The Tao of Breakfast

“Why is breakfast different from all other things, so that the Greeks called it the best thing in the world, and so that each of us in a vague way knows that he would eat at breakfast nothing but one special kind of food, and that he could not imagine breakfast at any other hour in the day?” —Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome

I am a morning person; one of those annoying people that wakes instantly and completely the moment they open their eyes, able to play chess, fix computer errors and write review columns even before having a cup of coffee. Not that this is my favorite way to spend a morning, but I can rise to the occasion if required. (“Only dull people,” says Oscar Wilde, “are brilliant at breakfast.”) It is a result of early childhood indoctrination. Dad would get up every morning at 5 am to go running, and Mom would be up shortly after to make us breakfast before trundling us off to school. I walked to school, so I was often out the door before seven, and at my desk for morning chorus practice before eight.

Mom never let us out the door without eating something, and to give her credit, breakfast was always a “meal” in the fullest sense of the word—meaning, something that required dishes, silverware, glasses of juice and at least twenty minutes to consume. Looking back now, I remember “healthy” cereals without frosting or bright colors, French toast, bagels, pancakes, and as a rare treat, eggs and Canadian bacon. (Mom didn’t believe in sugar or cholesterol). I remember rejecting oatmeal and yogurt, but liking granola and cinnamon toast.

It was in college—that terrible era when so many bad eating habits are adopted–that I learned to accept yogurt into my pantheon of acceptable breakfasts, and at a particularly low point in my life, cold pizza. College was the era of the granola bar and the cup of yogurt, the sausage biscuit and the breakfast that didn’t require a plate or a fork. Those were busy, dark days. But even then, if asked about my “ideal” breakfast, I would have said cereal, eggs and bacon, bagels and toast.

Where this intractable stubbornness with regards to breakfast comes from, I can’t guess, but I’m not alone. Belloc’s observation above on the nature of breakfast comes during a morning spent drinking wine and eating bread and cheese—all of which had tasted delicious to him the night before, but were absolutely dreadful things to contemplate upon waking. “…In the harsh light of dawn [the wine] turned out to be nothing but a bitter and intolerable vinegar.” One suspects that the taste of the wine in the morning was very much dependent on how much of it he had drunk the night before. I love bacon and eggs in the morning, but like Belloc and his wine, simply can’t imagine having them at any other time of the day. Likewise, there are foods I just never want to see on a breakfast plate, something I discovered after moving South and eating at diners known for their “country” breakfasts.

I can’t tolerate sliced tomatoes on my plate with my eggs, for example—it brings up all sorts of bad associations involving this one cigarette-infested roadside diner and a waitress who chewed tobacco. The slick feel of a slice of beefsteak tomato—perfectly appetizing on a plate with some fresh mozzarella or in a spinach salad, is just revolting when it is sitting, cold and slimy, in the grease puddle made by my under-done eggs. I have learned, since moving to North Carolina, to simply tolerate things like grits and hash browns, and chocolate chip pancakes. I can admit that buttermilk biscuits are an acceptable substitute for toast. I no longer immediately retch when the guy at the next table orders fried pork chops AND steak with his eggs over easy. I’ve learned, after a few crash courses in the Cracker Barrel, to deal with the fact that some people put that thick gooey white “gravy” all over their biscuits and potatoes. I have even learned to like Texas Pete hot sauce on my eggs almost as much as Tabasco. If that doesn’t show I’ve acclimated, then I don’t know what would.

I don’t mean to sound intractable or fussy—I’ve eaten a lot of different breakfast foods over the last ten years as a food critic, from sausage burritos to “garden” omelets, to fancy pancakes in ridiculous shapes, to crepes filled with things that belong more on a dinner menu than a morning meal. I’ve liked most everything I’ve eaten, but—and here is the caveat—as food, not as “breakfast.” I can’t imagine starting my day with a seafood-filled crepe in garlic-lemon sauce on a regular basis. When I get up in the morning I do not, and never will think first of sausage burrito. Breakfast, at least at home, is a way to start your day out right. And “right,” in my case, will always be the prosaic eggs and bacon. The most decadent crabmeat-filled crepe with a side of strawberries and champagne would never make me feel as happy, as satisfied, as a plate of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, juice and a cup of strong black coffee. As life philosophies go, I’m with the journalist John Gunther, who said:

“All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”

Rosa’s Decadent Scrambled Eggs
[this recipe is slightly modified from one I heard on Lynne Rossetto Kaspar’s radio show, The Splendid Table]
Serves 2
• 1 large scallion, thinly sliced
• 1/2 tightly packed tablespoon curly parsley leaves, chopped
• 1/2 tightly packed tablespoon fresh basil or tarragon leaves, chopped
• 6 large eggs (think 3 per person)
• 3 ounces cream cheese, cut into about 3/4-inch pieces (can substitute goat cheese, sharp cheddar, brie, or even port salut)
• Salt and freshly ground pepper as needed
• 2 tablespoons butter
1. Combine the chopped herbs. In a medium bowl use a fork beat all the eggs until well mixed. Stir in the herbs, and a little salt and pepper.
2. In a 10-inch heavy non-stick skillet melt the butter over medium heat. Add the eggs and allow to cook gently for several minutes without stirring. Sprinkle cheese pieces uniformly on one half of the eggs, and after another minute, use a wide spatula to flip the empty half over, like an omelet. Allow half a minute more and then flip the whole thing again.
3. Lower heat to medium low and flip once more, scraping up any egg sticking to the pan, for 3 minutes, or until the eggs are as dry as you like and the cheese is melted or melting. I like mine wet, but this recipe works very well for people who like well-cooked eggs, since the oils in the cheese keep them from getting too dry.

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