What’s for breakfast? Eat before you think.
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out my muddled thinking about breakfast. I suffered an epiphany of sorts this summer. We were in the Leelanau Peninsula, staying in an Airbnb place right on the lake. It should have been heavenly. Well, the scenery was heavenly. The house, on the other hand, was filthy. It might have been cleaned. The bedding looked refreshed. The towels were washed, folded, put away. The white walls and empty glass shelves inside the fridge were practically blinding. But what empty fridge doesn’t shock you into thinking it’s clean?
The problem was very specific. Ratty furniture that my wife was reluctant to sit on, including a squash-colored chair my son-in-law thought smelled faintly of urine. And flies. There were dead flies everywhere. This was a long ranch with sliding glass doors on either end of the house, facing the water. At the base of the doors, like they had killed themselves trying to escape, flinging themselves hopelessly against the glass, were the carcasses of flies. Hundreds of them, I would say.
“We have to shop,” my wife said.
“I’ll sweep,” I said.
“No, we have to shop, now, for cleaning supplies. Have you seen the shower?”
I didn’t need to see it. What I needed to do was get my wife to the IGA as fast as possible. Over the next few hours she would bleach areas of the house that were in critical condition, and I would busy myself with overt acts of sympathetic cleaning. We would get through the next few days. But for her the weekend vacation was already, and would continue to be until we closed the door behind us on Sunday, a bust.
Breakfast, I remember thinking. Tomorrow we’ll have a nice breakfast.
Breakfast can fix almost anything.
Or maybe not. I’ve begun to think that breakfast is over-rated, possibly the most hazardous meal of the day.
Here in Italy, where we are staying for six weeks or so, I’m happy to start the day with an Italian breakfast–coffee and a pastry. So is my wife. Once or twice a week, a few hours after we get out of bed, after we’ve already had a few cups of coffee, I’ll have a brioche with chocolate or pastry cream inside. She usually has a girella, which is a flat coiled pastry with raisins.
“I would never eat this at home,” I say to her one morning.
At home in the States I have yogurt with nuts and honey. I make a fruit and vegetable smoothie. Eat a pastry? Never.
We’re in a coffee bar next to the gas station down the road from our apartment. Standing at the bar, stirring sugar into their espressos, are half a dozen very thin people, all of them enjoying their pastry breakfast. This morning I’m having brioche with some kind of jam in it.
My wife takes a bite from hers, not her usual girella.
“And you?” I say. “Would you eat a donut for breakfast at home?”
“This is a pastry,” she says, avoiding the question, “not a donut.”
“That,” I tell her, pointing at the thing she is eating, “is a donut.”
It’s a bombolone (note the first four letters of the word), which is either a tube or bun of fried dough that is filled with pastry cream and rolled in sugar. She ate them when she was a kid. It’s a nostalgia food. Ordinarily she shows restraint. Standing at the coffee bar, after we order cappuccino she asks about (not for) bombolone, then gazes longingly at them behind panes of glass in the pastry case. Briefly she turns toward me with a look of profound sadness; I see her resolve weakening. Usually, however, she stays strong and sticks with the girella.
We eat these things because they are there, and we are here. I don’t always feel good about it. They not do engender feelings of virtue.
The next morning in Leelanau, sitting in the urinous chair, I suggest we go out for breakfast. I’m thinking up-north breakfast, something ample, lumberjacky. My wife plans to attack the kitchen today. She will find crumbs, more flies, and generalized dirt. I figure we’ll need a good compensatory breakfast before the cleaning begins.
“It would be nice to find a place that has nice fresh vegetables,” she says.
We walk into town and try a mom and pop place. It has a boardwalk out front. Inside it has up-north rustic appeal: maps of the lake decoupaged on table tops, stuffed fish and nautical junk mounted on the knotty pine walls, gingham curtains.
On the menu, eggs, fatty meats, and carbs.
No heart smart. Strictly heart dumb.
On the menu we find French toast, pancakes and waffles, muffins and pastries, fried potatoes in various iterations, artery-clogging breakfast meats like bacon, link and patty sausage, fried ham, to say nothing of eggs fried in soybean oil, no doubt with anti-foaming additives. What makes these items taste good is the crap you squeeze, squirt, and spread over then. I mean maple syrup (sweetened with high fructose corn syrup), assorted fruit jams and jellies (sweetened with high fructose corn syrup), ketchup (sweetened with high fructose corn syrup), and artificial butter.
My wife orders the vegetable skillet. I order ham and eggs and potatoes, with dry toast. I’m sure the pale green vegetables in her skillet were fresh at one time, and I’m sure somewhere in the restaurant supply business there is a better confection to brighten a piece of industrialized whole wheat toast this morning than mixed fruit jelly.
We eat, we are filled, we are mildly disappointed.
We are filled.
There’s a what-the-hell-ness in our attitude about breakfast out. We’ll eat breakfast in a restaurant where we wouldn’t think of ordering lunch or dinner. When we vet restaurants for evenings out, our criterion is often I want something I can’t get at home. You know what you want—perfectly cooked sashimi tuna; a paper thin, tender beef carpaccio. At breakfast, forget vetting. We eat stuff and think, I would never want this at home. We tend to take what we can get. There’s a place by the side of the road. That’ll do. Perfunctory eggs, gummy pancakes, ersatz ham; for your toast, mixed fruit. It’s not great, but hey, we’re on vacation.
“It was all right,” my wife says afterward.
“No it wasn’t,” I say.
“At least it wasn’t terrible,” she says.
Back at house there’s cleaning to be done. We get through it. She gets through it, and later joins us down by the water, where we swat flies that would like to come inside the house and die.
Sunday morning, on the way home, we stop for breakfast at a place in Traverse City called Frenchies. They have a breakfast enchilada with braised pork and green sauce. It doesn’t look anything like breakfast. I can’t get something like it at home. It’s way way better than not terrible.
We read of “the French paradox.” The French eat bread, cheeses, foods cooked in butter and anointed with buttery sauces, they enjoy fattening desserts, yet they are not fat. It may not be in our lingo, but there is an Italian paradox as well. How do they eat pastries every morning and stay thin? While we’re here, my wife and I eat them too, feeling every bit like sinners, which probably make them taste even the better.
We get back to Detroit a few weeks before Christmas. We’ll be busy. There will be shopping to do. One morning we may find ourselves in a part of town we don’t know and decide take a chance on breakfast. I’ll try to remember to pick up the jam caddy on the table, looking for mixed fruit. It’s an indicator. I’ll suggest to my wife, we might as well go have a donut.