When I was a kid, I was pretty much a geek. At nine I started to
stutter so badly that the school put me into a class for “special”
students and my parents sent me to a psychologist. The approach
favored by the psychologist was to withhold talking until I said
something. Since I didn’t want to stutter and didn’t want to talk to
him anyway, we mostly spent 50 minutes in silence.
My father was a pragmatist which meant he figured that whatever was was, so if I was socially awkward and stuttered, that’s who I was and he left it at that. My mother however was an optimist. She had proudly attended Hunter Model School in New York and felt that she was part of the liberal intelligentsia that wouldn’t rest until the world was cleansed of poverty, racism, sexism, and war. Reading about the latest armed conflict in the newspaper, she would proclaim with frustration, “Why can’t people just get along?”
My Dad used to eat chocolate doughnuts for breakfast until he met my Mom who thought that eating chocolate doughnuts for breakfast was up there with, say, cold pizza.
As a result I can’t imagine eating chocolate doughnuts, at all. I think breakfast should be confined to breakfast food (or if you’re on a diet, something to skip.) But someone sent us an apple pie last week that I can imagine having for breakfast (and lunch and dinner).
They say you always remember your first. And were we talking about a
kiss, I remember sitting on a recessed bench filled with orange life
jackets on the second level of the Boblo Island ferry leaning towards
my sixth grade “girlfriend” Monica. I remember the stench of rotting
sea life from the Detroit River and the paprika scent of Better Made
BBQ potato chips mingling with the floral waft of Giorgio perfume from
her neck (though I suspect it was the Parfums de Coeur Designer
Imposters knock-off—after all what 12-year-old can afford the real
thing?) as we hesitantly merged our lips. Were we talking about sex, I
remember that too, but kissing and telling is one thing, getting laid
and doing so is quite another.
What I’m really talking about here is my first Eggs Benedict, the legendary English muffin raft conveying tasty castaways of salty pork and jiggly poached eggs awash in waves of silky hollandaise. And of that, I do not remember my first.
Though, I suspect it was at an all-you-can-eat buffet, one of those restaurant-larder-clearing affairs featuring an orgy of tangled snow-crab legs, a miserable checked-pant-wearing short-order cook manning a butane-fired omelet station and mountains of chartreuse-rinded unripe cantaloupe. That means my first Benedict was likely a steam-table-parched muffin topped with Canadian bacon parchment and a sulfurous over-fried egg mottled with a gloppy, broken mock-hollandaise. Thankfully I subscribe to the idea that you try everything twice, because you never know if the first example was cooked right.
The Waffle House is sort of the unofficial flower of the Southern Interstate exit. Driving North from the Gulf Coast on I-65 for the past two years, I have seen the yellow signs blossoming in hamlets from Alabama to Kentucky, and been intrigued, imagining fluffy waffles with real syrup, folksy waitresses with coffee pots, and an enlightening cross section of humanity. My path to Waffle Nirvana was blocked only by my mother, who has a phobia about unclean public bathrooms which I believe is a gene-linked trait in Jewish women of her generation. Having been a teacher, she is able to “hold it” like a camel retains water in the desert, but during the long trip home from Florida she insists, not unreasonably, that we choose lunch stops at restaurants where she can use the restrooms without sedation.
The following is an excerpt from "Siren's Feast: An Edible Odyssey" by Nancy Mehagian, a culinary memoir that captures a colorful era and features over 40 traditional Armenian and vegetarian recipes.
When I was growing up nobody talked about dysfunctional families, so it took me a while to realize how fortunate I was to have the parents I had. They never argued in front of us and truly seemed to enjoy life and each other. My brother and I were rarely left behind on trips, including seeing the Folies Bergères when it first came to Las Vegas. I have to admit my childhood was somewhat idyllic. Perhaps too idyllic.
Before there was IHOP, there was Gwynn’s.
When I was a kid in suburban Teaneck, New Jersey, it was always a treat to go for Sunday brunch with my family at Gwynn’s on Teaneck Road. Gwynn’s seemed swanky and grown-up to me. Outside, it was painted white brick, and inside it was cool and darkish, with comfy booths. My mother would order her coffee, and the cream came in tiny, glass pitchers with little round cardboard pull-tabs on top. She only used a drop and then gave me the supreme pleasure of letting me drink the rest of the cream from its miniature jar. Sometimes, if she had a second cup, I got another taste of the thick, heavenly liquid that would contribute to the need for Lipitor years later. Compared to my very picky little sister, who ate only cream cheese and jelly, I was “a good eater” with a passion for pancakes, waffles and French toast.
Then, in the mid 60’s, across town on Cedar Lane, a new place opened up, part of a chain that seemed to be popping up all over America: the International House of Pancakes. People were talking about it, and my cousins three towns away had already been to another one and were jazzed. It didn’t have Gwynn’s sophistication or my beloved mini-pots of cream, but on our first visit, I discovered silver dollar pancakes – a plateful of glorious, child-sized, golden ducats. I was hooked! Soon thereafter, chocolate chip pancakes appeared on the menu, and I became an under-age chocoholic.
In the summer of 1966 I worked as a dishwasher in a summer camp near Hunter Mountain in upstate New York. This was in the pre-automatic dishwasher days meaning dirty dishes were dumped in a super hot sink of soapy water and washed and dried by hand. I used to come in around 6 a.m. to clean the breakfast pots and pans. Henry, a very tall, rail thin man who had been a cook in World War II in Europe, had gotten there at least an hour before me; I usually found him smoking a filterless cigarette and slowly beating powdered eggs and water in a huge stainless steel bowl or ladling out pancakes on the football field-size griddle.
Though he was cooking for well over 150 people every morning he never seemed to be in a rush. Though there was no air conditioning and an eight burner stove going full blast, Henry barely broke a sweat. I started sweating from the moment I got there; and being a not very bright 14-year-old, I often compounded my problems by forgetting to use an oven mitt when picking up a hot pan or getting scalding hot water in my rubber washing gloves.
It happened suddenly. One minute we were together, touching, my hands on his body, as close as always, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, signs of dire distress. It sounded like a heave or a deep sigh. But I heard a click in there somewhere as well. Something more than the whirl of a distant fan. I heard danger. I heard Mac’s finally gasp.
And then, after four years together, nine to ten hours a day, seven days a week, for all 52 weeks of the year – half of those trying to work, the other half simply searching together for answers – it was over.
Lately, he was the first thing I reached for in the morning after my husband, who gets up early, was gone. I pulled him off the table and woke him up from his sleep. I demanded that he bring me the New York Times. That was always the start.
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.
My mother prepared us breakfast every day of the week because she was
not about to send us off to school on an empty stomach. Yet the only
day I really remember eating breakfast was on Saturday. Not because she
cooked an elaborate spread, but because we were left to fend for
ourselves. It was the one morning my parents slept in – probably only
to about 8 or 9, but it seemed like all morning and it was a thrill to be without parental supervision in the dining room. My siblings and I weren’t what
you’d call “skilled” in the culinary arts, but we were quite capable of
pouring a bowl cereal…and that’s where the trouble started.
These were the days before whole grains, when cereal was “crack” for kids, so filled with sugar one bowl probably exceeded your daily nutritional requirements for carbohydrates. There was no fiber to be found and we LOVED it. While in grammar school, we were allowed to “request” our favorite brand, but my mother had a strict food budget, so we never knew what we were actually going to find in the cupboard. If your choice was on sale, then it was your lucky week and the world was your oyster.