On an egg roll - for good, better, beyond

How suitably metaphoric that as the egg's good name has been restored the chicken (in the best-practices world) has been uncaged, liberated to live free and gift us with eggs worthy of their new and decriminalized status.

Crack one in the pan. The yolk stands tall and saffron; the white clean and, to the taste, fetchingly sweet: The pride, clearly, is back - and the prodigal, rich-egg flavor!

I'm not sure which came first. Maybe those farmstead eggs - Farmer Barb's and Mrs. Wickersham's and Bob the Farmer's - were there all along, an alternate egg universe I couldn't see, so averted were my eyes from egg-dom: To ingest one, at my cholesterol level, was to click off the safety in Russian roulette - like putting a pullet in my brain.

But times change and things relax and science takes a second look (or at least provides a new loophole). And so it has come to pass that I've not only re-embraced the egg, I've gotten a little obsessed, sniffing at the anemic industrial egg; on the hunt, instead, for eggs (speckled or pastel or maybe the color of sun-bleached adobe) with personal charm and stories and, well, eggs that are profoundly better, and infinitely fresher, than yours.

I've become, I'm afraid, an egg snob.

Some serious unlearning was required. But once on the run, the fear factor has receded like a Fundy tide.

At Talula's Table in Kennett Square, co-owner Aimee Olexy says not one customer has inquired about raw eggs in the house-made mayonnaise.

And on menu after menu, eggs have popped up, featured attractions, not limited to the Lyonnaise, not mere binders or invisible ingredients.

Queen Village's quirky Ansill made them a menu category, scrambling duck eggs, posing quail eggs on the tartare with toast points, shirring them with foie gras (though foie gras, the new whipping boy, has since been 86ed, banished by loud protests).

At Sovalo in Northern Liberties, they've been gently hard-cooked, joining an heirloom tomato salad accented with cold-smoked ham called speck.

At Osteria on North Broad, they're cracked over the wood-fired pizza, shimmering as they make their debut.

I've become, in my egg-snobbery, an easy mark.

Tell me about the hens pecking for bugs in the pasture up in New Tripoli (that's New Treh-POLE-ee) outside Allentown, and sure, I'll go $5 a dozen.

There's the extra dollar that Barbara "Farmer Barb" Shelly charges to defray the cost of gasoline to Society Hill's Head House Market (they're also available at farm markets in New Hope and Phoenixville), and because the hens roam free in the pasture, pecking at bugs and grass, you've got your loss to foxes, raccoons, weasels and greedy hawks, against which her dog, Kramer, offers slim defense).

At Talula's Table, I'm captivated by a bowl of "Mrs. Wickersham's eggs," sold if you like by the single, tissue-wrapped egg. Aimee Olexy picks them up three times a week from Mrs. Wickersham's kitchen (where customers are invited to rinse the eggs in a bucket of water before sitting them in the cartons) not far from Unionville, off Marlboro Springs Road.

But that's not all, folks. If you're not into Mrs. Wickersham's bigger, browner, heartier, thicker-shelled eggs, Talula's carries an alternative - a more delicate, fluffier, petite, pastel egg from the Birch Run coops at Iron Springs Farm, an equestrian spread in the horse country a few miles south of Coatesville.

So it goes, an embarrassment of riches. Eggs for breakfast, for red beet-pickling, for deviling! (I fried two over-easy the other morning - one from Farmer Barb and the other from Bob the Farmer, a copy editor at the paper who deals eggs - "Pssst, got eggs?" - he brings from his farmette near Collegeville.)

Are these fresh? Laid this morning!

Are they free-range? Not merely, in most cases, the term having come to mean only "access to the outdoors," rather than actual gadding about in the sun: They're the next notch up the pecking order - "pasture-raised," meaning the hens are out there scratching in the sun.

The other day, I heard tell of another wrinkle, the pullet egg, laid by hens under 31 weeks old, and said to add pouf to your omelette, loft to your souffle, lush to your ice cream.

So the hunt continues: For the hard-boiled egg snob, the scramble never ceases.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@

phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/