I read “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe the summer I worked as a busboy in a Catskill Hotel. His hero Eugene Gant was a lover of the morning meal but I had to help serve it.
Getting up at six in the morning for the breakfast shift was hell made worse by sharing a room with medical student waiters who were all too willing to roll you out of your bunk and drag you into a cold shower. If you were lucky enough to escape you took a ‘waiter’s bath’: generous helpings of Old Spice; like French nobility at Versailles we stunk under a layer of perfume.
Breakfast in the Catskills was bountiful. If the hotel was kosher it combined the menu of a Second Avenue dairy restaurant with the display case of a King’s Highway Brooklyn bakery. Juices, fruits, sour cream, cottage pot and farmer cheese, blintzes, all manner of eggs, cereals hot and cold, lox, herring in cream or wine sauce, smoked whitefish, cod and kippers. Fresh baked onion rolls, poppy seed rolls, caraway crescents, fruit Danishes, coffee cakes, and last night’s left over strudel. If the hotel wasn’t Kosher – and the one I worked in wasn’t – then there was the gift of the forbidden animal; bacon and ham.
The baker had been working since four in the morning making rolls and pastries and he wasn’t in a good mood. The breakfast chefs were cracking eggs by the dozen, frying pounds of bacon and layering it in empty egg cartons. Pancake batter, challah sliced for French toast, eggs in baking dishes to be shirred stood beside bowls of fried onions, chopped lox, peppers, ham cubes, and cheeses – ready for omelets.
In the dining room waiters were setting their tables. In the kitchen busboys were filling the huge coffee urns, dragging milk and cream cans from the cold box, and loading breadbaskets with rolls. Breakfast for the waiters and busboys was a cup of coffee on the run and a roll stuffed with purloined creamed herring, or a spoonful of scrambled eggs. We were all tired.
Our evenings began at nine and we stayed up until four. After cleaning up the dining room, we changed out of our black pants and white shirts and went to the movies or checked out the action at the other hotels. “The Bridge On The River Kwai” played that summer. I went to the midnight show and fell asleep just before William Holden blew up the bridge. The noise woke me up just in time to see the debris of the bridge floating down the river. I tried again a few nights later and the same thing happened. I never did see the actual explosion.
Morning was also the time when food suppliers made their deliveries. In the middle of the madness of getting breakfast out to 300 guests, men were hauling cartons of canned goods, sacks of flour, bleeding roast beefs, plucked chickens and milk cans into the kitchen on hand carts. And, as was their privilege, helping themselves to an ad hoc breakfast. A local baker who supplied the hotel with loaves of rye bread and challah - an observant co-religionist from the tilt of his yamulka and the sway of his titskis - looked around for witnesses and then palmed a slice of his excellent rye bread into the bacon tray and scooped up a fistful of sin. Not a pretty sight for a boy whose bar mitzvah was still a vibrant memory.
So what’s the point, you ask. Jews on vacation eat big breakfasts. Why not, they were entitled to it. They also ate big lunches and big dinners and sometimes had midnight buffets. After all, they were paying a hefty twenty dollars a day (room included).
Which brings me back to Thomas Wolfe:
“In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuit, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steak, scalding coffee. Or there were stacked batter-cakes, rum colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat juicy bacon, jam.
At the mid-day meal they ate heavily: a huge hot roast of beef, fat buttered lima beans, tender corn smoking on cob, thick red slabs of sliced tomatoes, rough savory spinach, hot yellow corn bread, flaky biscuits, a deep dish peach and apple cobbler spiced with cinnamon, tender cabbage, deep glass dishes piled with preserved fruits – cherries, pears, peaches.”
Eugene Gant, if you had traveled up Route 17 you would have been right at home.