They are served on beds of waxed paper in cloudy Tupperware containers. Pieces of tape affixed to the bottom announce the names of the owners. They are served on sparkling antique crystal plates handed down through generations. Stoneware and china cradle them, too.
There are as many ways to serve deviled eggs as there are ways to create them. They are symbols of both survival and celebration. They can be piping-bag fancy or spoon-plopped simple. The yolks can be carefully creamed through a food mill or quickly mashed with a fork.
From the frugality of a mayonnaise, mustard and vinegar only approach to a sophisticated French riff with tarragon, imported Dijon mustard and artisanal butter, deviled eggs fit in just about anywhere.
The egg is a blank canvas. The creativity it inspires is infinite. I have seen them stuffed with Nova lox, Italian prosciutto, Spanish chorizo and even semisweet chocolate.
In our part of Appalachia, a church supper without deviled eggs would be cause for deep disappointment and worry over the future of the region’s cuisine. There may have been some shards of meatloaf left over or the green bean casseroles may not have been completely cleaned out at church-held meals I have attended, but the deviled egg dishes are always emptied.
Billie Van Dyke, owner of The Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle, Georgia, says, “Protocol dictates that a true Southern lady owns several deviled egg dishes to properly display this Southern favorite.” At churches in our region, the dish is as closely identified with the preparer as the eggs themselves, be that cook male or female. At our church, I know exactly who tops her eggs with chopped dill and who is partial to caper brine.
Like a lot of Southern cooks, Billie adds sweet pickle relish to her egg filling. Sometimes she will even double down, deviling eggs with deviled ham. She pours white sauce over them, sprinkles them with breadcrumbs, and runs them into the oven for a few minutes.
My mother leaned toward the spartan side, with the always-on-hand staples of mayonnaise, mustard and vinegar. I often used to upset the symmetry of her crystal deviled egg dish by indulging in early samplings hours before mealtime.
Like barbecue, chicken and dumplings, and macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs elicit strong opinions in the South. In some fundamentalist churches, the term “deviled” is avoided, in favor of the word “stuffed.” The parents of singer Katy Perry, both Pentecostal ministers, insisted that she call them “angeled eggs.”
The term “deviled” hearkens back to the time when hot pepper and other potent spices and seasonings were used in the filling. The hot pepper largely disappeared, in favor of ubiquitous sprinklings of sweet paprika. We bring the hot pepper back, though, in a Southwestern version of deviled eggs we have developed. If you do use paprika, be sure to buy a good Hungarian brand. It should be bright red-orange.
Even in the South, deviled eggs are harder to find on restaurant menus than one might think. They are especially scarce at blue-collar restaurants, strangely. Cafeteria lines still feature them, when you can find a cafeteria, but if we are looking for restaurant deviled eggs, our best bets are usually the more upscale places.
Husk in Nashville prepares them with smoked trout. Sam Beall, the late owner of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, often insisted on adding freshly foraged mountain ramps to his deviled eggs. At The Public House on Market Street in Chattanooga, deviled eggs are crowned with candied bacon from the smokehouse of Allan Benton, proprietor of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville.
Food stylist Rick Ellis, who grew up in Virginia and North Carolina and whose clients ranged from Burger King to the film “The Age of Innocence,” offers some good advice to deviled egg makers of any skill level. “Be a little bold here,” he says. “The flavors dull slightly when the eggs are chilled.”
Basic Southern Deviled Eggs
6 large eggs
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 heaping teaspoon prepared yellow mustard
1 heaping tablespoon sweet pickle relish
1/2 to 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil eggs and peel. Cut eggs in half and place cooked yolks in a small bowl. Mash yolks with a fork. Add mayonnaise, mustard, pickle relish, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Mix and stir until creamy. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed. Fill the hollowed egg white halves with the yolk mixture. Sprinkle each deviled egg with some paprika. Cover and refrigerate.
Southwestern Deviled Eggs
6 large eggs
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large whole pickled jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
1 teaspoon brine from the pickled jalapeños
1/8 teaspoon ground red chilies
1 tablespoon finely snipped fresh cilantro
Boil eggs and peel. Cut eggs in half and place cooked yolks in a small bowl. Mash yolks with a fork. Add mayonnaise, mustard, cumin, jalapeño, and brine. Mix thoroughly. Fill egg white halves and garnish with ground chilies and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate.
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”