Friday, May 25, 2012

Making omelettes

If I had made a list of things I wanted to do before I bit the dust this would be on it: Make a proper omelette.

I have been able to make many things for a long time. Soufflés and roasts and tarts and pizzas and consommés and jellies and pâtés and pies. But omelettes...they just never worked. They stuck, they broke, they refused to slide from the pan. And I knew that that probably meant that I was No Good. I felt guilty and frustrated. And a little confused. Because you judge a good cook by their salad and by their, yes, omelette.

When I was little my mother would, as a special treat, make me a jam omelette. It was slightly foamy in the middle, the apricot jam just beginning to caramelize near the barely brown edges of the egg. I was not a fan of any kind of whisked or mixed, cooked egg. While I loved boiled eggs with toast soldiers or tiny Marmite squares, I loathed scrambled eggs. I can still remember the aeroplane strategy employed by mother to try and get them into my mouth. Gah. But this confection was an exception.

A couple of years after we moved to Cape Town, we met Tipsy Titoti, who has worked for my parents now for...almost 30 years. Tipsy was a competent cook when she arrived, but because my mom always cooked dinner for us, she was never really called upon to show off her skills unless my mom was away from home. When she did cook, it was omelettes, or roast chickens or meat loaf, or lamb ribs. All good. But the omelettes were in a category of their own. They were perfect. They remain the best I have eaten, anywhere. Tender, barely filled, delicate things; not the gross, overstuffed and overcooked monsters of diners and hotels, everywhere. Hers were French in style, handled with finesse and restraint.

Vince had never tasted one. So one lunch time I asked for a special favour: two omelettes, please, and this time I was going to watch and take pictures. Because it had to end. This Achilles heel of mine. I needed to know how this magic happened. At the last minute my mom joined us for lunch, and suddenly three omelettes were required. Cooked not in wafer thin pans but in cast iron. You try it. Not easy.

And I learned. About the right amount of butter, and just how foamy it should be, and swirled round the sides of the pan. About the heat. And on that electric stove the right temperature is no easy thing. I hate that stove. Everything happens an eon after you need it and it is inconsistent. And about what to do when the edges begin to turn pale. And I learned about Tipsy. I watched three omelettes take shape, her hands flying. I had never seen her in this kind of high stress cooking action before. Plates had to be warmed, 12 eggs whisked, in their own bowls, with milk, and seasoned, cheese grated and ready, three pans at just the right temperature. Three omelettes shuttled into the pans and watched and tended until the crucial moment when they had to be slid and folded and guided intact onto a hot plate. And she was not happy with the way that second one folded. I was in the way, and taking bad pictures.

This quiet, kind, understated person turned fierce in action, focused and utterly in charge, radiating the command and slight neurosis that belong to a professional cook. If her life in apartheid South Africa had not steered her, as so many black women's still are and were, into domestic work after an impoverished childhood and a sad farce of an education, she could have been right at home leading and steering a crew in a serious kitchen, perhaps her own. Or writing novels. She is a born story teller.

I am deeply grateful she found us at last. And it was 'at last.' Her life is a book waiting to be written. But for now, here is the omelette she taught me to make, which I ate here in Brooklyn for breakfast, on my own, and very far from that home.

And they are easy. But I had to be shown how.


  1. although it was already indicated by your words, the photos also show how tough she is: holding a cast iron skillet with no pot holder!

    Thanks again for the look into your home country, and for significant story about a significant woman.

  2. My eggs stick to the pan 75% of the time

  3. Am I seeing it correctly? You don't actually turn it over and "cook" the second side? i.e., one side is a bit crusty, but the "inside" is soft and only cooked from the heat coming up thru the egg? (that is the most poorly asked question, but do you get it?) thanks.

  4. donna - yeah. I hadn't even thought of that. She usually uses oven gloves, but maybe it was adrenalin...:)

    amber - I am comforted. More butter, don't touch the middle, only the edges, heat medium, not high?

    webb - correctomundo. Otherwise you'd have a tortilla-ish egg thing. Personally, I like it rather on the soft side, but barely set.


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