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Diary of a Breakfast Outlaw

Searching for the savory in a sticky bun world.

March 10, 1999|JOHN THORNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are many otherwise entirely decent people who believe there is something odd, even low-class, about eating a plate of sausages in the morning. Show up at the office with a sack of jelly doughnuts or sticky buns and everyone is your friend. Arrive with a takeout container heaped with fried country ham with red-eye gravy and no one wants to know you.

"That stuff isn't good for you," they whine, as if the box of assorted doughnut holes set by the coffee machine were some sort of health statement. (If you breakfast on wheat germ whipped up with soy milk and papaya chunks, go ahead and throw your stone.) Of course, it's not just the cholesterol that bothers people. The fact is, Americans overwhelmingly prefer their breakfasts sweet rather than savory.

But I am a savory breakfast eater. And the truth is, if you want to eat the sort of breakfast I do and avoid social ostracism, you had better crawl off to some greasy spoon and eat it out of sight.

Fortunately for me I work at home, and my wife, Matt, although not a savory breakfast eater herself, is understanding in this as in all things. If I have a hankering for brains on toast in the morning, it's fine with her as long as they stay on my own plate. And I do sometimes crave brains for breakfast. Or, lamb kidneys, bone marrow, a slice of duck liver pa^te.

I have no idea why this is so, just that it is.

I first realized I was different when I was 19, a college dropout and shopping for myself in a supermarket. I can still remember feeling a buzz of nervous excitement--I was on my own now and I could buy anything I liked. At that moment, however, I was searching for the basic necessities: butter, milk, bread, coffee, breakfast cereal. But when I wheeled my cart into the aisle lined with boxes of Cheerios, Trix, Post Toasties, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes--breakfast food I had eaten all my childhood without thought or complaint--an unbidden, unexpected and utterly liberating insight burst into my brain: I never have to eat this stuff again.

And I haven't eaten a bowl of cold cereal--the shredded wastepaper sort--since. (I do sometimes have oatmeal dressed with coarse salt and a pat of butter.)

It would take me some time until I realized it wasn't just cereal I was rejecting but the whole idea of something sweet for breakfast. It was hard to admit that, really, I wanted slices of Cheddar on my buttered toast, gobs of liverwurst spread on my English muffins. To me, chicken pot pie seemed ideal morning fare, while waffles or coffee cake left me cold.

If a sweet dish were buttery or greasy enough--raspberry turnovers, blueberry blintzes, old-fashioned fat-fried baking powder doughnuts--I still enjoyed it. In fact, these were just the dishes I would choose when I ate breakfast out with others. They caused no murmurs, and soon enough I discovered that my truly favorite breakfast choices were best kept to myself.

There are sweet breakfast eaters who point to their own occasional craving for, say, an Egg McMuffin, to prove that the world of breakfast is not skewed against the savory. In truth, saying that the occasional plate of fried eggs makes you a savory breakfast eater is like saying that a fondness for pasta tossed with olive oil, garlic and grated cheese makes you a vegetarian.

Eggs are OK, I'll grant you, and, even better, they're easy and quick to cook. I eat a lot of them--scrambled, fried or poached and set on a crunchy-edged mass of corned beef hash. But you don't understand what a savory breakfast is all about if you don't equally crave just the sides that are usually portioned out along with them, a plate with nothing on it, say, but a dozen strips of bacon and a mound of hash browns.

What makes the perfect savory breakfast? I know the shape of this breakfast more by what I don't want than by what I do. It has to go with hot black coffee, which rules out certain savory Asian breakfasts that I would otherwise enjoy: congee with all the toppings, a big bowl of noodles afloat in a spicy broth. I don't want a sirloin steak or sliced leg of lamb or pork chops or anything I have to seriously chew. I want my breakfast to be salty, soft and rich. I want that richness spread out on something crisp. A grilled cheese sandwich has the perfect balance--as does, for that matter, a plate of hot buttered toast.

And most of all, I want to eat slowly, meditatively, eyes turned toward the morning brightness outside the window but focused on nothing. Solitude doesn't necessarily require being by yourself; it is all the more enjoyable when mutual tact lets each eater float gently in his or her own half-thoughts . . . one eating her marmalade and toast, the other stuffing himself with salami and eggs.

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