Mom stood in front of the stove, left hand on her hip, right hand holding a spatula. Golden batter bubbled on the griddle. I stood to her side, leaning against a cabinet. She watched me watch her.
Although I now eat browned pancakes, knowing that the color delivers taste, as a boy, I craved golden pancakes. I couldn’t stomach a touch of dark. The front pancakes on the griddle would stay yellow, but each pair leading to the back carried a tan hint. My mother stacked those at the bottom, hoping that I would someday become less picky.
I spread butter across the light pancakes and drenched them in syrup. I put my mother through so much stress those weekend mornings. I have since apologized to her, but I know, now a parent myself, that my apology was appreciated, but not needed. Breakfast is love.
Literature and breakfast are both slow arts. Early morning arts that unfold while the world is still groggy and optimistic.
John Mullan collected 10 of the best breakfast descriptions in literature for The Guardian, although his list skews heavily British. From James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gives us “Two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and at least a quart of mead.” Mullan calls a selection from The Warden by Anthony Trollope an “ecclesiastical morning feast:” “there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish.” The most unusual entry on the list is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the smell of Pirate Prentice’s apartment: “the fragile, musaceous odour of Breakfast, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight.”
Save for a few years of college, I have lived in New Jersey my entire life. Other than corrupt politicians and housing New York sports teams, my state is best known for its breakfasts. Those meals are best found in three places: food trucks, delis, and diners.
New Jersey diners are satellite churches. Food as ritual. You settle into meals there. My ideal diner trip starts with coffee. Orange juice on the side. Chocolate chip pancakes with syrup and butter. I let the butter mingle with the syrup while I turn to the eggs. There are two choices: an omelet with bacon, green peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese, or Eggs Benedict. I choose the latter when I am feeling royal. I am usually dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, as if I came from an early morning ice hockey practice. Eating is an athletic event for me. I am the youngest of four, so I have always eaten with elbows out, hoarding my take. My wife is entertained by my eating. I sit spread on one side of the booth, surrounded by plates. I even love the toast soggy with butter (the toast is not good, but it is like ice in a drink, a needed, cool break). I feel like the sow at the end of Sylvia Plath’s poem: “stomaching no constraint, / proceeded to swill / the seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.”
The syntactic tendencies of Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner make for great food description. Consider this, from McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain: “They were all at the table eating when Billy pushed open the door and came in. Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table. On the table was a bowl of scrambled eggs and one of grits and there was a plate of sausage and a boat of gravy and bowls of preserves and pico de gallo and butter and honey.”
I met my wife in college, and some late nights that blurred into early mornings led us down Pennsylvania backroads. We found a diner with a domed vestibule, lit blue at the peak and red around the base. My Catholic sense seeks symbolism in all offerings, so I wasn’t sure if it was blessed or base to take in so much food before dawn. I ordered eggs sunny side up with home fries, and Jen got an omelet. We ate, and we laughed, and then we drifted back into the dark. To fall in love in college is a gift. It is the chance to bottle freedom of soul, to open that gift when needed most, years later.
“I’ve always wanted brook trout / for breakfast.” From “Looking for Work” by Raymond Carver.
Breakfasts should be a time of celebration. We are still alive. We can again go to the table.
“Mornings were better than evenings, for Father and Grandfather. Father always made us breakfast: fresh eggs that he had traded for (he and Grandfather both despised the sound and smell of chickens, though Grandfather was not above staking one out in a field to try and lure in a hungry hawk or eagle he wanted to watch).” From “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness” by Rick Bass.
“A dinner party, coffee, tea, / Sandwich, or supper, all may be / In their way pleasant. But to me / Not one of these deserves the praise / That welcomer of new-born days, / A breakfast, merits.” From “Breakfast” by Mary Lamb.
Christian Wiman’s elegiac “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone” ends with these lines: “All stories stop: once more you’re lost / in something I can merely see: steam spiriting out of black coffee, the scorched pores of toast, a bowl / of apple butter like edible soil, / bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass, / my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.”
In “Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast” by Hannah Gamble, the speaker asks someone to come over: “This morning I need four hands— / two to wash the greens, one to lift a teakettle, / one to pour the milk. This morning, one little mouth / will not do.”
“My mother said you can always tell when someone’s middle-aged when they tell you that breakfast is the most enjoyable meal of the day.” — Reynolds Price.
“I don’t eat breakfast, never have ever since as a child I was forced to eat my grandmother’s boiled oatmeal every single morning.” — M.F.K. Fisher.
Gertrude Stein’s prose always makes me hungry. She wasn’t afraid of food as fodder, but more importantly, her layering of detail and recursive images feel like a fork whipping eggs in a bowl, or a spoon turning oatmeal. She writes of “A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.” And: “Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.” In “Breakfast,” her letters evolve into a diary of digestion: “What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious.” Delicious. She achieves so much more, but as a pleasant start, Stein’s prose forces us to leave words on our tongues a bit longer. To let phonemes dissolve rather than chewing them into worthless noise.
“And so, she cook’d their breakfast to a tittle; / I can’t say that she gave them any tea, / But there were eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey, / With Scio wine, —and all for love, not money.” From Don Juan by Lord Byron.
What constitutes a sad breakfast? Poor food. Poor mood. A rushed swallow, a cold coffee, or burnt toast that could be crumbled to ash. We should all be thankful for each bite, bitter or bold, but if food is art, then good taste is worth achieving.
Phillip Larkin’s “Waiting for Breakfast, While She Brushed Her Hair” is as melancholic a breakfast poem as I can imagine. The title is the poem’s first line, so that “waiting” becomes a droning act. The narrator looks out the hotel window, where wet cobblestones “sent no light back to the loaded sky.” He initially concludes: “Featureless morning, featureless night,” but the poem becomes more complex with each successive stanza, and ends with a question. There is no breakfast.
Archibald MacLeish’s “Hotel Breakfast” begins in the same melancholic mode as Larkin: “On a stale morning / in a miserable winter town in Illinois / neither of us ever heard of.” The narrator’s companion is “sipping a sticky cup of some…tepid brew.” MacLeish also ends with a question, delivered “heartsick with a mortal fear — / What brings you here?”
What brings me here?
Best pork roll sandwich I’ve ever eaten: deli in Chester, N.J. A sin that I can’t remember the name. I worked summers for The Seeing Eye, and once a month we made the short trip from our Morristown campus to the breeding station in Chester. I had to look forward to a hot afternoon weed-whacking brush that would sting my arms and neck, but heaven came first. Two eggs draped in cheese. Pork roll peppered on both sides. Ketchup. Sliced and oiled potatoes with diced onions. Soft Kaiser roll. We picked-up our sandwiches and sat on overturned cartons in the garage. Among the last month’s clippings pasted to the floor and the smell of gasoline, we feasted.
I look forward to Jen’s weekend breakfasts all week, but now our breakfasts are tactical. We have twin toddler mouths to feed. Babble has been replaced with pointed requests: food, food, and more food. They want whatever is about to enter out mouths. Becoming a parent has meant that sharing is not simply kindness; it is sacrament. We feed the girls, and then it is our turn. Work and stress and travel are distant memories. We sit in front of the pancakes patterned with chocolate chips and the bacon, and know that breakfast is a form of communion. If you love someone—if you want that love to take shape, to be able to hold it in the air—eat breakfast with them.
Bonus Link: “Cooking with Hemingway” by Stephanie Bernhard
Image Credit: Pexels/Julian Jagtenberg.
Well, what did I read? Epictetus’s Discourses. I read Samuel Pepys’s diary entries for 1660 and 1665. I read William Tyndale’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew. I read a bunch of Jonathan Edwards, in the Yale Reader and the old American Writers Selections. I read the first few delicious cantos of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. I read Samuel Johnson’s life of Dryden.
Like everyone else, I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (just Book One). I reread Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read five preposterously good genre novels: David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Tana French’s The Secret Place; Stephen L. Carter’s Back Channel; Megan Abbott’s Dare Me; and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I also liked Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, but the writing isn’t up to the story. (Shafer will slip a Hopkins line into his narrative without explaining it, but Pessl writes, “Did they think I’d been exiled to Saint Helena, like Napoleon after Waterloo?” Oh, that Saint Helena!) And I read a few of Philip Kerr’s fucking marvelous Bernie Gunther novels.
People keep writing poems, so I read some. I liked Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians and Dorothea Lasky’s Rome and some poems by Anthony Madrid and Patricia Lockwood and Jessica Laser and Adrienne Raphel and Sarah Trudgeon. And I read some Archie Ammons and some of C.K. Williams’s Flesh and Blood (couldn’t finish it; he reminds me of someone’s dad, and the paean to his new car still makes me angry).
I read James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, a very useful précis (although it can’t replace a reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I think is the most important book published in the last decade). Too bad it’s nearly ruined by pandering quotations from absolutely terrible bands and movies. In Stanley Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe I discovered the definitive answer to the idiocy of certain know-nothing pop-science writers: “If we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.”
Oh, I finally read Henry Green’s Loving! It’s like if Downton Abbey were good. And funny. One of the best English novels ever. I read David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I’m embarrassed to say I only this year got round to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I loved it, but I still prefer The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors. Maybe that’s only because I read them first, when I was young. Splendor in the grass!
I read a bunch of other things, too.
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I had the pleasure of being a National Book Awards judge this year, and I’m proud to have helped choose our winner, Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), and finalists Mary Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), and Marcel Theroux (Far North)
For this list, though, I’m returning to the comparatively tiny amount of reading I did this year BEFORE beginning to read the NBA submissions in May. I’ve been on an epic poetry kick inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is of course superb. Still, the work I got most thoroughly lost in was Lord George Gordon Byron’s Don Juan. Many editions are abridged, but there’s no reason not to take in the whole rollicking extravaganza: 17 cantos and counting… the work was unfinished when Byron died and ends mid-canto. Cut corners and you’ll risk missing the pirate scene, or Don Juan’s affair with Catherine the Great of Russia, or the part when he’s sold as a slave and then disguised as a member of a Sultan’s harem, or the shipwreck, or the ghost scene, or the battle… You get the picture; this mock epic is so crammed with adventure and wildness and great poetry that it will make your head spin. But none of that is the best part. The real achievement of Don Juan is the voice, unprecedented for its time: loose, casual, and utterly modern–full of asides about Byron’s daily life, his writing struggles, not to mention a lot of bitchy remarks about his peers, Coleridge especially. It’s an artifact so imbued with the essence of its maker that you can practically smell his sweat on its pages. And I call that a good thing.