Monday, November 2, 2009


My mother always whistled melodic popular tunes while fixing breakfast. Her stride, as she went from the stove to the fridge to the stove again, was distinctive, an oddity she explained by saying she “favored” her right foot. I would lie awake, with gray light piercing the edges of my bedroom curtains, listening to her whistling in rhythm with the clip-clip, clip-clip of her steps as she bustled across the kitchen, which was just below my room.

She made glorious breakfasts. On weekends we could hope for Dutch babies or marmalade muffins, bacon omelets or steamy waffles, but on school days she just made eggs, which were soft-boiled, fried, or occasionally scrambled, a variety of toasted breads, and bacon. My favorite breakfast (beginning at age five) was hot white rice covered with melted butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, but that was not allowed unless I was sick, because—as my mother would say—“there is no nourishment in white rice.”

Our whole family—Mother, Dad, my sister, and I—ate breakfast together, although Mother, a dutiful, apron-garbed housewife, rarely sat with us, but moved back and forth between stove and table to serve us. By the time I was in high school, my body rebelled from digestive activity early in the morning and nothing in the way of food appealed to me before about eleven o’clock, especially not eggs. This aversion lasted for well over a year, prompting a running argument every morning.

“You have to eat something.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You’ll do better in school with breakfast—it’s fuel in your tank.”

“My health teacher says that’s a myth. We should eat only when we are hungry.”

Ah, the ancient foil for parents—the word of an expert, teacher, tossed into the conversation to weight the argument, which continued endlessly. Finally, Mother and I would find a compromise: “At least, please eat a piece of toast, or ask your father for a 'dog bite'.”

"Dog bites" were my father’s invention. The dogs at our house changed periodically—Alice, Josh, Jake, Winston, Pat—but the food tidbits he dubbed "dog bites" never changed. They were devised by Dad who enjoyed sneaking breakfast to the dogs. Everyone in our house “knew better than to feed dogs at the table” (Mother’s words) and we likewise understood that healthy dogs need to eat only once a day. In our house, that meant in the evening. But oh, those doleful eyes beneath the morning table! The dogs all learned to snuggle up to Dad’s chair, to patiently wait for a bite of his breakfast. And this is what they got from a man whose weekday breakfast rarely varied: A corner of toast, buttered and dipped in coffee laced with milk and sugar; one forkful of egg—usually the white rather than the yolk “because there is more of it” (Dad’s words); and a nibble of bacon. The whole thing was topped off with a dollop of Seville orange marmalade. The dogs would swallow this delicacy in one gulp and promptly beg for more.

My father, ostensibly understanding my aversion to breakfast, seemed pleased to supply me with "dog bites," too—as long as Mother cooked him three eggs instead of two. He would slip one across the table to me as if we were conspirators, although she knew and approved because of her nutritional convictions. For whatever reason, a “dog bite” was a hundred times more appetizing to me than anything on my own plate. Many mornings I left the house with my books, homework, violin, lunch bag, and two of these tasty items in my stomach.

My preference for mooching from my father’s plate instead of eating my own food must have driven my mother nearly crazy. Because breakfast had become such a source of contention between us, she continued to challenge me to think of a food I would be willing to eat in the morning. That’s when I had my wonderful idea. Because I didn’t really like our weekday breakfast fare—eggs, toast, or even bacon—why not have dinner for breakfast! Dinner in the morning would appease my mother’s desire to feed me, and allow me to eat with appetite. A roast—yummy! Spuds, a veggie, gravy! These were my favorite foods. Initially Mother scoffed at my proposal, but eventually she caved to my cajoling, demanding, and pleading. Mother announced one Sunday evening, a month after my campaign began, that dinner would be served at 7:00 a.m. the next day.

Dreaming of my favorite dinner foods—rare roast beef, carrots cooked in cream, and mashed potatoes—I awoke to hear my whistling mother accompanying her distinctive footsteps. She sounded especially cheery. Food aromas permeated my bed-clothes and my room, and they were not, thank goodness, eggy smells. I could not quite place them, however, so I dressed quickly, trying on only two outfits (instead of the usual four) before deciding what to wear. Entering the kitchen, I greeted my mother with enthusiastic exclamations about this morning’s “breakfast” and offered to help. As I set the table in the dining room (a departure from the morning routine), the food didn’t smell quite as appetizing as I had imagined it would. It wasn’t until Mother asked me to put mint sauce on the table that I realized what her menu was. She had prepared leg of lamb infused with garlic, and had chosen to make her famous tomato-eggplant casserole, potatoes browned in lamb drippings then oven roasted, and a pan of dark-brown lamb gravy.

As we gathered around the table, artificial cheerfulness pervaded. Mother joined us and took off her apron. Dad carved the lamb and served up dinner-sized portions. I managed to finish my plateful but passed on seconds, as did my sister and dad. As my mother spooned a tiny second helping of eggplant onto her plate, I thought I noticed a tiny, smug smile on her face. After clearing my dishes in silence, I left for school. We never discussed the meal again, and my great idea about breakfast died a quiet and natural death. Mother had won the breakfast war, without raising her voice or ceasing to whistle.

1 comment:

Sylvia said...

I want the recipe for the tomato eggplant dish