I sometimes made shirred eggs for my kids when they were growing up. What can possibly be wrong with eggs, butter, cream, and cheddar cheese – especially if you make it just two or three times a year? Yes, it’s rich and fattening, but too delicious not to serve as a special breakfast treat from time to time. A very simple recipe is at the end of this post, after Margaret’s story.
After our post about the diner conversation with Henry and Margaret, someone who knew Margaret apparently tipped her off that she was featured here, and she got in touch with me through the Contact page, saying both she and Henry would be pleased to be helpful from time to time. Especially with stories of family and friends and previous generations. And so I’ll turn it over to her:
I am Margaret Coombs, wife of Henry Coombs. We have two children, Sadie and Joey. Our family’s been in Maine for five generations, and we manage all right. Here’s a picture someone took of us, but it’s from behind.
This is a story about Henry’s grandfather. I’m writing it as I remember Henry telling it to me. He’s out getting sand for our iced-up driveway so he’s not here to correct me if I’m wrong.
Henry’s grandfather was Huff Coombs, and he was known to be pretty resourceful in his day. Not sure how he got the name Huff from his real name, which was Harrison, but however he got it, it stuck for life. Huff was a fisherman, but mostly he was a collector, specializing in old one-lunger engines. Mostly gas. I’ve sent a picture from Henry’s shoebox.
But his most favorite in the whole group – so Henry tells me – was an Ericsson hot air engine painted red, as bulky as a refrigerator and twice as heavy. Hot air engines were scarcer than gasoline engines, and so more valuable than some.
One summer, as Henry tells it, Huff took the engine to the County Fair and Exposition and had it hooked up with a sturdy leather drive belt to an industrial sewing machine owned by his friend Lyman Crowe, whose trade back then was stitching sail cloth. When the engine would get good and hot, the flywheel would start to chug and drive the belt, resulting in Lyman stitching about a yard of canvas a minute, which was a bit pokey but good enough for an exhibition. It happened Lyman had a commission from a three-masted schooner out of Stonington for all new sails, including reefing points in the mains and mizzen, so there was plenty of work to do. In pretty short order, as the engine and the sewing machine chattered away, Huff and Lyman had a good crowd around them.
Now in those days that fair and exposition had just about everything – carnival rides, clowns, a midway, livestock, poultry, judging of fruits and vegetables, antiques and whatnot – and also a stage for music and speeches. It was quite a show. And everything was going just fine until Huff’s engine ran out of fuel and the sewing machine ground down to a halt, dead as a hake.
“Lyman,” said Huff, “you bring extra fuel with you on your flatbed?”
“Well, unless we get real creative, I think we’re done for.”
At just the same time, a fellow who was running for some state office or another got up to give a speech, just a few yards from Huff’s engine rig, and the crowd moved over to hear him talk. Well, I wouldn’t call it just talking.
He launched into a thunderous and lofty oration you could hear halfway to Ellsworth, especially with the loudspeakers turned up. We don’t remember who this fellow was, but he’d make the most fiery pulpit-pounding preacher look shy and retiring.
The more the crowd cheered him, the louder and more oratory he got. And it was then Huff had a tried-and-true moment of Yankee improvision, involving equipment he had in his truck – a wide-mouth funnel, some tape, and a stretch of garden hose.
Well, Huff went to work even as the candidate thundered on about the glory of Maine’s destiny and other such roaring palaver. At last, after getting the business of his equipment done, Huff called out, “Get ready to stitch, Lyman!”, and Lyman dashed over to the sewing machine, which was just starting to fire up. In a few minutes, much of the crowd shifted over to cheer them on, with the hot air engine chugging along to beat the band, but what they didn’t notice was how the wide-mouth funnel was rigged up right next to the politician’s loudspeaker, with the hose feeding into the engine’s air intake.
The engine, its flywheel, and the sewing machine blazed along at such a pace Lyman could barely feed the sailcloth through fast enough. “Tell that fella to cease his bloviations,” he shouted, “or I’ll be stitching for a whole fleet!”
As it happened, before the orator had exhausted himself and sat down, Huff’s drive belt was starting to shred from its exertions, and Lyman had all sails finished for the three-masted schooner, plus a Friendship sloop, five pond models, and a refurbished quilt for the Widow Beal.
I don’t expect every part of that story is true, but Huff passed it on down to his grandson, and Henry’s never let go of it. I have to head off now – Henry’s just come back with a big pile of sandbags and I told him I’d help him unload.
Two eggs baked in buttered ramekins with milk or cream, grated cheese, red pepper flakes… (photo © Ned White)
Shirred eggs are so simple they barely need a recipe, but you do need ramekins, which aren’t in everyone’s kitchen. Shirred eggs are baked eggs; they get their name from the ovenproof dish they were originally cooked in, called a shirrer, which sometimes sat in boiling water, thereby unnecessarily complicating the cooking because it’s so much easier to do this in the oven.
There you have it.