Years ago I had a summertime short-order breakfast job delighting tourists with drippy paper plates bending under either thick made-from-scratch pancakes or homemade bread French toast. Again and again I'd hear people moan as they poured on ridiculous lakes of syrup that they "...have only a couple of days of vacation left—then it's back to the shredded wheat and half a grapefruit every morning—all year."
On the other hand, who hasn't heard somebody remark, "I don't really want fish for supper tonight. I had fish for supper last night."
Why should breakfast be an iron-clad routine, tedious and reliable, while each supper must be different from the one before? Where is the logic to that? Also, our starchy breakfasts are only a matter of cultural convention and Mr. Kellogg's ingenious marketing a century or so ago; plenty of people around the world eat fish, vegetables or soup for breakfast. The custom is entirely arbitrary. And why are the dishes we think of as breakfast food somehow less proper, less dignified, less "grown up," if you will, than a staunchly Puritan boiled dinner? Above all, why should it be peculiar to eat pancakes after dark?
I asked a few friends and neighbors; it seems most people have an opinion on the matter of breakfast-for-supper (not to mention supper-for-breakfast, which was more hotly debated. Cereal, according to Eric, is what you eat in the morning if you are sadly out of leftovers. He'd much rather eat lasagna. Speaking for the opposition George shook his head "no" and made a face at the idea.)
Emily remarked, "I don't have any great breakfast-for-dinner stories — just an undying love for the concept." That, I discovered, was the majority opinion.
A few people explained that the treat of breakfast food served in the evening was commonly reserved for when dad wouldn't be home for supper. The stereotype holds that it is Dear ol' Dad who insists upon meat and potatoes and two sides. One friend commented that his dad didn't particularly like waffles, so if he was away at some fireman's meeting or whatnot, the younger members of the family would lobby for waffles. It's no fun having something special for a meal when somebody at the table is wrinkling up his nose and saying — or quietly thinking — "How come we have to have this?"
In my house, when every man, woman and child tall enough to be allowed to cook was simply too busy, one of us would likely ask the others, "Do you guys mind if we just have 'cereal night'?" Nobody minded, nobody ever felt cheated out of their pot roast, because everybody knew it was for a good reason. Anybody who had worked hard all day was entitled to make the call. Work of any sort could run late, perhaps the last of the harvesting had to be accomplished in the twilight before the first freeze, or everybody just got home from some arduous meeting or funeral or the dentist with a day on the mainland and every drop of energy had been drained.
We all might wish for a full and fragrant crockpot on such days, but nobody had been blessed with the foresight to start anything. By the way, there is no reason why a bowl of Wheaties cannot be accompanied by a nice glass of Pinot Grigio and on that note, I have it on good authority that peanut butter sandwiches go rather nicely with beer.
Peanut butter sandwiches for supper are ethically, sociologically, spiritually and emotionally equal to breakfast.
Sometimes a new tradition or a pleasant change in the household regularity arises from an otherwise annoying interruption. When our kids were little, a power outage automatically meant making toast on the wood stove (I don't recall any power failures during the summer, I guess).
Hannah observed how, "Last winter, during a cold evening, we realized we'd run out of gas for the stove. We cranked up the wood stove and made French toast for dinner. It was delicious and far better than the pasta we had been scheming. For my entire childhood breakfast for dinner was a special treat and it still is."
Nat offered some fond recollections: "It's like a snow day from dinner — a break from routine. A decision is made late in the afternoon when it's already pitch black out the window and ambition and agendas are already gone by the wayside. As much griping as I've heard about dinner from kids and as much grumbling as I've done as the preparer, I do not recall a single objection to pancakes, eggs and toast, French toast or any other breakfast item coming at supper time. The curious thing to me is how excited kids get, as I did on those rare occasions when I'd come in the kitchen and see the waffle iron on the counter at 5:30 p.m., always during winter. It is a mystery still. Part of it surely is that vegetables usually don't accompany breakfast and so are not invited to breakfast-for-dinner night. "
I think he has nailed it with that observation about vegetables. Okay, lest the healthy-eating police call me on this one: fair enough. We should eat our vegetables. Got it.
You can make your "breakfast food" as refined and specialized as you like, but keep in mind that too much effort and it won't really count. Elaborate demonstrations of the chef's arts well-sprinkled with truffle oil, duck-egg quiche with arugula and $23-a-pound pancetta, lobster omelets or other haute cuisine are all very elegant but anything that takes a lot of time, or fuss, or unusual ingredients doesn't really accomplish the desired end — that being comfort and relaxation.
For one friend the joke was "lingonberry sauce." Anything just a bit over the top in terms of obscurity, pretense or presentation will result in somebody in her household making the comment that the fussy dish is served "with lingonberry sauce." Of course, there is nothing bad to be said of lingonberry sauce in its place (which may be Stockholm), but most of us would just prefer ham and eggs or toast and jam, and only with lingonberry sauce if we actually eat that Swedish specialty on a regular basis.
To be perfectly honest, lobster meat around here is pretty common and having some left over in the fridge to throw into an omelet is really no big deal whatsoever. You know what I mean.
Most everybody likes "breakfast all day" at the diner; there's nothing like a plate of pancakes at a quarter to midnight when you've been on the road too long. If you've got to get back on the road, a bowl of oatmeal might actually be more helpful for a boost of energy, whereas that big plate of white flour and sticky sweetness might just put you to sleep. But when respite and relaxation are required, pancakes are perfect, and blueberry pancakes are beyond perfect.
And sometimes, a plate of steak and eggs is enough to make a person stand up and salute. It's hard to keep your eyes from moistening up.
There are times when counting "carbs" (a completely made-up unit of measurement only recently loaded onto our already guilt-ridden shoulders) is less important than the smells of childhood or the excuse for butter. Comfort food is balm indeed, as long as we aren't seriously over-medicating our seasonal affective disorder with Mrs. Butterworth's. It might just be understandable, though, to get through final exams largely on raisin bagels and Nutela. One might be forgiven for soothing one's lonely heart at a Dysart's truck stop, where the pancakes are the size of regulation stop signs, and we'd all agree, I think, that the smell of fried potatoes with onion or, heaven help us, real farm bacon, might bring a family happily to the supper table despite Facebook, Twitter, the soccer team, the Red Sox and the promise of a Lean Cuisine meal.
Anybody might understand a single woman's sense that she ought to seriously consider matrimony when a man says, "I'd crawl on my bare belly through broken glass for homemade bread French toast."
Should anybody like some suggestions, we offer several possibilities for supper:
Hearty Apple Pancakes
1 ½ cups flour
3 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
Mix dry ingredients.
Mix in 1 cup milk combined with two eggs.
Mix in 3 tablespoons melted butter (I usually melt half a stick in the frying pan, then pour it into the batter and stir it in, resulting in a buttered pan and sparing one dish to wash.)
This makes a thick batter and will make fat, eggy, buttery pancakes that you can pick up and eat like a slice of bread. For thinner, more traditional pancakes add more milk. Cook on a well-buttered skillet or griddle — turn the heat down and cook slowly if you make the thick kind, or the middles will be raw. Apple slices (or anything else) may be added; I lay thin apple slices all over the pancake batter as soon as it has been poured onto the griddle. Flip pancakes only once, when bubbles appear and pop on the surface.
Homemade Waffles (makes 8 waffles or 2 large irons full)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
3 teaspoons sugar (or to taste)
Mix dry ingredients.
Mix in 1½ cups milk combined with 2 eggs.
Mix in 1 stick of melted butter; for best texture, do not over-mix. Follow waffle iron directions.
Paul's Home Fries
Cube any amount of leftover cooked potatoes to roughly 1/2-inch pieces. If the peels are in good shape, leave them on. In a large iron skillet fry the potatoes in bacon fat until browned, adding salt and pepper to taste (plenty of pepper) at this stage.
Shove the potatoes to the side of the pan, add another spoonful of bacon fat, and sauté some chopped onion and finely chopped sweet red pepper. Mix it all together in the frying pan (this way the onion and pepper still have some crunch). One good-sized baked potato, half a small onion and about a quarter of a pepper would make enough for two side dishes or one meal. It makes sense to save bacon fat in a small can for recipes like this since you never, ever want to pour it down your sink drain anyway.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.
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