deli tuna salad and egg salad. I actually think it’s hard to replicate the taste of deli tuna at home, and for some reason that’s the taste I like. But egg salad? Boil the eggs, mash them with up with some mayo, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and you’re done. I add a little Dijon mustard, which is hard to detect, but gives it a lift.
I always thought that it was an old wives’ tale that eggs taste better in the spring, when the days are longer and chickens get more light. It turns out to be true. I called Chip-in Farm in Bedford, and talked to co-owner Neil Couvee. His chickens are “free-running,” which is an expression the family-owned farmers, who have been at this since 1944, used before the term “cage-free” came into existence. (The family chipped in to buy the farm, hence the name.)
In the spring, says Couvee, “chickens have more energy because the climate is just what they want. They’re refreshed, almost like starting out as young pullets.” The chickens molt over the winter, stop laying, lose some feathers, even go off their feed. Come spring, he says, it’s like a rejuvenation.
On its label, Whole Foods egg salad is made with cage-free eggs, mayo, celery, scallion, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, sea salt, and nisin. According to the government-based National Center for Biotechnology Information, nisin is a peptide that is effective in suppressing food-spoilage pathogens. It’s a fermentation product of a food-grade bacterium.
So the good taste of Whole Foods egg salad is the result of its short list of ingredients.
I kept going and decided to taste other egg salads. None came close to Whole Foods.
Most disappointing was Trader Joe’s ($3.69 for a 10-ounce container), which is pale, soupy, with a pronounced taste of red onion and celery. If you close your eyes, you’d never know it was egg salad. Maybe you’d guess potato. The label says cage-free eggs. The list of preservatives is long.
Stop & Shop and Star Market egg salad look almost identical. Stop & Shop ($5.99 a pound) is chunky with a nice yellow color and creamy texture, but it’s chalky, and leaves you with a funny aftertaste. Star Market ($4.99 a pound), also bright yellow and chunky, has flecks of celery. It’s made with soybean-oil mayonnaise that tastes like Miracle Whip.
Wegmans ($5.99 a pound) is also made with soybean-oil mayo, and after Whole Foods, has the shortest ingredient list. It was my runner-up favorite. Badly needs salt and pepper. Problem solved with salty crackers. (Husband drizzled it with olive oil, pepper, and salt.)
Friends who stopped by were all subjected to the egg salad tasting, and all were surprised how varied a simple thing can look and taste.
“You eat egg salad because your body wants mayo,” said one.
I ate egg salad that day at Whole Foods because my body was craving something more than charred Brussels sprouts with rock-hard interiors.