Chicken or Egg


Our Daily Correspondent


Odilon Redon, L’oeuf (The Egg), 1885

This is the very worst wickedness, that we refuse to acknowledge the passionate evil that is in us. This makes us secret and rotten. —D. H. Lawrence

Have you, a modern person, ever really smelled a rotten egg? Think hard! In all honesty, I can’t say with certainty that I have. Old, sure. Smears of unappealing, desiccated yolk on a carton, yes. But truly rotten? I don’t think so.

And yet, just the other day, I found myself comparing something to the smell of a rotten egg: an Arkansas hot spring, I believe. I know I’ve also used term to describe the repulsive odor of depilatories (whose lack of perfume innovation is one of the great mysteries of twenty-first century technology) and for the sulfurous geysers of Yellowstone, and the medicinal waters you can “take” in Bath’s pump room, and sometimes, yes, farts. We’re told it’s a danger sign; the smell of rotten eggs can indicate a hazardous gas leak or contaminated water. If you were to ask me, I’d think I knew what a rotten egg smells like—but in truth, what I know are the things I’ve always heard likened to it.

Obviously plenty of people have smelled rotten eggs. Anyone on a farm, for starters. Probably anyone who’s worked as a market stockist. But for many of us raised on long-lived, pasteurized, refrigerated supermarket specimens—who would never, as a result, compromise the freshness of precious farmer’s market ova—it’s an anachronism.

But more than that: it is an example of living oral tradition! A tangible connection to our shared rural past! A folkway, even! And that’s just a start; we’re surrounded by these sorts of self-referencing linguistic tics! I mean—wow, right?

If not wow—maybe, oh. Or, maybe, you smell rotten eggs all the time.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.