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

Revisiting Stories Grandma Never Told

Stories Grandma Never Told_justified text.pmdOnce upon a time there was a journalist with long curly hair, big glasses, and a penchant for blazers with padded shoulders who traveled around California interviewing Portuguese women. She carried a steno pad, a micro-cassette recorder, and a heavy Minolta Camera with extra lenses and a detachable flash. She used Tri-X black and white film. The women wondered why she might find them interesting, but they welcomed her into their kitchens, living rooms and shops. The result was a book, Stories Grandma Never Told, published by Heyday Books in 1998.

The day the book came out was the day this young journalist felt like a real author. It was released at the annual Dia de Portugal festival held at the San Jose Historical Museum. As Portuguese music played, young queens in white paraded, and crowds feasted on Azorean pastries and linguica, she sold book after book after book. Women bought them for their mothers, sisters and daughters. People featured in the book came to have their pictures taken with the famous author. Her whole family was there. It was heaven.

That was my third book but the first one that was my idea, my words, my pictures, me on the page. I had gotten the idea while writing The Iberian Americans, an overview of Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants. Very little had been written about Portuguese women. I could see how I was a direct product of my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and beyond. I had never asked for their stories, but now I dove in, starting with everything “Portuguese” listed in the telephone book. It was a long process, and I had a hard time finding a publisher. I was about to give up when Malcolm Margolin at Heyday offered me a contract.

Sue interviewing MarieBalshorThe book came out 21 years ago. Heyday did a great job producing and promoting it, but they decided after eight years and three printings to let it go. I republished it under my own Blue Hydrangea imprint. Decades later, it’s still selling better than my other books. To increase distribution, I am republishing it this month with Ingram, the company that supplies most bookstores. This means that if you request this book at any bookstore, they should be able to order it for you. Amazon.com will not be the only place to get it.

To bring “Grandma” up to date, I have been looking up the women I interviewed. A lot has changed. Many of the older women I interviewed have died. I’m grateful that I was able to capture their stories. Otherwise, they’d be gone. Some of them documented their lives for their children and grandchildren, but others never thought it was important and the kids didn’t ask, just as I didn’t until I started working on my book.

Finding people is a lot easier these days. I didn’t have Google or Facebook back in the 1990s. I collected my interviewees by word of mouth—“you should interview so-and-so”—by showing up at events, and by many hours taking notes by hand in various libraries.

So many of these women became friends. They felt like family. We exchanged letters, Christmas cards, and phone calls. We met every year at the Dia de Portugal, where they’d wear their Azorean costumes with full skirts and white blouses as they peddled food or marched in the parade. It’s hard to lose them. I already knew about many of them, including my Aunt Nellie, Aunt Edna, my mother, and my college mentor Dolores Spurgeon. I mourned the loss of my buddy Marie Gambrel. Now I know that Virginia Silveira, Edith Mattos Walter, Bea Costa, Pauline Correia Stonehill, Doris Machado Van Scoy, Maree Simas Schlenker are also gone.

But I also know that former student Krista Harper is now a college professor, that Katherine Vaz got married and lives in New York, and that former Sacramento news anchor Cristina Mendonsa now broadcasts across the United States. It has been a long time, but many of the younger women are still celebrating their heritage the way they used to.

Books on Portuguese Americans occupy a lot more shelf space than they used to as a younger generation of immigrants go all-out to tell their stories. Portuguese Heritage Publications of California and the University of Massachusetts Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture have both put out numerous books about the Portuguese. But Stories Grandma Never Told was one of the first.

I’m proud of that young curly-headed woman who pushed through her natural shyness to make the phone calls, take the trips, and ask the questions that resulted in Stories Grandma Never Told and of the stubborn older woman I am today who refuses to let those stories disappear.

The new Ingram edition, with a return to my favorite cover, will be out on my birthday, March 9. You can still buy Stories Grandma Never Told in print or as an ebook at Amazon.com, too. That version will soon be updated, too.

God bless my Portuguese ladies.