It’s Time to Revive the Interesting Breakfast

By Bee Wilson

Why has breakfast become the least interesting meal of the day, at least in the West? It wasn’t always so, as I was reminded while reading “The Taste of Country Cooking” by the late, great Edna Lewis, first published in 1976. Lewis was born in 1916 and grew up on a farm in Freetown, Va. The American breakfasts she describes were stupendous feasts, on a par with Thanksgiving dinners. Lewis and her family would routinely start the day with hearty dishes such as fried chicken with browned gravy, ham in heavy cream sauce, fried green corn or pan-fried sweet potatoes. She describes breakfast as “about the best part of the day,” when everyone greeted each other “with a real sense of gratefulness to see the new day.”

In theory, breakfast should be a meal every bit as tasty and exciting as any other. So it’s sad that in the bustle of modern life, it so often ends up being some form of dull processed starch—an uninspired bowl of breakfast cereal or a slice of toast. Almost the only people who still make a cooked breakfast seem to be the low-carb brigade, but there is a tendency for the meal to be something utilitarian such as a “protein pot” of hard-boiled eggs and spinach. This kind of breakfast is more like swallowing a vitamin pill than giving yourself something to savor.

Compare and contrast with Lewis’s example of a fall breakfast, which starts with a hearty dish of oatmeal and cream. Next comes smothered rabbit—pieces of rabbit fried and then braised with bacon and shallot—served with fried tomatoes, corn muffins, freshly made biscuits, wild blackberry jelly and butter. To drink there is hot cocoa for the children, infused with cinnamon and nutmeg, and plenty of “delicious hot coffee” for the grown-ups.

Such an elaborate breakfast is a world away from the morning food of modern America. You would be astounded—and perhaps not in a good way—to see smothered rabbit for sale in Starbucks along with the muffins and croissants. More to the point, we don’t seem to expect that our breakfasts should be as flavorsome or varied as our lunches or dinners. Given that we typically eat 365 breakfasts a year, this is a wasted opportunity.

Part of why breakfast got downgraded is that people were driven by modern patterns of work to eat it too early, when the appetite isn’t very strong. The hearty breakfasts of Edna Lewis were eaten after the morning feeding of the animals on the farm. Each bite of biscuit and sip of coffee was a sweet reward for work already done. By contrast, office workers now eat breakfast before any of the day’s work has been attempted, in a panicky and slightly nauseous state. No wonder we fall back on the comfort of morning ritual. For years, when my children were small and it felt like a crazed rush to get them to school on time, I ate exactly the same breakfast every day like clockwork: coffee and toast with butter and marmalade. It wasn’t thrilling, but it was one less thing to think about.

For some people working at home during the pandemic, it has been easier to have later and more leisurely breakfasts. This changes the kind of things you may feel like eating. When breakfast is prepared first thing in a sleepy-eyed and under-caffeinated state, you may struggle to embark on anything more challenging than a toasted bagel or a bowl of yogurt. But when you already have coffee in your body and a Zoom meeting under your belt, you may branch out and turn your mind to more brunch-like dishes—such as a spicy shakshuka of eggs poached in a rich cumin-scented tomato sauce and topped with cilantro.

Boring breakfasts are a failure of imagination, as much as anything. We have a tendency—encouraged by the multinational breakfast cereal industry—to think of “breakfast food” as comprising a very narrow set of ingredients, centered on wheat flour and sugar.

But there are still places in the world with a more flavorsome breakfast repertoire. Before the pandemic, the best breakfasts I ate were always while traveling. I remember breakfasts of spinach pie and watermelon in Greece; of giant crispy dosas and curry in India; of dumplings and savory congee in China. Now that extensive travel is off the table, I’m trying to eat more exciting breakfasts at home at least a couple of days a week. Sometimes, instead of spreading my toast with butter, I rub it with garlic, anoint it with tomato pulp, oil and salt, and pretend I am in Spain.

When you eat a different breakfast, the whole day starts off on a fresh note.

When you eat a different breakfast, the whole day starts off on a fresh note—and God knows we need that now. I’ve loved experimenting with the breakfasts in a superb new science-based cookbook, “The Flavor Equation” by Nik Sharma, which will be published by Chronicle Books next month. The recipes include Mr. Sharma’s mother’s favorite breakfast dish of vegetable pakoras—delightful fritters made from kale and ginger, which he grew up eating in India for weekend breakfasts. His big idea is that even a simple meal cooked in a home kitchen can be special when we pay more attention to flavor and texture.

A case in point is Mr. Sharma’s brilliant recipe for Masala Hash Browns with a tomato chutney. In essence, this is the old diner standby of hash browns and eggs but in a brighter form with multilayered seasoning. As the potatoes and onions for the hash browns cook, you season them with garam masala and a pinch of cayenne pepper, with a final hit of sourness from tangy amchur powder. You serve the potatoes with a fried egg and a fiery chutney made from charred cherry tomatoes and pickled peppercorns. Assuming you have the spices in the house, it’s a snap to make, and I guarantee you will never try more delicious hash browns.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been forced to shelve plans this year. But trying to eat better breakfasts is the kind of ambition that is still within reach. When it seems you have nothing else to celebrate, you can still celebrate the fact that you made it through another night and there are delicious new things to be eaten.


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