Today I have decided to write about my breakfast habits over the years. I have never written about food before. The idea probably stems from my new breakfast regime (more about this later) and from the astonishing output of my essay-writing friend, Joel Strauss. Hardly a day goes by without some new piece – usually an anti-Trump diatribe – flowing from his pen. Joel’s venom today was directed at the paedophile Republican and buddy of Trump, Roy Moore. If Joel aged 74, I thought, can rattle off so many excellent prose pieces, how come I, an English teacher and a mere stripling of 66, am stuck for writing ideas? Then the breakfast thing popped into my head. Here goes …
I am a man of conservative tastes and fixed habits. One of my rituals is breakfast. I like to have the same breakfast every day. My preferred bill of fare occasionally changes, but this is rare. For years on end I will stick to exactly the same menu. When my breakfast changes, it is the culinary equivalent of a social revolution or political coup.
Well, a culinary revolution occurred two months ago. I returned to Vietnam, after spending the summer in England, and settled back into my morning routine. My wife would get up and, while I was in the bathroom, fix me breakfast. For years – perhaps 6 years – my daily breakfast had consisted of two fried eggs and a plate of fresh fruit (banana, mango, papaya and variations thereon) washed down with a mug of Brooke Bond Red Label tea. One day my wife, who knows I am partial to Indian food, made the scandalous suggestion that I eschew eggs for breakfast and, instead, eat Indian bread. She had discovered Indian bread in the supermarket. After initially pooh-poohing this break with established tradition, I decided to give it a try. So I began breakfast with a fried roti paratha. Blimey! It was tasty and filling. And the fresh fruit platter complemented it nicely. Now, 8 weeks on, I wake up salivating for roti paratha.
Prior to my fried eggs and fruit phase I was a cereals man. A bowl of cornflakes or muesli and a chopped up banana covered with milk, followed by the usual mug of tea – such was my morning staple for many years. I had no one to look after me in those days, so this easy-to-prepare breakfast was ideal for a lazy singleton. And there was another reason. In Hanoi, around 2003, I met an American woman who informed me that cereals are vital for good health. She was alarmed that my standard breakfast at that time – toast and tea or bacon and eggs - did not include cereal. She spoke with such passion and authority that, from that day on (until out of sheer boredom I switched to fried eggs), cereal became my breakfast mainstay.
Now let me focus on the tea that has been part of my breakfast regime since time immemorial. Why tea and not coffee? Probably because I was raised by an Irish mother who adored tea. I am very fussy about my tea. It has to be brewed from loose tea leaves, not tea bags. It has to be strong. It has to have three spoonfuls of white sugar in it. A cup is no good – I want a thirst-quenching mugful. And after finishing my tea I like to have a good shit. Indeed this is one reason why I need a big mug of hot tea in the morning: it guarantees me a healthy bowel movement. Food alone is not enough; hot tea is for me a surefire enema.
Now let me try and remember those breakfasts from long ago that my mother used to cook. I would wake up and bang on the bedroom floor. This was the signal to my mother to bring a cup of tea to my bedside. She did this willingly every morning - every morning for maybe 12 years. My breakfast was invariably fried stuff – bacon and sausages and an egg – with toast and more tea. The bacon and sausages would be fried in lard, because back then (1956-1970) healthy cooking oils were unknown. Some days there would also be fried bread or fried black pudding. Occasionally there would be fried fish fingers or fried beef burgers. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the operative word here is ‘fried’. After breakfast the lard in the frying pan would be congealed into a solid white mass. No cereals or fresh fruit adulterated our greasy morning menu. As a consequence of these breakfasts (plus the mince pies and currant cake my mother plied me with) I was almost permanently constipated. It wasn’t until I left home and changed my eating habits that I threw off the shackles of chronic constipation.
I will now describe the best and the most awful breakfasts I have ever eaten. Let’s start with the breakfast from hell.
I was staying with a bachelor teacher friend in Madrid. He lived in a house with several other young male teachers. One morning, after they’d gone to school, I got up hungry as a wolf and nursing a hangover. In the kitchen there was almost nothing to eat, just a little bit of cereal and some milk in the fridge. I like to sweeten my cereal with a spoonful of sugar, so I searched for the sugar jar. Sure enough, there it was – some white stuff in a jar. I sprinkled it over the cereal, poured milk on top, and proceeded to eat. Shit! It wasn’t sugar that I had sprinkled – it was salt. In ordinary circumstances I would have thrown the cereal away and prepared a fresh bowl, but these were no ordinary circumstances. There was literally nothing else to eat or drink in that godforsaken bachelor kitchen – just the cereal swimming in milky brine. I had to choose between starvation and the gruesome breakfast in front of me. I chose the latter. So hungry was I that I ate it all. Amazingly, I did not vomit. The taste of salt stayed in my mouth for days afterwards.
And now to the breakfast to end all breakfasts. We were in Delhi at the end of our holiday. It was a group holiday, and our leader had done such an excellent job we decided to buy her breakfast at the best hotel in town – The Imperial. The buffet breakfast there had everything: cereals, toast, fruit, fruit juice, yoghurt, bacon, sausages, baked beans, eggs, omelettes, Indian bread, all manner of Indian snacks, tea, coffee and kippers. To the uninitiated – which probably means anyone who is not old-school British – a kipper is a smoked herring. And the best kippers are filleted. I am very partial to filleted kippers for breakfast, but they are hard to find. Only the British seem to go in for kippers. The last time I’d eaten them was years before, in England, at the boys’ boarding school I used to work at. The Imperial had kippers on the menu because it is an old-fashioned British colonial hotel. And as well as kippers, that breakfast had something else. Looking around the sumptuous dining-room, I noticed a very full table where a lone westerner sat surrounded by Indians. He looked familiar. He looked like Sting! I verified that it was indeed the great rock star by tracking him to the gents’ toilet where, at close quarters, his identity was beyond question. Later one of our group went across to get his autograph.
To finish this little piece, let me quote somebody else’s favourite breakfast. This is what the novelist Hunter S. Thompson likes:
“Breakfast is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same kind of traditionalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner. I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every twenty-four hours, and mine is breakfast. In Hong Kong, Dallas or at home — and regardless of whether or not I have been to bed — breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess. The food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef hash with diced chiles, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert… Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty-four hours and at least one source of good music… All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”
I agree with Hunter Thompson about good music and a newspaper. I take issue, however, with his extravagant and gargantuan appetite; for me the ideal breakfast should be moderately filling and healthy. But, there again, I am a teacher bound by school timetables and bourgeois convention, not an artistic free spirit who carouses till cockcrow.
No doubt my breakfast menu will change again in the future. Until then I am happy with roti paratha, fresh fruit and a mug of Red Label tea - followed by a damn good shit.
December 15th 2017