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Southern Comforts: The Superiority of a Good Country Breakfast : Traditions: In every corner of the South and in every season of the year, the first meal of the day is rarely taken lightly. Some remembrances from native sons and daughters.

May 03, 1990|John Egerton | COUNTRY HOME and Egerton is the author of "Southern Food" (Knopf, 1987)

"In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuits, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steaks, scalding coffee. Or there were stacked buttercakes, rum-colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat, juicy bacon, jam."

--THOMAS WOLFE, "LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL"

It was his own waking to the seductive aromas of breakfast in his mother's Asheville, N.C., boarding house that author Thomas Wolfe remembered so vividly. Wolfe was not the first Southern writer to wax eloquent over a breakfast spread, nor has he been the last. Since the days of plantations, breakfast has been a major meal in the South--for some, it is the major meal--and in almost every state from Virginia to Louisiana there remain many old and established traditions surrounding the bountiful morning repast.

Today, many Americans get their morning start-ups from a cereal box or the drive-up window of a fast-foot outlet--if, indeed, they take the time to eat at all. But on special occasions, whenever time permits, millions of people linger nostalgically over breakfast the way it used to be.

For Southerners especially, the fondness for a substantial morning meal endures. A hearty Southern breakfast in the traditional style has more than enough diversity to draw an appreciative crowd to a boarding house or a banquet table. It's a meal that is sometimes formal and sometimes casual; it knows no bounds of class, race or calling.

Tennessee writer Wilma Dykeman in her 1966 novel, "The Farm Family," has Papa explain the natural superiority of a good country breakfast to his children at the table. "No Astor or Vanderbilt has better eating than this," he tells them. "You young'uns just remember, the richest man living on Park Avenue in New York City can't eat what we've got set before us right here this morning. His corn's stale, his eggs have been shipped in from some place, his milk's all treated some way--I tell you, we're lucky folks!"

Never mind that most of the items on that once-standard menu--bacon and sausage, eggs and butter, milk and cream, coffee, hot breads, sweet syrups--are now deemed poor choices from the standpoint of health and nutrition. To enjoy judicious servings of them once in a while seems a pleasure too innocent to abandon. That pleasure is what keeps the traditional breakfast close to so many hearts.

Breakfast traditions have different origins in different regions of the South. For example, the fabled Virginia hunt breakfasts that date back to the Colonial era are restaged from time to time. Exceedingly popular Kentucky Derby brunches are an outgrowth of the plantation banquets of old. In the South Carolina low country around Charleston, morning feasts authentic in their fidelity to early times can be found in cookbooks and even sampled in small cafes.

Spanish influences along the Gulf Coast from Tampa, Fla., to Mobile, Ala., still season the time-honored breakfast dishes of the subtropical terrain. Nothing can top the richness and elegance of Creole cuisine in the forenoon feasts that grace the brunch tables of New Orleans. Inland and upland across the South, people of all classes still answer the call to country breakfasts that easily make up in quantity and quality anything they may lack in the way of elegance or formality.

As much as these delicious meals vary from one region to another, they are all closely bound by the culinary traditions of the South. In every corner of the region and in every season of the year, Southerners seem irresistibly drawn to morning cookery.

It was Madame Elizabeth Begue of New Orleans who probably invented brunch. From 1863 until her death in 1906 she offered a sumptuous second breakfast in her coffeehouse near the French Quarter marketplace. Among the dishes on her menu were many Creole specialties that now are considered dinner items--crawfish bisque, for example, and jambalaya--but some of her simplest creations still rank among favorites for New Orleans breakfasts.

Madame Begue was a genius at using leftovers to make new dishes. In her skillful hands, yesterday's potatoes and tomatoes found new life in today's omelets, and she turned stale bread into pain perdu --what we now call French toast. Many of her recipes, published in the 1930s, have found their way into other cuisines.

In the spirit of the German-born Madame Begue's second breakfast is another French Quarter tradition known as Breakfast at Brennan's. Begun more than 40 years ago at a restaurant owned by Irishman Owen Brennan and his family, the now-famous feast continues there under the direction of Brennan's sons.

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