Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Great White Egg Hunt

This is the beginning of a mass email letter that I sent to a group of friends this morning (I try to write every week):

Easter is only a few weeks away, and so it is time to make pysanky - Ukrainian Easter eggs.


In order to write a pysanka, one must have a white, clean, unwashed egg. White, so the colours will be bright, and unwashed because washing removes the membrane on the shell and grocery store eggs are also coated with oil or some such substance to extend their shelf life, and that substance repels the dye.

So how difficult is it to find a clean, unwashed white egg in the Thompson-North Okanagan region?


I kid you not. The preponderance of granola-eating misdirected health nuts in this area have all but made the generic white farm egg extinct. They believe that the only 'healthy' egg is a brown egg. 

Judging the nutritional value of an egg based on the colour of the shell has as much validity as judging the worth of a human being based on the colour of their skin. Colour has nothing to do with it. The egg's nutritional value depends on what the hen eats and her general health. And I know that I'm probably preaching to the choir, but it makes me a little bit nuts. I've spoken to upward of 20 people in the last six days. Several of them made the same observation, but defend themselves by saying that if they don't have brown eggs, people won't but them, and the farmers market and health food stores both agree with the 'sell what the people want' philosophy, which helps perpetrate the myth.


I had an egg date planned with some friends for April 12. The eggs have to be at least three days old (also, to take the dye because it takes that long for the egg to stop 'gassing-off') so I'm now in a time crunch. We may have to cancel. I hope not.

Oh, and apparently commercial production egg farms can't sell me the eggs that I want because regulations state they can only sell washed eggs - per worries of salmonella, etc. I guess.

And no, there aren't any Hutterite colonies nearby.

So that was my dilemma.

And then my luck changed.

Let me backtrack a bit. If you are unfamiliar with the term and the art, pysanky is the correct name for Ukrainian Easter eggs. There's a whole lot of info on the world wide web if you want detail, but I stole borrowed some images for my explanation because I'm too lazy tonight to dig out my existing eggs, take the photos, blah blah blah.

Pysanky (plural; pysanka singular) are written, not coloured. The design is created by writing on the egg with melted beeswax using a kistka. 

This is a tradition kistka, copper wrapped on a wood stick about the size of a pencil.
I also use modern one with plastic handles, but always return to these for the fine line work.

When everything to be white in the design is covered in wax, the egg is submerged into the first colour (usually yellow) until thorough saturated with dye, then removed from the bath, patted dry and the next part of the design - those which will be yellow - written with wax. This goes on for colour after colour, each one successively darker, until the last colour is applied (usually black).

The yellow egg has the white part of the design already written.
The wax is black from candle soot - the copper kistka is heated in a candle flame
and then pressed into a cake of beeswax to 'fill' much like a fountain pen.
The soot doesn't affect the colours of the dye and helps see the lines.

The egg at the back with red on it is part-way through the writing process.

The black and green egg on the right is completed, with all the layers of beeswax removed.

Then the egg is gently heated against a candle flame to gradually melt the beeswax (which has a very low melting point)  which is wiped off a small section at a time.

A selection of pysanka - not mine personally but representative of mine.
 I've made every one of these patterns, or variations of them.

Every line, every colour, every component of the pattern is laden with meaning. They are pre-Christian fertility and totems used to ward off evil, seconded by the Ukrainian Orthodox church and re-burdened with new meanings of rebirth and everlasting life. 

All that aside, they are things of beauty and I'm enraptured by them.

I get completely immersed in the process when I write eggs. Hours pass without notice.
I used to write eggs every spring with my children, with friends and neighbours and their children. Then The Husband and I moved here to southern BC, and my dye jars have been empty for several years. It was time to get back to my spring passion.

Today, after I finished my usual Saturday morning at work, I went on what I assumed was more futile searching for suitable eggs. I made several stops along the route north of Vernon, including a very enjoyable visit with a broiler chicken farmer (hard to tell the difference between a layer and a meat barn from the outside).

One tip led to another, and finally I was able to send an follow-up to this morning's letter:

Told you I'd send an update on the Great White Egg Hunt ... Ta Da!

I found a commercial layer operation in Salmon Arm that also does farm-gate sales.

"I need clean unwashed white eggs. Can you do that."

"Yup. Sure. Gimme a minute."

A master of brevity.

And true to his word, two dozen (not taking chances now) unwashed yet clean white eggs.

"How much?"


"Per dozen."

"Nope. Total."

I'm in egg heaven.

And the silly part is, I tried the only other layer barn in the region, which is about 8km north of the one I bought the eggs at, and on my route home, but no one was there last Monday when I began the search and they didn't return my phone call of that evening. Guess who left a message on our answering machine that I listened to upon arriving home from my trip to Salmon Arm?

On the plus side, I spoke to (count 'em) 26 people in the immediate area I'd otherwise never have spoken to, and met some really interesting people including a young couple with a broiler chicken farm just east of Armstrong. Had a great visit with them.

Photos of my own work to be posted next week after I spend next Saturday afternoon teaching co-worker Katherine (of Something Red fame) and her daughter Sasha how to write eggs.

Happy spring!


  1. Beautiful work. Do you 'blow' the eggs first? If not, how do they keep?

  2. Traditionally the eggs are left in a cool location out of the sunlight with plenty of air circulation in order to dry out naturally. They need to be turned every day so that the yolk doesn't settle in one spot and weight it. I have eggs done this way that I made 30 years ago and they're still good. The eggs can't be emptied until the dyeing is done because they'll float in the dye bath. The easiest is to blow out the egg while the wax is still on (to protect the water soluble dye) by poking a small hole in the bottom and gently push air in with a large syringe and large bore needle; then remove the wax. The eggs can then be varnished as well.