Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Negotiating Breakfast

Father's day is Sunday. I had started thinking about a Mother's Day post back in May but opted to save my idea for this week. Breakfast is something near and dear to my heart. As a family we revel in celebrating those simple, but sentimental, holidays at a late morning table full of food. Also, there are few foods that I truly tie to my father in memory- but big breakfast has always been as much, if not more so, his domain than my mother's. So here is a little bit about our morning meal tradition, with or without holiday occasion.

"Big Breakfast” is a term that has always been bandied about in my family. Less so now that we aren’t all under one roof, but it still comes up on occasion since none of us are too far apart. Big breakfast means a hot, filling meal made fresh, usually on the weekend or a holiday, when everyone eats together. No cold cereal, no yogurt, no singular toast or banana. The big breakfast goes all out. Almost certain to be eggs; if they’re not the main event they’re served as the savory side. There will be something sweet; usually carb forward stacks of waffles or pancakes, sometimes French toast or just buttered toast. And of course there will always be bacon. If all 6 (mom, dad, sister, brother, and my niece) of us are together there will be a big plate of bacon, maybe some stray sausage links or some slices of ham. Once in a while there will be potatoes, but since big breakfast tends to happen spur of the moment there isn’t always time for them.

Up until a few years ago breakfasts like these were always prepared by my mom or my dad. And typically one or the other, but not both. When it came to fried eggs and omelets my mom held down the fort and the battered up mornings were my dad’s turf. I’m not really sure why things seems to always fall this way, but it is how it is. Nowadays I’m happy to take over whatever, whenever necessary. My obsession with poached eggs has also infiltrated the big breakfast realm. Months ago when I was still working on my poaching craft my parents would grumble at the whisper of the word “poached” because the egg whites would get all over their sauce pans. Now that I’m at least partially masterful of the craft, I can poach with ease and the opposition has desisted. I’m also always game to make the pancakes or French toast, but for some reason I will always leave the waffles to my dad. I think someone gave us our first waffle iron a long while ago. Sometime in the early 90s. It had a white plastic exterior with a light that was orange when the waffles were cooking. That broke at some point and it was replaced with a sleek Cuisinart model with a metal and black design.  I think I was with my dad when we got it- at Christmastime at Macy's during our annual Christmas Eve shopping outing to buy all his presents for my mom. He always gets one or two things for "the family" that tend to be things he just wants in the house. Like the new waffle iron, from which we all benefit.

Throughout the history of big breakfast there have been phases pertaining to certain aspects. When my siblings and I were little we always has this Welch's apple-orange-pineapple juice made from frozen concentrate. It was usually up to one of us to mix the juice while my parents cooked. I remember running the cold concentrate can under water to melt and loosen it, then filling it up three times with cold water and breaking up the crystallized mass of juice-to-be. We had a special plastic pitcher just for mixing it up and it was something that we rarely kept in the fridge during the week. By the end of our meal the fresh batch would be nearly or completely finished. For some reason, my mom never has this in the house anymore. Maybe she used to buy it because it was less expensive than not-from-concentrate orange juices and she could stock up when they were on sale. Now we drink Tropicana low acid orange juice (no pulp- never pulp) with breakfast. And that bottle is never kicked come breakfast's end.

Turkey bacon also had a serious moment with our family. When I was in late elementary school or middle school turkey bacon was popular and has loosely stuck around ever since. I even turned other people onto its deliciousness. We have always been pretty particular about the brand of turkey bacon we all like- Oscar Mayer is the best. Jennie-O is gross and Butterball always leaves something to be desired. I think we got super fresh turkey bacon from Oscar's Smokehouse once- that was the best we'd ever had. I went through life turning people on to the pleasures of turkey bacon; its meaty, satisfying flavor, its quick cooking time and its less fatty and crunchy texture. But now I never buy turkey bacon and we usually just have regular bacon at big breakfast. Another phase that came and went.

Pancakes and waffles are still almost exclusively made from Jiffy Mix or Bisquick. Why, again, I don't know. In my own kitchen I always use Ruhlman's Ratio to make pancakes. I even remember days when we went to get out the ingredients for breakfast and upon finding no mix in the cabinet settling for omelettes. This really makes no sense, but as I said my dad was usually driving the ship when it came to pancakes and waffles- and he's not much for cooking like the rest of my family. I think this stems largely from his limited sense of smell, he just doesn't get jazzed about food like we do. It should be noted that occasionally chocolate chips and blueberries make an appearance in our pancakes. This is one phase that has persisted but which I hope we grow out of soon. Maybe I'll photocopy Ruhlman's ratio and sneak it into the Bisquick box next time I'm at my parents. 

Potatoes don't experience a phase but tend to be a special guest star that are always welcome but only show up a quarter of the time. We all love carbs, certainly, but are reasonable enough to know better than to do double starch when we're having pancakes, waffles or French toast. That cuts potatoes down to only getting half time anyway- add on their excessive cooking time and we're left with seeing them rarely enough at the table that their presence is cause for joy. My mom will usually be the one who wants them the most so she will initiate making them even if it pushes back breakfast 30 minutes. Growing up she would rarely take an omelette and would instead opt to fry two eggs quickly once we were all seated. The potatoes main purpose was to soak up her runny yolks. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of cooking with some frozen shredded potatoes my mom had on hand. They cooked quickly enough and made amazing hash browns nostalgic of breakfasts spent at Denny's. 

Once in a while breakfast will seem less "big" and we will feature something special, sometimes homemade sometimes not. For Easter this year my dad and I made biscuits from Suvir Saran's Masala Farm cookbook. My dad had a hard time coping with the amount of butter we used, but the results were tender crumbed, savory treats. We had these with my poached eggs and some bacon. Every now and then we will have a nice quiche, too. Often with potatoes and less often with a green salad. My sister is usually the one who makes the it and for my father's sake we call it the "egg thing" because something about the word quiche turns him off to it. Sometimes there are cinnamon rolls from those cans that pop, or pastries or my Aunt Mary's sour cream coffee cake. If we can't muster up a full breakfast or don't have time I can count on my dad to toast me an English muffin and make a strong cup of coffee. Even if its a "small" breakfast it will still warm my heart.

I've loved every breakfast we've had together as a family- big or small. And I look forward to many more to come. The tradition is already being passed along to our next generation in the form of my niece. She likes a good "dippin' egg" (friend egg over easy) on the weekend with some toast and as much bacon as she can find, often taking it off her Auntie Mare's plate. Hopefully someday I will have my own mouths to feed and though I will do some things differently, the basis of the big breakfast will always be about spending time as a family and enjoying good food that was made with love.

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