Pancake kisses, bacon hugs

breakfast in naples by barbara samuel

THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING is out today! To celebrate, a love song to breakfast.

Why breakfast is the secret of everything

I suppose I should confess upfront that I am a morning person. I wake up cheery, chatty and at the very first fingers of sunlight creeping over the horizon. I know you find this annoying. I know you wish I’d stop humming under my breath as I crack eggs and start the coffee, but I can’t help it. I was born a singing lark. This does, however, offer benefits to all you blinking owls and sleepy headed in-betweens.

Once upon a time, I had a job working the breakfast shift at an upscale diner. It meant getting up at 4:30 am to creep around the dark of my teeny-tiny house so I wouldn’t wake my roommate. I dressed in my uniform with its plunging neckline (an unfortunate feature of many waitress uniforms of the early 80’s), and braided my Rapunzel hair. In the cold dark, I drove to work in my clunker, feeling—yes, I admit it–smug that I was awake before the rest of the world. Here and there, a light clicked on in a kitchen, but mostly, the world slept on. Porch lights glittered against the velvet blackness of mountains on the horizon, the air was fresh. All was newly reinvented, and it was mine.

At work, I dove into the bustle of getting the place ready for the doors to open. It smelled faintly of cleaning supplies from the night crew, of baking biscuits and potatoes grilling. Every morning, I fell in love all over again with the empty stage of tidy, waiting tables, with the clatter of cooks prepping, and the heat of flatware straight out of the dishwasher. We waitresses made pot after pot after pot of coffee, filled cream pitchers; wiped down syrup dispensers and set out glasses of ice to fill quickly with water. We drank coffee by the gallon ourselves, and snitched bacon when we could get away with it. It made me feel important to create a world of efficiency and nourishment for the hungry humans about to stumble in and beg for coffee.

This passion for breakfast arrived in a roundabout way, I must admit. My mother, who is a very good cook under many circumstances, was born an owl, and she finds early morning painful, especially when her lark child rose well before sunrise and was known to dust siblings with flour or lipstick or explore—well, never mind. It was early, that’s all.

Because she loved us, my mother did manage to get up and fix us breakfast. She believed in a hot breakfast, but cooking anything much would have been dangerous considering her eyes were barely open. So she made hot cereal. Endlessly. Malto-Meal and Ralston, Cream of Wheat and a colorless, gluey oatmeal I loathed with the considerable passion of a toddler foodie. Thankfully, she left us to our own devices once we made it to late grade school and we never had to choke down porridge again.

Not the best circumstances to fall in love with breakfast, I know. The happy accident is that my mother briefly took a job at a manufacturing plant when I was about seven. The other three children went to my grandmother’s house for the day while I stayed home with my father and walked to school on my own.

Once in awhile, my father got dressed and took me to a little café downtown, where there were individual jukeboxes along the counter and at the tables, and we ate pancakes and eggs and tea. We sat at the counter on round stools. I flipped through the jukebox offerings as if I knew what they were while he flirted with the waitresses and they flirted back, and there was usually music playing, and cigarette smoke hanging in the air with heady notes of bacon and coffee and frying onions. I loved the food—little balls of cold butter on top of my French toast, glass pitchers of syrup, tiny tubs of jelly—but mostly I loved the time with my dad, having him all to myself. Afterward, my dad would drop me off at school and I’d head up the stone steps feeling warm and special, a girl who had extraordinary experiences.

I fell in love with breakfast then and there. All good breakfasts, but especially a good café breakfast. And from that love was born a book.

At the heart of my new book, The Secret of Everything, is a restaurant called 100 Breakfasts, where a lark of a woman cooks to heal the hearts and souls of the people in her town.

It is to 100 Breakfasts that the protagonist, Tessa Harlow, comes to explore the questions that have been haunting her. She is heart sore and weary, recovering from a freak accident and trying to find answers to questions that have only just now bobbed to the surface. When she sits down at the long counter at the 100 Breakfasts Café, she unwittingly sets in motion a tangled array of connections and reveals secrets that have been hidden for a long, long time.

It is also at 100 Breakfasts that Tessa gets to know widower Vince Grasso, who is trying to heal his own family, including the troubled Natalie, a 9 year old who takes food very seriously, and is working her way through the entire list of 100 breakfasts on the menu.

The Secret of Everything was born out of my passion for breakfast, for the power it has to heal and renew, to nourish and ground. It’s a book that was born out of those days when I was a child hating oatmeal and loving the French toast at the local café; when I fought with my sisters and the mornings when my father took me out to breakfast, just the two of us, because this is, at the heart of it, a story about fathers and daughters and how that connection can make or break a woman’s spirit. Tessa’s father is nothing like my own, of course, but a father who is devoted to his child gives her permission to be as mighty as she can be.

Ironically, Tessa’s favorite breakfast is oatmeal, because in my adulthood, I learned to love great oatmeal. It is my own breakfast of choice most days. Whole grain oats served with butter and my own spiced apples that are cooked to a deep, dark flavor. Because I am that lark, so smugly and cheerfully alert at the first glimmers of dawn, it falls to me to get up and make the tea and start the coffee so it fills the air with its fragrance. I set the water boiling and set the table with cloth napkins and the good sugar bowl and the milk pitcher. I set the stage for my sleepy headed partner, sometimes a child, to come blinking to the table and fill his belly and drink his coffee.

In this small act, I am offering the most solid secret I know: breakfast is the secret of everything.

Breakfast is love.

What is your favorite breakfast?

December 29, 2009

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