If you’ve been to any family gathering, picnic, or potluck in the United States, you have probably eaten, or at least seen a deviled egg. The deviled egg is almost a cultural icon for intimate parties in this country. However, as American, as they may seem, they did not originate here, and they exist in other varieties in different nations. As an example, these tasty treats are referred to as deviled eggs in the UK, and as dressed eggs, eggs mimosa, stuffed eggs, and angel eggs in other parts of the world. They may also contain different ingredients than the familiar U.S. version. However, it all starts with one good egg.
The U.S. version of deviled eggs is probably the one you know best, and you would recognize it anywhere. It is a boiled, shelled egg, cut in half, with the yolk scooped out. The yolk is then mashed up into a paste and mixed with other ingredients for flavor, usually mayonnaise, mustard, and pickle relish, and put back into the hollowed-out portions of the egg. Sometimes, the mashed yolks are dusted with paprika. The dish is usually served cold, on a platter, with other boiled, halved eggs fixed up in the same way. Most often, they are an appetizer or side dish and are a classic party food.
The deviled egg became popular at picnics and parties in the United States after WWII. However, there are references to eggs prepared in similar ways going all the way back to ancient Rome. The ancient Romans actually began the deviled egg tradition, though it has changed much over the centuries. In Rome, thousands of years ago, eggs were boiled, then slathered with spicy sauces of varying kinds; they were served as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal, usually at the home of wealthy citizens who could afford the eggs and the cooks to prepare them. There is even a reference to deviled eggs in their primitive form in an ancient work of fiction called “Satyricon.” In this book, a wealthy Roman citizen throws a banquet where the meat of songbirds is marinated in peppered egg yolk and stuffed into the white part of boiled peahen eggs.
The taste for stuffed eggs didn’t disappear with ancient Rome. They probably continued to be eaten for centuries after the fall of the empire. However, they re-enter the written historical record in the 1200s in Andalusia, which is now modern-day Spain. A cookbook exists from this time that includes a recipe for mashed boiled egg yolks mixed with cilantro, coriander, onion juice, pepper, and fermented barley or fish sauce. This mixture was then stuffed into the two halves of a hollowed-out boiled egg white, and the two stuffed halves were put back together and held in place with a stick (essentially the prototype of the toothpick).
By the 1400s, different varieties of stuffed eggs were popular all over Europe. Medieval cookbooks are full of recipes for stuffed, boiled eggs. Usually, they were stuffed as we know them today, inside hollowed out egg whites, though the stuffings were different; sometimes, they were topped with sauces or powdered sugar. These medieval deviled eggs may have contained cheese, herbs, raisins, and flavored oils. Sometimes they were fried after they were stuffed, while other times they were not. The medieval version of the deviled egg was served hot, unlike the cold dish we know and love today.
The precursor to the modern deviled egg began to appear in American cookbooks in the mid-1800s. The term “deviled” was a British one that began being used in 1786 to refer to dishes that included foods with very hot or spicy ingredients, or that were boiled or fried. The Americans appropriated it in the 1800s as a term for making foods spicy. The original deviled eggs in the United States were spicy things, and the name stuck. However, some churches today do not like to use anything with a reference to the word “devil” in it, and so use “stuffed eggs,” “dressed eggs,” or “salad eggs” when they are served at church functions. This is especially true with the Mormon church.
The first suggestion for the use of mayonnaise in deviled eggs was in the 1896 version of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook. In this early recipe, the mayonnaise was recommended as a binding agent for the other ingredients that would go in the yolk. Until 1907, mayonnaise was made at home; it was only after that it became available in stores as a pre-made item. Even with the commercial availability of mayonnaise, it did not become part of the “classic” American deviled egg recipe until the 1940s. It is now virtually unheard of to have a deviled egg without mayonnaise unless you’re eating one made by a gourmet chef who likes to experiment. Restaurants have been known to replace the mayonnaise with things like kimchi, crab meat, wasabi, bacon, and even caviar in some places, in order to put their own unique touch on the classic dish.
It is interesting that while the recipe for “classic” American deviled eggs has remained virtually unchanged since the 1940s, you will still usually taste distinct variations in them, depending on which family makes the eggs. If you eat at a lot of family gatherings for different branches of your family, and those of your friends, you may even get to where you can identify a family instantly on tasting their deviled eggs.
This interesting variation among such small groups is because each family usually puts their own spin on the deviled egg a couple of generations ago when the modern version first became popular. In addition to the regular mayonnaise, mustard, dill pickle relish, and paprika, you will find a lot of other ingredients added to the mix, depending on where you eat your eggs. Things like tartar and Worcestershire sauces, salt, pepper, chile peppers, green olives, vinegar, pimento, minced onion, capers, and sour cream are all commonly used variations in deviled eggs across the United States.
However you like your deviled eggs, it has probably been the way your family has made the dish since the 1940s. In a way, deviled eggs can tell you something about your family history. That just makes them even more special. So go ahead and enjoy the version you like best… you’re in good ancestral company.