Mary Shelley: Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

Mary Shelley - Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

With the polar vortex hitting New York and my Californian disregard for warm coats, it was bound to happen: I am sick. Not sick enough to be devastating, but just sick enough to be achy, whiny, and wishing for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup at all times. Instead of indulging myself, though, I took a cue from Mary Shelley, pulled on my pajamas, and made kale.

It’s tempting to think of kale as a marvel of modern marketing, engineered by the savvy people of Whole Foods to make us eat our vegetables. But the leafy green was one of the most common types of produce in Europe before it was outpaced by cabbage around 1600, and its popularity continued into the 18th century. For Shelley, kale wasn’t a trend, something to be massaged or blended into drinks. It wasn’t “healthy.” It was comforting.

Mary was the resident caregiver in her literary family; her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, wasn’t so good at looking after himself. “He could have lived on bread alone without repining,” his biographer Richard Henry Stoddard wrote. “Vegetables, and especially salads … were acceptable.” Mary was the one who made sure her husband was fed, not that he noticed much. She “used to send him something to eat into the room where he habitually studied; but the plate frequently remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day he might be heard asking, ‘Mary, have I dined?'”

Food has long been our chosen way of providing for those we love; when I was in college, my mom’s “care packages” were 5% socks, 95% cookies (a ratio I heartily approved of). Mary Shelley’s letters show just how far back the tradition goes. When her aunt Everina fell ill, Mary, far away in Rome, dispatched a friend to put together a care package of her own: “jelly, oranges, spongecakes and her favourite kale.” Kale became a frequent gift, an all-purpose treatment for what ails you.

A new batch of Shelley’s letters was recently discovered from when she herself was ill, with a brain tumor that would kill her a few years later. Percy was gone by then, as was Everina. The only person Mary had left to care for was herself, hopefully with her friends around her and some kale on the stove, cooking to heal the soul.

Kale and Fried Egg Tartine Recipe

Kale can seem like a spartan choice for dinner, but when served at brunch—stewed, with an egg on top—it becomes something rich, warm and inviting. Drizzling the eggs with vinegar, as Roger Vergé suggests, adds a brightness that transforms greens into a hearty meal, a cure-all.

Another benefit of this breakfast, especially for those low on energy, is its adaptability. Although tartines are typically made with pain au levain, Shelley would have preferred an Italian ciabatta; while in Rome, she wrote that the bread, “which is uneatable in France, is here the finest and whitest in the world.” You can also change your eggs to scrambled, sunnyside up or even poached—whatever comforts you the most.

4 slices (1-inch thick) crusty bread
1 garlic clove
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 small yellow onion, diced
1 cup chicken broth
1 bunch kale, center ribs removed, leaves torn into bite-size pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Parmesan cheese shavings, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place bread slices on a baking sheet and toast 2 minutes; flip slices over and  toast 2 minutes more. Cut garlic clove in half and rub cut side on all surfaces of the bread.

2. Add 4 tablespoons oil to a large pot (with a lid) over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and starting to brown. Add broth, kale and salt, cover, and cook 3 minutes. Remove cover and cook until kale is tender and water has mostly evaporated, about 4 minutes more.

3. Meanwhile, add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to a nonstick frying pan over medium-low heat. Crack eggs into pan, season with salt and pepper, and cook until whites are just set, about 2 minutes; flip and cook 10 seconds more.

4. Place bread on a serving plate, divide kale over the 4 slices, and top each with an egg. In the same frying pan used for the eggs, add vinegar over medium heat and cook until reduced by half. Drizzle over eggs, top with parmesan, and serve.

Note: Thanks to everyone who participated in the 2nd birthday giveaway! As announced in this month’s newsletter, the winner is … Becky Teague!
We’ve gotten in touch with Becky already to ship out the prize. Congratulations, and stay tuned for future giveaways.

19 thoughts on “Mary Shelley: Kale and Fried Egg Tartine

    1. Yup – it ends up reducing down to a syrup that, mixed with the leftover oil from the pan, turns into a vinaigrette. Divided among four, it’s glorious. Vinegar plus eggs is my new thing!

  1. Fictionquest

    Love this… will try recipe… my husband is not well… lymphoma…. this will revive his appetite especially since he is inspired by all tings Shelly 🙂

    1. Me too – I usually buy a ton and then try to figure out new ways to prepare it. Braising is one of my favorites (and braising greens can be done really quickly, which is always a plus for me).

  2. What a great breakfast idea. I am hooked on your suggestion about the vinegar! I want to try it. How do you decide about whom you are going to write about next. Your posts are so engaging. I am addicted to your blog.

    1. Thanks, Anita! I usually decide who to write about just from what I’m reading – I love finding out more about that author’s life, and often stumble upon something that discusses their eating habits. It’s a great scavenger hunt!

  3. Pingback: The Art of Darkness » Blog Archive » Paper and Salt

  4. Fascinating information about the Shelleys’ life and food – and writing habits! I sometimes think I’d like to disappear into my writing for a full day, shunning food and light and all the action around the house. Imagine the luxury of being able to write and write and write. I found it interesting, too, that kale had a life before it became a fad.

  5. I really like what you guys tend to be up too.
    This sort of clever work and reporting! Keep up the very good works guys I’ve added you guys to my own blogroll.

  6. Really enjoyed your post – I love all things 18th Century. I didn’t know kale existed before your Californians discovered it 😉
    Here a similar thing happened with rocket: it used to be a common herb, was forgotten and then re-ntroduced to Northern Europe under its Italian name rucola, which sounded sexy and exotic.

  7. Pingback: Vegetables of the Rich and Famous – Richard Glyn Jones

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