The Most Important Meal of the Day

My mother was a saint. Not only did she rise in the wee hours to make breakfast for my father before he went off to work as an electrician, but she had to deal with my brother and me, rousting us out of bed, getting us into the one bathroom between dad’s trips, making our lunches, getting us dressed and out the door in time for school. Dad would eat, she’d kiss him goodbye—I remember the smack of their lips coming together—and then she’d turn around and feed us, loading the washing machine while we ate. All before she had her morning coffee—which she didn’t like anyway.

Mom couldn’t just pass out Pop Tarts or boxes of dry cereal for breakfast. Dad, who grew up on a ranch, needed bacon or sausage, eggs and waffles, pancakes or hash browns—a real breakfast—or what I now think of as a cholesterol fest. I still remember the taste of fried linguiça and eggs and how it sat heavy in my stomach.

With meals like these, we were not skinny people, but my parents, God bless them, always told me I was “just right.”

I started counting calories as a high school senior when I overheard the popular girls talking about how much they weighed. I weighed 30 pounds more than that! Was I fat? I looked down at my thighs. I was! Poor mom. I’d bring my calorie book to the table and tally the numbers. I can’t eat that! Too fattening. Nope. That’s xxx calories.

At first I cut back to just toast in the morning, but then I started eating Campbell’s soup for breakfast–only the flavors with under 100 calories per serving: chicken noodle, tomato, cream of mushroom cooked with water. I lost that 30 pounds between high school graduation and the middle of my first year of college. No “freshman 15” for me. I was still living at home, eating only soup, orange juice bars, yogurt, meat and vegetables.

Too good for her own good, my mother prepared my weird meals at weird times to accommodate my classes and part-time retail jobs at the mall while also cooking big meat-and-potatoes meals for Dad and my brother. If I were my mom, I’d have told me to cook my own damned diet dinners.

Although I abandoned the usual starch-and-cholesterol breakfast, I have always eaten something in the morning. With tea. Nobody else in the family drank tea. We didn’t have a kettle. I hovered over a Revere Ware pot, watching the water heat from tiny pinpricks to big floppy bubbles while Mom worked around me, trying to prepare my brother’s breakfast, a smaller version of Dad’s.

I took my “weird” breakfasts into adulthood. For a while between marriages, my breakfast consisted of Entenmanns’ chocolate donuts. But I was exercising like a madwoman, and I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants, so I stayed thin.

Ah, where did that self-discipline go? I got hungry. I got old. I got tired. I learned to bake.

Let’s call my typical breakfast “continental.” Sounds classy. I have orange juice, herb tea, half a grapefruit, and something baked—muffin, coffeecake, banana bread, bagel–with a butter substitute made with yogurt. I get cranky when I have to eat something else. If there is no pastry to look forward to, what’s the point of getting up?

“That’s not breakfast,” my father would say. Until he died last year, I would bring my own juice, tea, fruit and bagels when I visited him in San Jose. I left a tea kettle and a grapefruit spoon in the drawer in my old bedroom.

After Mom died, Dad ate oatmeal every day. He sliced a banana into the bowl, poured oatmeal over it, and topped it with sugar and milk. He ate one slice of white toast topped with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and drank one cup of coffee. He would shake his head at my weird breakfast as I dipped my serrated grapefruit spoon into the tart red fruit. Oatmeal is good for you, he’d say. I know. Everybody says that, but it tastes like cardboard.

When I’m asked out to breakfast, I tell my friends, “I don’t do breakfast. How about lunch?” Not only do I eat different foods from the usual breakfast menu, but I’m not ready for other people first thing in the morning. If Mom were still around, she’d advise you to avoid me till the caffeine and sugar kick in.

This morning around 7:30, I ate half a ruby grapefruit and a homemade blackberry muffin slathered with my yogurt spread. Delicious. My Red Zinger tea cut the sweetness nicely. How many calories? I have no idea, although I’m sure it’s less than I’d get with the Costco muffins I binged on back in San Jose before I learned just how fattening they were. By making my own, I can use healthier ingredients with no mysterious chemicals.

Dietitians would have a fit about what I eat. Someday the family diabetes curse may catch up with me. Meanwhile I’ll keep doing breakfast my way. It makes me happy.

What makes you happy for breakfast? Or do you skip breakfast? How does your breakfast now compare to what you ate as a child? Let’s chat about the first meal of the day.

Additional reading:

“I Broke Breakfast” by Amanda Mull, The Atlantic, May 14, 2019

“Most Popular North American Breakfasts,” TasteAtlas, Oct. 15, 2020

“American Breakfast,” Tasteessence

Our Food is Worth Paying Attention To

I rarely think about all that goes into my food. I am usually reading a book as I eat, but today as I stop to say thank you for my breakfast of half a ruby grapefruit, homemade bread and herbal tea, I consider the complex origins of this simple meal.

This fat juicy grapefruit grew on a tree from seed to green fruit to ripe, heavy fruit that someone picked off the tree in Florida, put into a box and shipped all the way to Oregon, where it came to the Thriftway Market in a truck to be placed in the bin by the man with the green apron for me to squeeze and find worthy to go into my shopping cart. ThisDSCN3943 morning, I removed it from my refrigerator, cut it in half, placed half in a container to save for tomorrow, half in a small white bowl, cut around the edges with a sharp knife, then sat at my table to savor the fat juicy bites that wake my tongue and call saliva from the back of my mouth. What if this grapefruit had fallen to the ground, to be bruised and eaten by bugs? What if the sun wasn’t warm enough or it rained too much? It would not be here on my table now.

As I finish eating my grapefruit, the tea kettle squeals. I pour boiling water over a Red Zinger tea bag, watching the water turn red. This tea is a blend of rose hips, licorice, chamomile and other herbs grown in sun and rain, harvested, dried and blended in a factory in Colorado, put into filmy paper bags and a box that ends up at the market for me to buy, brew and drink at my table. Afterward I will throw the bag away, its contents squeezed until they run white. What a miracle that I have this tea every morning to drink.

My bread took four hours to make a few days ago. With blues playing on the radio, I mixed yeast, flour, sugar, oil, water and salt into a big lump which I kneaded with my hands, let rise, shaped into braids, let rise again, and baked. Each ingredient was grown and processed by someone, sold to the grocery store and sold to me to be combined into this mouth-pleasing substance that I warm one slice at a time in the toaster oven and spread with a butter substitute made from yogurt, oil and other ingredients, each harvested, cooked, shaped and packaged far away. Each bite is soft in the middle, crunchy on the outside, slippery on top, satisfying to my body and soul.

So much effort, so much life, has gone into this food that I eat at dawn, the smallest and least complex of my meals. Although too many people have nothing to eat, I never question that my food will be there every morning, that when I run low I can go get more. How dare I not pay attention when I should be thankful and awestruck with every bite?