There’s probably very little that’s healthy about a big, blow-out breakfast – one of those mid-morning, mostly weekend affairs with creaking platters of bacon, sausages, eggs and slabs of fresh French toast sprinkled with powdered sugar, pitchers of juice and steaming pots of fresh-ground coffee.
It’s not terribly good for the heart, in a coronary sense, but it’s great for the soul.
It’s also, for me, loaded with nostalgia. Before I could even work the dials on the electric cooker, I’d sneak downstairs after Dad left on the occasional Saturdays he worked, to make frothy hot chocolate from snaffled sachets and the still-hot water of the kettle.
While my mother slept, I’d luxuriate in the brief solitude of a silent house, stoking last night’s embers in the sitting-room fireplace and expertly crawling close to blow until they glowed enough to make toast with a fork. The jam and melted butter running through my fingers never tasted sweeter.
The only thing better was the gorgeous feeling of crisp bed sheets as the distant clang of pans and hot hisses signaled the imminent smell of cooked bacon permeating the house. Few breakfasts match the ones cooked in my childhood home by the person who loved me unconditionally and unequivocally: Mom.
I grew up in an American household in an Ireland where crispy bacon swimming in equal measures of runny yolk and hot maple syrup from pancakes stacked on the same plate was loathed by friends who came to stay.
“How could you?” they’d say, desperately defending sausages with a fork dam to stem the flood of sweet into savory.
I remember Dad being the proud recipient of a genuine waffle iron and pouring batter speckled with finely-chopped and cooked bacon into the grooves, then the maddening smell of the waffles crisping. Maple syrup was a rare treat brought by friends visiting from far away, but Dad managed to flavor simmering Golden Syrup with vanilla and orange.
It was the closest to anything like heaven I’ll probably ever experience.
The implements behind these incredible breakfasts were treasured. Spatulas, spoons and whisks hung on the wall in a neat row, great brown bowls in which batters or omelettes were whipped up, were safely stacked away on high shelves along with the pitchers and coffee pots. Most treasured of all were the cast iron pans, some so large I could barely lift them with two hands, lovingly seasoned then wiped down after use and put away into the cooled oven.
I would love to still have some of those things but, like so many other things, somewhere in time, they have vanished.
I still remember the very last breakfast my mother cooked for me on the day she left and moved away: a simple fried egg, sunny side up on buttered wheat toast, and an ice-cold glass of bittersweet grapefruit.
She didn’t tell me she wouldn’t be back when we said goodbye, but as I walked to the bus for school, I could still feel the warmth of that small meal, so perfectly prepared, weighing heavy on my heart; the soft, cloying egg yolk still coating my thick throat as her tears dried on my cheek.
I became a bit of a breakfast aficionado in the years that followed, even when I had no home in which to lay a table. When I had little money to spare, at the expense of any other meal that day, I’d seek out the place that served the perfect eggs, bacon and sausages, the one that offered stacks of toast, with butter and different jams, then count out pockets of coppers to pay before relishing every forkful as I stared off wistfully through the rivulets of condensation at people bustling past the window.
The very first real summer job I had abroad, I blagged my way into the position of short order cook at a busy breakfast place in Newport, Rhode Island, owned by a former child star who’d acted alongside Audrey Hepburn and Vincent Price.
Poor Richard’s was a kitchen cacophony of clanking and hissing, a veritable Vaudeville act of juggled pans, eight omelettes on the go over just six gasping gas rings and a great griddle loaded with breakfast meats and every style of eggs, from over easy to scrambled with slivers of sweet red pepper and onion.
Through the smoky hatch, my window into hell, hungry diners clamored, one of whom, one day was senator Ted Kennedy.
I don’t know what it was I served him, but it wasn’t the huevos rancheros he ordered, a first for me. An hour later, the hatch filled with the suited shoulders of a Secret Service man. “Who cooked the senator’s order?” he barked. I almost threw myself into a vat of pancake batter. “Why?” I croaked. “The Senator wants you to know it was the best damned huevos rancheros he’s ever had.”
I looked up and could have sworn I saw silver-haired Ted wink as he went out the door.
It took me years to enjoy making breakfast again, and then it was just to see the eager faces of my own still-young family gleaming as I served bacon, eggs and French toast like Mom used to make, and I think they even came to love the way the rich yolks would run into the sweet syrup and salty meat almost as much as I once did.
I don’t know if the breakfasts I’ve cooked for them are the healthiest, but one thing’s for sure – the soul is well fed.