By Celia Barbour
Today, just before lunch, I left the kitchen and stepped out onto a great, sloping field where 25 people were standing in a circle, holding hands. These people, the counselors and staff of the camp where I’m cooking, were waiting for me. When I joined them, I listed what they would find on the table when they went inside: beet slaw, red pepper soup, savory tarts, spinach salad made with spinach that had been picked a few hours earlier from the farm a hundred yards away, rosemary-garlic croutons and honeydew melon.
And then I told them about the salad dressing I’d just whisked up, using the raw yolk of an egg laid by one of the farm’s many hens, along with lemon juice, Dijon mustard, sea salt and olive oil infused with garlic. I said the dressing could kill them but that they were adults and could decide for themselves whether to take the risk.
The camp director eyed me as if she were making a mental note to take me aside afterward for a little check-in.
I went back inside.
Once, last summer, I’d asked her if I could serve a dish that included homemade mayonnaise made with raw egg and was told absolutely, unequivocally no. So I had a hunch that my dressing was not, strictly speaking, OK. But it wasn’t defiance that made me flaunt the rules. It was simply this: The kids aren’t here yet.
In a week, they will arrive, driving up the long dirt road with their mothers and fathers whose faces will radiate fatigue — not so much from five hours on the highway as from the unwavering camp-will-be-great optimism they will have been required to maintain en route.
After that, the children’s health and well-being will be in our hands.
But for now, it’s just us grownups and proto-grownups, here for 18 days of pre-camp training and bonding. And my attitude is that if the lifeguards can jump in a 65-degree lake to faux-rescue one another, and the rock-climbing instructors can navigate rain-saturated precipices, and the outdoorsmen and –women can start fires with wet bark, then they can all decide whether or not to risk eating a raw egg yolk.
It was my French cousin Christine who introduced me to this kind of salad dressing. When I was 14, she came over from Paris and lived with my family in Indiana for a year, a bad tradeoff, geographically, as far as I’m concerned. One day, in our big Midwestern kitchen, she showed me how adding raw yolk to oil and vinegar made them emulsify so that they lost their will to separate and instead came together into a thick, silky sauce. I was amazed.
At that time, my only experience of raw eggs was the scene in Rocky where the hero cracks several into a glass and gulps them down before his morning run, to the enormous, shrieking disgust of the audience. For the rest of the year, invoking that slimy beverage was the seventh-grade class’s favorite way to gross one another out.
But Christine’s dressing wasn’t gross at all; it was breathtaking. I wrote down her recipe on one of my mom’s recipe cards and added it to our recipe box. Yet before I turned 20, I’d stopped making it, alarmed by news reports that raw eggs could kill you. After that, I shunned them for decades.
Then I started getting eggs from small, sensible farms — beautiful eggs, with deep-yellow yolks and thick, clinging albumin — and I decided it was time to be brave. Eating mousse, mayonnaise and salad dressing may not sound particularly adventurous to you, but to me they are great thrills, worth the small risk, and also worth sharing with a group of people who, like me, have stepped away from the safety of their familiar lives for a little while.
Christine’s salad dresssing
1 egg yolk, from a very fresh local egg
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
pepper to taste
1/3 cup olive oil
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon minced garlic or shallot, optional
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs, such as dill, tarragon, basil, chervil, cilantro and mint, optional
In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the yolk and lemon juice until they thicken slightly. Mix in the vinegar and salt, then add the remaining ingredients and mix well to combine.