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: Flickr/blu_pineappl3.
I confess: I am a late-night reality TV binger. After a day of writing black and white words on a computer screen, wading into deep, quiet page pools, and capturing fantasy scenes as quick as my fingers can follow, my brain is pickled come nightfall. While my husband unwinds with epic movies, intricate crime dramas, and complicated plots, I lean toward one-hour forays into reality’s peccadilloes. Judge as you may. And rightfully so.
At a particular hour, my mind goes flat as a penny, ready to be dropped in the candy turnstile for bubblegum reward. It isn’t hard to find fodder for my bender. Years ago, Survivor was the only “reality show” on prime time. Now, however, they’ve become the mainstay of network programming.
Just when I’d pronounced myself lost to empty, mindless indulgence, I invented a game: matching reality programs with classic literature. After playing a few times on the couch (flat screen to my left, library shelf to my right), I’m now unable to watch reality shows without asking, “So, what book is this like?” Inevitably, I discover one lesson on how to live and another on how to write.
Here are some of the cards on my DVR deck:
1) Hoarders by A&E/Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Life Lesson: There’s a fine line between wanting to possess all the best and madness.
Writing Lesson: Beware of overwriting. That collection of French lace doilies on the piano, drawers of prized pewter spoons, and shelves of antique Dresden figurines might make you proud, but if they don’t serve a plot purpose, they’re no better than Emma’s house of debt. Box up the expensive word clutter and give it to the story Goodwill. The prose will be finer for it, and you won’t have to eat arsenic to get out of bankruptcy with readers.
2) The Bachelor by ABC and The Voice by NBC/”The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen
Life Lesson: A pretty face will only get you so far. Never underestimate the power of your unique voice.
Writing Lesson: Describing a story’s landscape, clothing, food, room objects, etcetera is excellent to immerse the reader in your fictional world, but the voices of the characters are the true lifeblood of the narrative. You lose those and all the rest is flotsam on the sea.
3) American Pickers by The History Channel/“Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” in The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland
Life Lesson: That corroded oil lamp might be worth something…extraordinary. But if you leave it buried in the garage, it’s just a forgotten thing.
Writing Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take your time and dig through the top layer of your story idea, to research and explore the possibilities of seemingly grimy, old secrets. Those usually prove the most valuable to the makeup of your characters and plot. A diamond isn’t glittering bright in the mine. It’s hidden, dirty, and in need of someone with the patience to give it a good scrub and believe in its splendor.
4) Duck Dynasty by A&E/A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life Lesson: At the end of your best or worst day, gathering round the table with your family for blessing and home cooking feels good.
Writing Lesson: As writers, we often neglect our realities for the prose. We invest so much of ourselves in our craft that how the writing goes is how we go. A good writing day and we are Pollyannas. A bad writing day and we grump around the house, annoyed that the dog dared step in our path. I’ve learned that after a long stretch of writing — good or bad — I need dinnertime. I gather ingredients, chop, sauté, simmer, and cook a solid meal, then I sit with my family and reconnect. It never fails to ground me and rejuvenate my creativity.
5) The Real Housewives by Bravo/Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Life Lesson: Whenever you make your world a remote island, there’s bound to be a tribe gang-up, a broken shell of decorum, and people listening to pig-headed voices. Savage.
Writing Lesson: Enclosed scenes are dramatic. Lock your characters together in a room (be it a gated community or an island). It’s bound to produce conflict and conflict is story fuel.
6) Breaking Amish by TLC/The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Life Lesson: “Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” From Tom himself.
Writing Lesson: Everyone wants the bylaws to writing prosperity. That’s why nearly every published author interview includes the question: “What’s your daily routine like?” We want to know how they did it so, perhaps, we can mimic to similar results. But the truth is, there is no set of commandments. One of my M.F.A. mentors wisely counseled me that yes, creative workshops and studying great literary masterpieces would strengthen my writing muscles. My shiny diploma would be a reminder that I exercised with experts and tested well. But…so what? In the end, she said true success would only come when I threw the traditions out the window and journeyed on my own. That pretty much terrified me. Now, I realize how right she was.
7) Love It or List It by HGTV/The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Life Lesson: If you’ve re-envisioned, demolished walls, rebuilt, replanted and repainted, sweat, cried, and exhausted yourself in the creative process but the results don’t make you marvel, it may be time to move on.
Writing Lesson: Never be afraid to shelf a project or even (gasp!) toss it in the never-to-be-seen-again drawer. I have two entire novels in that garbage drawer and one novel on the maybe-another-day shelf. I had to write these books to be able to move on to better story ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, one might argue it’s far healthier than sitting on a mush of an overworked book that you find tired and dreary. I’m not an advocate of book burning or anything dramatic. Keep the pages under lock and key. Stroll through them from time to time if you like and maybe, one day, their season of bloom will come round…or maybe not. And that’s okay, too.
8) Family S.O.S. by TLC/Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Life Lesson: A dysfunctional household begets progeny that may end up poisoning the whole lot. The Brits get it. S.O.S., Kenneth Branagh and Jo Frost.
Writing Lesson: Stop and examine your writing motives. Be real with yourself: ask why you want to write and answer truthfully. It’s between you and you. If your aim has anything to do with money, power, fame, revenge, or recreating the death of your father to shame your mother, well, you got trouble in your household. All of these are toxic to your book and the writing community. If your answer has to do with being devoted to a story and so blitzed in love with the characters that you feel a physical ache whenever you aren’t actively engaged with them, then you’ve got a wholesome foundation to build on.
9) Giving You The Business by the Food Network/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Life Lesson: To whom much is given, much is expected.
Writing Lesson: We don’t bequeath our treasured stories to just anybody. As writers, we need to remember it’s vitally important to be readers and cheerleaders of each other. We’ve been given much and we must give in equal abundance. I don’t understand anyone who wants the world to sing his/her written praises, yet remains mum about courageous colleagues. We need the “Fellowship of the Book” for all to succeed.
10) Keeping up with the Kardashians by E!/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Life Lesson: They may drive you crazy, destroy your prized possessions, steal your best friend, and break your heart, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, your family will fight the paparazzi for you.
Writing Lesson: Your characters might make you crazy, keep you up all hours chatting your ear off, and cause you to wonder if you’re clinically diagnosable, but they are your people — as much a part of you as your kin. In some ways, they might even be more you than flesh and blood. So forget everything else and fight for them. No matter what happens in the story or with the manuscript, that’s one thing you won’t ever regret.
Image Credit: Wikipedia