The Good Breakfast      

                Breakfast is basically non-existent at my house these days.  Several factors contribute to this.  I work a midnight shift, so I don’t get home until after 8:00 AM.   When I do get home in the morning, what I do eat does not resemble breakfast.  For about three years I would have a nice garden salad for “breakfast.”  Eventually that got old and so did my habit of eating salads.

               My wife is not a breakfast eater, nor is my son.  My wife usually leaves early for work and my son sleeps to the very last minute.  He then dashes out the door on the way to his college classes or to his part time job.  Breakfast is the last thing on his mind.

                 On their days off, my wife and son have a tendency to sleep late.  By the time they get up it is time for lunch.  On my days off I get up early, but what I eat isn’t what you could call breakfast.  It is usually leftovers from a previous meal.  I like leftovers.  My wife and son don’t.  I won’t go into that.  Subject of another story.

                 So, what happened to breakfast?  I grew up on cereal and milk for breakfast for most of my early years before high school.  I haven’t had cereal or milk since.  My mother didn’t work, so she used to fix us a variety of breakfasts when I was in high school.

                We used to have eggs and toast, or pancakes, or French toast, or even, rarely, waffles.  For a while we enjoyed what my mother called “nest eggs.”  You take a small glass and punch a hole in a slice of bread.  You then fry and egg in the hole.  Yes, I eventually lost interest in nest eggs.

                 Many years ago, when my father was in the Marines, we used to drive down to Florida at Christmas every three years or so.  We would be living in Virginia or North Carolina.  This was back before the Interstate highway system.  My parents would drive all night with us three kids sleeping in the back of the car.  One on the floor, one on the seat, and one in the back window ledge.  We usually got to my aunt and uncle’s house about 3:00 AM.

                 One time was different.  I was about twelve years old.  We drove a different route.  When it got light we stopped at a diner somewhere in Georgia.  My dad, who was from Florida, ordered eggs and grits for the three of us kids.  We had never seen grits before, much less tasted them.

                 The eggs were sunny side up.  My dad cut up the eggs and mixed the eggs with the grits and some butter.  I truly didn’t know what to make of the mess on my plate.  I have, however, never been afraid to try something new.  Much to my surprise, the eggs and grits were very good.

                 So why, you might ask, didn’t I have any eggs and grits for years after that?  Surely we could have found them in a grocery store in Virginia or North Carolina.  It might have something to do with the fact that my mother was from Minnesota.  She didn’t particularly like grits, so she didn’t buy them.  It just didn’t occur to me as a child to ask for grits.  We associated grits with Georgia, not the “south.”  Anyway, at that age, I didn’t consider Virginia or North Carolina to be in the south.  Anywhere it snows just couldn’t be in the south.  Don’t try to figure that out.

               Now that I live in Florida I do occasionally eat eggs and grits.  Yes, I still like them.  Of course I still have a problem of net feeling like eating breakfast when I get off work in the morning.  The few times, when the three of us do eat breakfast together, my wife and son don’t eat grits.  My wife is from Missouri and has never been a “grits person.”  My son takes after her.  When I do eat grits and eggs it is usually when I am home alone.

                 On one trip to Tallahassee, my cousin Anne fixed the other five brothers and us cousins some banana fritters for breakfast.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  Yes, I have tried to fix them myself.  They just didn’t come out the same.  Not only that, but the mess I made in the kitchen was daunting…… at least when I made them.  There was a huge gap of about 20 years before the occasion came up again.

                 It was when my aunt and uncle stayed at a beach house for a week at Ponte Vedre Beach.  That is south of Jacksonville, Florida.  My wife and I stayed one weekend.  My cousin Anne was down from Philadelphia with her family.  Oh, yes, the subject of fried bananas came up.  Yes, she did fix some, just like 20 years earlier.  They were as good as I remembered.  Unfortunately, my step son was in Illinois with his father.  My son wasn’t born yet, so they both missed out on the occasion.  Oh, by the way, it made one awesome mess in the kitchen.

               Backtracking some.  Back in high school, my mother fixed Eggs Benedict one day.  An English Muffin topped with a poached egg, bacon, and Hollandaise Sauce.  Wow, I was ready to have that every day for the rest of my life.  A zillion calories of course.  There had to be a catch, and of course, there was.  The Hollandaise Sauce is not especially easy to fix.  It involves egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, and double boilers.  It is easy to ruin a batch.  Worse yet, it doesn’t keep once made.  You have to eat it pretty much at one meal.  My mother only fixed it a few times, but I was hooked for life.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to see Eggs Benedict much for the next 40 years.

                 When I went off to college in Tallahassee, Florida, I already liked waffles.  We didn’t have them much back home though.  It wasn’t because we didn’t like them a lot.  It was because, back then, they didn’t have non-stick waffle irons.  You are talking about a pain in the neck to clean a waffle iron with baked on batter.

                 There was a place close to campus that served pecan waffles.  Oh yes, the pecans made all the difference in the world.  I eventually had to give up the pecan waffles.  It seems like Bob Weimer and I would up eating them at 3:00 in the morning after talking geology for hours and hours.  That did not do much for early morning classes.

                 Over 20 years later I moved back to Florida.  If you look at my present house, with seven pecan trees in the yard, you have to ask yourself a question.  Do pecan waffles have anything to do with it?  Oh, yes.  Funny thing though.  I had an old waffle iron.  Yes, still a big mess.  Back when we ate breakfast together we would have pecan pancakes.  Even when our hours got crazy, it was not unusual for us to have pecan pancakes for dinner.  Don’t say anything.

                 Eventually, I got serious about storing pecans.  No, not like a squirrel.  I mean storing them to eat.  Pecans do not keep well, so I have to freeze them.  I used to get a good crop just from one tree.  Shelling pecans is a pain.  I eventually borrowed a contraption from a friend that made the cracking process easier.  I still had to get them out of the cracked shells.  I would sit in the living room watching a football game on TV, shelling pecans.  Of course my wife complained.  You see, there is no way to do it indoors without some piece of shell or other snapping off and landing on the carpet.  We have a habit of going barefooted around the house.  Those bits of pecan shell hurt when you step on a curved sharpened end.  Then I vacuum sealed the pecans in plastic bags and put them in the freezer chest.  My wife complained that all those bags of pecans took up most of the room in that freezer.  I wanted to freeze plenty of them because my pecan trees only produced every other year.

                 For years we used to pick pecans off the ground in our yard and sell them.  I’m talking about a couple of hundred pounds of pecans.  Naturally we saved some for ourselves.  Now, all I care about is enough for our immediate needs.  All that stooping over got old as I got older.  You can’t even do it all in a weekend.  Those pecans take a couple of months or more to all fall from the trees.

             A few months ago, while shopping, it dawned on me that it was silly to do without pecan waffles because I didn’t have a non-stick waffle iron.  I bought a new one, right there in the store.  I then made the rash statement to my wife that we would have pecan waffles for dinner that night.  Imagine my embarrassment when I got home and checked the freezer.  It was empty of pecans.  That was back in April.

               When I do have more pecans on the trees in my yard, I don’t fear having them all the time just because I now have a good waffle iron.  We didn’t have pecan pancakes all that often.  No, it wasn’t because it was pancakes and not waffles with the pecans.  We just spaced it out very nicely so we didn’t get tired of them.  It seems we just ate them a little more often than I had remembered.  That, and those pecan pies I made for the holidays last fall.

               Last fall we didn’t have any pecans and it will be this fall before I get some more off the trees.  The only problem is….. I don’t see many on the trees now.  At least on the trees that I like to get my pecans from.  Most of those trees grow small pecans.  Ones that are a real pain to shell.  No, I am not about to go out and buy pecans.

                 Tonight I looked in the refrigerator and the cupboard.  Not much there.  We had forgotten to take something out of the freezer for the weekend.  It is hard to plan meals when our son is not home from work till late.  We don’t plan regular meals unless all of us are there.  I asked my wife if she wanted some pancakes for dinner.  Yep, she asked if we had any pecans.  Since the answer was no, we didn’t have pancakes.

             Don’t get me wrong.  The pecan pancakes I fix are pretty good.  You would probably be puzzled by them, though.  Real, real thin, with chunks of pecan that poke up where you can count individual pieces.  I have an explanation for that.

                For the past 25 years I have been trying, without much success, to make Swedish pancakes.  All those years ago I lived in northern Illinois.  One day, some of us from the office went to a restaurant down the street for breakfast.  I had never been there before.  My friends rarely went there because the place was always crowded.  There was a reason for the crowd.

               I don’t remember the name of the place.  One of the specialties was Swedish pancakes.  They were real thin and soft.   That’s the only way I can describe them.  Wow, they were good.  They tasted like no other pancakes I had ever had.  Everyone put lingonberry syrup on them.  I liked them with any kind of syrup.  It seems Rockford had originally been a Swedish settlement.  As recent as 30 years before I moved there Swedish was spoken in the business community.

               When I moved to Florida, shortly afterward, I longed for those darned Swedish pancakes.  I tried recipe after recipe for Swedish pancakes.  They just weren’t the same.  Not even close. 

               When my stepson moved back to northern Illinois, it was because there just weren’t any jobs to be had down here at the time.  I asked him to go by that restaurant where I got those darned pancakes.  All I could do was give him directions.  He never drove the 10 miles to do this favor for me.

               Last summer, my son and I went to visit my stepson.  When we got there, they weren’t home.  That was all right, I was on a mission.  We drove the 10 miles to Rockford.  My son had grown tired of my telling about the Swedish pancakes I had eaten at this place 25 years ago.  Boy, the place had changed.  Instead of turning left at the second stop light, it was now about the 10th stoplight.  I finally managed to drive down that street looking to the right, at the bottom of the hill, for that darned restaurant.  For all know it was under a different name.  Can you imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the building wasn’t even there anymore?  What a letdown after all these years.

                 I have already mentioned that I like eggs and grits.  I like eggs in general, but they seem kind of plain to eat just by themselves.  Many years ago I went to see my aunt and uncle in Houston, Texas.  Aunt Phyllis had a treat for me….. Huevos Rancheros.  We are talking about scrambled eggs and a salsa topping.  It looked good, and it tasted good.  The only problem was the three alarm fire in my mouth three seconds later.  Yes, you may have guessed it, Jalapeno Peppers.  That was my one and only meal with that stuff.

                 No I have not forgotten omelets.  The only problem is…. I haven’t figured out how to make a decent omelet.  I don’t know what the problem is.  They just don’t come out like they do in a restaurant.  When I do eat breakfast in a restaurant, it is usually an omelet.

                 Way back when I was in the Navy I was on a ship way up the Mekong Rive in Vietnam.  In the officer’s mess every morning I would have a cheese omelet….. with catsup on top.  So, what’s the big deal with that, you might ask.  Well, its like this.  We didn’t get eggs from the twice-a-month supply ship that pulled alongside.  Probably had to do with storage space for perishable eggs….. enough for 1100 men.

                 If we didn’t get eggs, what were they making those nice cheese omelets from every morning of the year I spent up the river?  To tell you the honest truth, I don’t know.  You see, those omelets were pretty good.  I just didn’t want to ruin my appetite by learning where they came from.  I don’t know if they came from a can or a package.  Yes, I have been in contact from people I knew on that ship 35 years ago.  I still don’t want to know.

                 I remember well my first day home from Vietnam.  Unlike everyone else from that war who went home, I didn’t go back to the United States.  You see my folks were stationed at the Marine base on Okinawa.  That was in January of 1969.  After the hugs and kisses my folks said, “Lets go get some breakfast.”  That sounded good to me.  Low and behold, guess what was on the menu.  That plate of Eggs Benedict was one of the best breakfasts I ever had.

                It was two years later that I had two of the most unusual breakfasts.  I was staying in a youth hostel in Norway.  It was September and the season was really over.  There were only a handful of us staying in a place that could sleep 50 or so.  As we sat there looking out on the waters of Greener Fjord below us, the host put three plates on the table.

                One plate was piled high with rolls of some kind.  Another plate had a brick of something that looked like peanut butter.  The other one had a brick wrapped in paper.  We learned that the one brick was goat cheese.  Ugh, I was resolved not to eat goat cheese.  I don’t know why.  I am usually pretty adventurous when it comes to eating.  The other brick turned out to be bleu cheese.  Hello…….. I do love bleu cheese.  I had never seen so much of it at one time.  Still, it was a bit unusual for breakfast.

          My other unusual breakfast came after a night in a youth hostel in Bergen, Norway.  The breakfast cost $2.50.  I thought that was a lot for a breakfast….. back in those days.  I decided to forego breakfast.  I was planning on taking a ship up the coast.

               I hadn’t been on the ship very long when that salt air got to me.  I was suddenly famished.  As luck would have it, they were serving brunch on the ship.  It was $2.50.  I didn’t care.  I was hungry.

            The only problem was…… the meal.  It was all laid out on a long table in the dining area.  It was a buffet.  There were 30 or so dishes laid out.  Just help yourself.  I slowly walked down that table….. just looking.  I was really puzzled.  None of that food looked even vaguely familiar.  I couldn’t even decide what food group each dish was.  I shrugged my shoulders and chose a sample of just about everything.  I would soon know, by tasting, what they offered to eat.  That turned out to be an even bigger puzzle.

             Yes, I tried just about everything, but my taste buds failed me.  I had no idea what I had eaten.  Unfortunately, there was no one on board who spoke English.  I have no idea what I had that breakfast.  That night, the dinner was an even bigger surprise.  The buffet was the exact thing we had for brunch.  The only difference was a big platter of boiled potatoes.  Yes, I do know a potato when I see one.

               When I got out of the Navy I stayed in the Reserves.  I used to drive 106 miles to my monthly drills in Iowa.  My boss just happened to be my Reserve commanding officer.  We would drive to Dubuque one weekend a month.  We had to leave Rockford about 5:00 AM on Saturday morning.  He would sleep while I drove his car.  I still don’t know how I managed to stay awake for that long drive.  We usually got there too late to stop for breakfast.

                 We always said we would stay one night there in a motel, but we did only once.  He usually wanted to drive back home Saturday night and come back the next day.  I wasn’t married at the time and I hated that long drive on that two lane road.  I would have gladly shared the expense of a motel for a night.

                 The one Saturday night we did stay in Dubuque produced a surprise.  We ate at a Denny’s or Shoney’s the next morning.  To my surprise, right there on the menu, was my favorite, Eggs Benedict.  I thought of all those weekends of driving back to Rockford each Saturday night and missing out on a good breakfast.

            Last December I flew to Hot Springs, Arkansas.  My dad was in the hospital with pneumonia.  I usually ate some biscuits from the hospital cafeteria.  Nothing to brag about.  After five days, dad was released from the hospital.  The next morning he said we would go eat at the English Muffin, just down the road.  Yes, that mention of English Muffin did peak my interest.

            I was pleasantly surprised to see that they did, indeed, have “my” Eggs Benedict.  I was really looking forward to the meal.  What I got was something else.  Eggs Benedict just doesn’t cut it without that lemon taste in the Hollandaise Sauce.  I had even tried fixing the sauce from a mix I found at the grocery store.  Yuck. 

            Anyway, these Eggs Benedict just didn’t have it.  I didn’t say a thing, but I sure was disappointed.  Had they been the “real deal” I would have eaten there every morning.  As it was, I hadn’t missed anything by not knowing about the place beforehand.  Well……. almost.

                 Last month I flew back to Arkansas.  I just didn’t see much of my dad.  He lives so darned far away and we don’t see much of each other.  For me to drive there, I would have to go all around Robin Hood’s barn to get there by interstate highway.   The more direct route is mostly two lane roads, so I don’t drive.  I know, July is not the best time to visit someone.  It is hot just about everywhere.  Next year I will plan to visit in a cooler time of year.

                The first morning of my visit dad said let’s go eat breakfast at the English Muffin.  I nodded my head, but I was less than enthusiastic.  When we got there, I looked at the menu carefully.  I kept going back to that one item, Eggs Benedict.  When the waitress came to take our order, I asked her if the Hollandaise Sauce had any lemon taste to it at all.  Nope, was her quick reply.  It figured.

                 Then, I had an idea.  I wasn’t ready to give up yet.  I was determined to try something.  On a hunch, I ordered a double order of Eggs Benedict.  I also ordered slices of lemon.  I also wanted the Hollandaise Sauce in a cup, on the side, not on the eggs.  The waitress looked at me funny.  To her, I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about.

               When my meal, or meals came, I squeezed the lemon into the sauce and spread it on top of that muffin, topped with a poached egg, and bacon.   Helloooooooooooo ……. it worked.  It was great.  Talk about dumb luck.  For the next four days I had Eggs Benedict for breakfast…. but only one helping of it.  Each time I had them put the sauce in a separate bowl with a side of sliced lemon.

               I was going to leave that fifth day.  The shuttle to the airport, an hour away, was to pick me up at 6:30AM.  Let’s see now.  The English Muffin opened at 6:00AM.  I could be there when the doors opened and they said they could rush the order for me.  I would have to eat fast, then get back to my dad’s place to be picked up.

               I chickened out.  I was afraid of missing that airport shuttle van.  As it turned out, the shuttle service called at 6:10AM to confirm my reservation.  I guess it was just as well I didn’t risk one last serving of Eggs Benedict.

                One idea popped into my head last month as I savored my Eggs Benedict.  What if I tried the same thing with those grocery store packages of Hollandaise Sauce.  You know, add the lemon juice later.  Last week I found a package at the grocery store.  Whew, almost $2, just for a package the size of postcard.  Well, I bought it.  I also promptly forgot about it as soon as I put it in the cupboard at home.

              Yesterday, as I was finishing this story, I hesitated.  It just couldn’t end that way.  Could I truly finish the story without trying out that Hollandaise Sauce mix?  I got out the package.  It would make a cup of sauce.  All I had were two eggs in the refrigerator.  Not enough for a cup of sauce.  Besides, I didn’t have any English Muffins.  After work this morning I went by the store.  A dozen eggs and some English Muffins.

                As soon as I got home I started in on my Eggs Benedict.  Four tablespoons of butter, the mix, and a cup of water.  Pretty simple stuff.  The only problem was ……. you had to constantly stir the mixture while it cooked.  Ever tried to cook four eggs and toast four English Muffins while stirring a sauce constantly?  I’d hate to try the sauce the regular way.  When it was done I gave it a good dose of lemon juice.  What the heck…….. even more lemon juice.

              You might be asking yourself, why four eggs and pieces of English Muffin.  Well…. its like this.  The sauce mix makes enough for about eight servings.  The stuff doesn’t keep…… at all.  So……. I have to eat what I can before it goes bad.  What a waste.

                I put the English Muffins on a plate, put the poached eggs on top, then the sauce.  No I didn’t have any bacon to put on it.  I cut the Eggs Benedict up good.  I then got myself a diet soda and went to the living room to sit in comfort and try my experiment.  Don’t even think of criticizing my diet soda for breakfast.  Remember I had been up all night, so technically this was, what, dinner.

                 I was almost afraid to taste it.  Finally I dove in and tried a forkful.  Ahhhhhhhh ……..at last, perfect.  After all these years, I had it right.  Wow, it was great.

                 Now, logically, I can have Eggs Benedict all the time.  Reality check.  Eggs Benedict, with all that rich, rich, Hollandaise Sauce, is not something you want all the time.  Yes, I had it for four days straight last month in Arkansas.  That was a special circumstance.  I didn’t know that I would ever see it again. 

                 If I had Eggs Benedict all the time, how special would it be?  After all, eggs and grits used to be special.  I have eaten eggs and grits so much in the past few years, it has ceased to be special any more.  Now that I can make it anytime I want, how about once a month or so?  In the meantime, there are those packs of instant oatmeal I saw loose in the cupboard.  They must have been there since last year.  I guess I ought to eat them rather than let them go to waste.  Yuck.

 

Tom Sparkman  August 26,, 2003