»  The Straggler, No. 67

June 2, 2008

   New Every Morning

Is anybody in a good humor at breakfast? Well, Mr. Pickwick was. Our last glimpse of that gentleman is at the breakfast table after the marriage of Mr. Snodgrass. "Mr. Pickwick, having said grace, pauses for an instant, and looks around him. As he does so, the tears roll down his cheeks, in the fulness of his joy."

All right for him. In those days the gentry breakfasted at ten, even without the excuse of a morning wedding, and drank Madeira with their broiled ham and eggs, and had a day of idleness in front of them. For us working stiffs it's the 6 a.m. trill of the alarm clock, the groping for clothes in darkness from consideration for the spouse still asleep, the stumble downstairs to the kitchen, a grayish dawn showing beyond the windows. It's not Dickens who comes to my mind at such moments but the anonymous author of "Hierusalem, my Happy Home":

No dampish mist is seen in thee,
Nor cold nor darksome night …

There spoke a man who had to get up in the morning. Quite possibly he began his breakfast arrangements by putting a scoop of oatmeal into a bowl, as I do. Our morning routines diverge after that, there having been no microwave ovens in the 16th century, nor any bananas to slice into the cooked porridge. Orange juice I am not sure about. I have read somewhere that a Jesuit imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of Elizabeth I used to communicate with the outside world via invisible orange-juice writing. The recipient would warm the paper by a candle, revealing the words. How bad could the Tower have been, if they had orange juice? Idle thoughts, as I trudge down the driveway in the dampish mists to retrieve my New York Post.

Setting the Post on the kitchen table, I cross to the counter to add the necessary splash of cold milk to my oatmeal. In that few seconds my teenage daughter, the household's other lark, appears and spots the paper. There is a picture of some celebrity on the front page, unknown to me but of consuming interest to her. I open negotiations for a share of the paper, coming away with the op-eds and business news. We settle at the table and eat in silence, Dad with his pundits and mergers, she with her movie stars.

Oatmeal and I go back a long way together. At the remotest edge of memory I sit watching fascinated as a thread of treacle descends from a spoon held over a bowl of porridge. When the leisurely treacle meets the porridge it suddenly becomes an active thing, its thread crossing and re-crossing itself frantically in one spot, as if trying to write, but melting to a little golden pool before the words can form. The treacle was Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup, with that peculiar picture on the can: a dead lion in whose carcass — improbably, I recall thinking even in infancy — some bees had nested. "Out of the strong came forth sweetness," said the caption. Has any other breakfast food been packaged with a Biblical quotation, I wonder?

Oatmeal porridge was of course only a prologue to the heroic multi-course English breakfasts of my childhood. The entree was a full plate of heaped protein: eggs and bacon, big flat fleshy "field" mushrooms, blood sausage, and bread. All had been fried — yes, including the bread — in a half-inch of lard in my mother's frying pan. After breakfast the lard was allowed to cool until solid, then the pan, lard and all, could be hung on a hook on the wall ready for the next day's breakfast. Why waste good lard?

There were occasional extras. My own favorite was kidneys, split lengthwise and fried with the rest. (A taste I share with Leopold Bloom: "Thursday: not a good day either for a mutton kidney at Buckley's. … Better a pork kidney at Dlugacz's.") After the fry-up there would be marmalade on toast, washed down with three or four cups of tea. We were then considered ready to face the world; though looking back on those breakfasts, it's surprising we could even stand upright.

My own children's breakfast tastes are, I am sorry to say, badly undeveloped. They eat cereal with milk. I keep thinking that I should at least try to get them doing it with method and style, using the famous five-page description in Cryptonomicon as an instruction text: "The gold nuggets of Cap'n Crunch pelt the bottom of the bowl with a sound like glass rods being snapped in half …" I know this would meet resistance, though, especially at irritable 6:30 a.m., so I let it go.

The Chinese side of the Straggler household has its own ideas about breakfast, put into effect after one of the weekly provisioning trips to Chinatown. The central feature is hot soy milk and you-tiao, which are foot-long batter-sticks, deep-fried (though not, I am quite sure, in lard) and delicious when crisped up in the oven, but leathery if left uneaten too long. Lao you-tiao, "old batter-stick," is in fact an idiom, used to refer to a person who has been toughened up somewhat by life. I once overheard myself referred to thus. Unsure how to take it, I quietly asked a third party. He: "No harm, just means you've knocked around a bit. Okay for a guy. For a woman … not so good." Always take care with other people's idioms.

The Straggler family's third breakfast mode, after cereals and you-tiao, is American, taken on special occasions at an excellent local diner, all four of us together. I invariably use the opportunity to order corned-beef hash, one of the U.S.'s major contributions to civilized living. You should, if you can, get the cook to let the hash sit in the pan a minute or two. This gives one side of it a thin crust, bringing the hash to culinary perfection. Two eggs on top, some buttered toast on the side, a pot of good American coffee, and I wouldn't trade places with Mr. Pickwick. Has there ever been a civilization that didn't eat breakfast? I bet they didn't last long.