In Defense of Breakfast

I wish I could remember the first time I watched “The Wizard of Oz”. I was probably six or seven, and so many scenes in the movie would’ve been magical at that age.  Black-and-white turning to brilliant color as Dorothy opens the door post-tornado. Glinda the Good Witch descending in a giant soap bubble. The Emerald City gleaming green beyond endless poppies. But one scene disappoints at any age: when (The Great and Powerful) Oz is exposed as a mere mortal (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”)  It’s the same disappointment I have with Mehmet Oz right now.

If you know Oprah Winfrey you probably know Dr. Oz.  A cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor, Oz added “television personality” to his resume when he appeared on Oprah’s show more than sixty times.  Later he launched the daily “Dr. Oz Show”, addressing medical issues and personal health in front of a studio audience.  He also authored the best-selling YOU: On A Diet series of books.

I’ve listened to Dr. Oz a handful of times and his medicine seems credible enough, especially with his attention to homeopathy and alternatives.  But earlier this year he made a statement I simply couldn’t digest.  Oz said (and I quote): “Breakfast should be banned”.  WOOF.  To me and a whole lot of other aficionados, that’s a truly harsh statement.

I’ve written about breakfast before, and my unabashed affection for its foods (ex. see Dream Puffs and The Meal of Champions).  For me, “it’s the most important meal of the day”.  However, those in the know – Dr. Oz included – say I’m victim to a powerful long-ago marketing campaign.  In the 1940’s General Foods decreed breakfast as “most important” based on the claims of anonymous nutritionists, when in fact GF simply wanted to sell more of its breakfast cereal.  Seventy years later many of us still buy into the idea of most important.  We just don’t have the data to back it up.

Now, let’s clarify a couple of points here, especially for those of you who are take-it-or-leave-it about the morning meal.  First, breakfast on my table is usually healthy and/or whole-food.  I like steel-cut oats with fruit, soft-boiled eggs with pepper, and yogurt with granola.  I adore traditional unhealthy breakfast champs like pancakes and waffles, omelets with the works, and bacon/ham/sausage, but those are for occasional Sundays after church or special occasions with family.  My weekday breakfasts are simple and small, designed as much to fuel as to fill.

Second, I have to cut Dr. Oz a little slack with his breakfast ban.  To add context, Oz goes on to say, “instead of eating breakfast first thing every morning, eat your first meal of the day when you are really hungry”.  In other words, Oz isn’t attacking breakfast so much as the timing of breakfast.  Have breakfast for lunch, for all he cares.  In fact Oz says, “Have brunch every day of the week!”

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a popular approach to diet these days, where meals are timed to create periods of fasting and non-fasting.  If you subscribe to IF it’s difficult to have an early-morning breakfast, else you’ll have dinner for lunch and nothing for the remainder of the day.  I like the concept of IF; I just don’t have the discipline (nor the inclination).  Morning breakfast works best for me – every day at the same time.  I look forward to the foods and I like the fact I’m fueling my mind and body before putting either through its paces.  But you may be different.  You may wake up and not be hungry.  You may venture several hours into the day before even thinking about food.  Your travel mug of coffee may be “breakfast” all by itself.  Different strokes for different folks.

Even if the entire camp isn’t eating breakfast first thing in the morning (or at all), I must stand fast on this: Breakfast is a morning meal. 4am, 7am, 11am – I don’t care, as long as it’s before noon.  None of this “breakfast for dinner” nonsense.  Wait, let me grant one exception: Sunday brunch (where I never partake of the “lunch” items).  Otherwise, I think even Dr. Oz would agree with the old adage, “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”.  If we could all learn to eat like that, we’d be “great and powerful” every waking hour of the day.

Some content sourced from Somag News, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Not-So-Fast Food

If you’re like me, you’re prepping meals at home more often than you used to.  Your grocery lists are electronic or paper instead of in your head.  You may even be meal-planning and on your way to becoming America’s next gourmet chef.  But no matter the approach eventually you succumb to food out instead of food in.  “Taking away” meals these days means navigating an app, a website, a drive-thru, a phone call, or for the really daring, an unscheduled appearance at the front doors.  You never know which approach works until you try a couple.  Sometimes you simply give up.

Case in point.  Last Friday we took my wife’s truck for a service – scheduled just after sun-up. Leaving the house so early meant breakfast would be out instead of in.  My first thought?  McDonald’s.  An Egg McMuffin is still a pretty good on-the-go breakfast, and navigating McDonald’s hasn’t changed (drive thru, pay at the window, drive away, enjoy).  I also admit to a soft spot for the Golden Arches because I worked there in high school.

My wife had other ideas.  Since a breakfast sandwich was the order of the day she wanted Einstein Brothers Bagels, and with good reason.  Einstein’s offers a choice of five “classic” breakfast sandwiches and another seven “signature” specials: twelve different spins on bagels and eggs.  While Egg McMuffins are assembled from just four mass-produced ingredients, Einstein’s creations are made-to-order adventures with options like chorizo, avocado, spinach, and mushrooms.  If the choice is Einstein’s or McDonald’s it’s a no-brainer.  Except now.

“Save time?” I beg to differ.

Not knowing Einstein’s take-away approach during COVID, I parked in front of the restaurant while my wife went inside to place the order.  Nope.  Einstein’s allows two options: DoorDash or order from the app.  Well blast my bagels – DoorDash doesn’t even deliver to our neighborhood so it was either the app or go hungry.  Fine.  A quick download and I went in search of the “Order” button.  Nope.  Einstein’s wants an account first – phone number, email, birthday, credit card, and so on.  Fine.  At last we assembled our on-line order and I went in search of the “Pay” button.  Nope.  Einstein’s makes you bank a minimum balance first (and welcome to “Shmear Society Rewards”).  Really?  A cash reserve for a breakfast sandwich?  Once and for all, nope.  I X’d out of the app, deleted it from my phone, and left a skid mark or two as I accelerated away.

“McDelivery?” Not necessary.

McDonald’s was also on the way home, a couple miles up the road.  We didn’t have their app either but so what?  Order at the drive-thru, pay at the window, drive away with an Egg McMuffin, enjoy.  We even splurged on hash browns (and an order of breakfast sausage for the dog).  A McDonald’s breakfast for two people and a pet costs far less than a similar order at Einstein’s.  Was my Egg McMuffin forgettable?  Yes.  Did I consume my sandwich within minutes of leaving the restaurant?  Yes (today’s Egg McMuffin is smaller than your palm).  Did I wish I’d had a custom-made Einstein’s instead?  Of course.  But not if I must jump through a bunch of electronic hoops to get one.

I want to support restaurants through the COVID pandemic; I really do.  Our favorite Mexican place has nothing electronic, so you just place a phone order and take-away fifteen minutes later.  Our favorite coffeehouse is a converted bank, so it’s drive-thru, pay, and go, lickety-split.  That’s all I’m asking for: simple process, no hoops.

Einstein’s theory of relativity assumes accelerated motion (say, a car pulling away from a restaurant with an order of food).  Einstein’s Bagels requires decelerated motion (say, the unanticipated time to download, setup, and bank-load their app).  Take your pick: Einstein’s approach or Einstein Brothers’ approach?  For me, it’s Albert’s way every time.

Which Came First?

When my son wrapped up his undergraduate college years, he gradually reduced the stock in his refrigerator to just about nothing.  Living on a shoestring budget, he wasn’t about to purchase food he didn’t need after graduation.  I’ll never forget the phone call one of those last couple of nights.  He told us – rather proudly – he’d made a meal with two eggs… and a can of processed chicken.  A “chicken scramble” if you will.  To which I replied, “ick“.  If we’d been on FaceTime he’d have seen my face turn a lovely shade of green.

Some foods were just not intended to be consumed in the same bite.  I can’t think of a better example than chicken and eggs.  All chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens, so why on earth would we eat them together?  Can we skip the biology class and agree – at least by one definition – chickens and eggs are essentially the same “thing”?  And really; how often have you found them side-by-side on your breakfast plate?  Hopefully never.

The memory of my son’s kitchen creation locked itself away in my brain until recently, when Starbucks decided to meddle with their sous vide egg bites menu.  Not content to offer just “Egg White & Pepper” and “Bacon & Gruyere”, Starbucks now offers “Chicken Chorizo Tortilla”, described as “perfectly cooked, cage-free sous vide egg bites, including chicken chorizo, and…” and… and… and I stopped reading right there.  I couldn’t get past eggs and chicken in the same offering, gag reflex included.  I’m not sure I’ll order any egg bites anymore.

To lend credence to my chicken-OR – not chicken-AND – claim, I turned to one of the experts in the field: fast-food icon Chick-Fil-A.  CFA offers an extensive breakfast menu (Starbucks does not) so I figured, a restaurant built entirely on chicken would never offer eggs mixed up with chicken.  Wrong-o.  To my disbelief (and horror), two entrees loom large on CFA’s breakfast menu where you can get plenty of both.  Choose from the Egg White Grill: a breakfast portion of grilled chicken stacked with freshly cooked egg whites on an English muffin; or the Chicken, Egg, and Cheese bagel: a boneless breast of chicken along with a folded egg and American cheese.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?

I’m not sure who said it, but some would assert “the chicken is merely the egg’s way of reproducing itself”. (The same applies to the caterpillar’s “use” of the butterfly.)  I like that, evil as it sounds.  Kind of devalues the chicken, but also kind of proclaims: the egg came first.  And what about that quandary, “which came first”?  There’s not much to discuss if you really think about it.  Make the simple choice – science or religion.  Science votes for the egg, laid by something that wasn’t quite a chicken (but evolved into one once the egg hatched).  Religion votes for the chicken, created by a higher power in those first six days.

Maybe chicken + eggs is the greatest thing never eaten and I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I suppose I could ease into the idea one entree at a time.  Start with corned-beef hash… with fried eggs.  Move to full-on steak… and eggs.  Swallow hard over chicken… and waffles (eggs in the batter).  Then, at long last, order that new sous vide egg bite from Starbucks.  Yeah right, that’ll happen… as soon as we all agree on “which came first”.

Dream Puffs

Last year, Starbucks surpassed Subway as America’s #2 restaurant, measured by gross sales (McDonald’s is still top dog).  I don’t consider Starbucks a place to “dine”, so second-place is impressive.  Then again, Starbucks’ bakery case has matured since its initial offerings.  There are temptations-a-plenty now, en route to the barista.  The traditional breakfast items share space with yogurt parfaits, fruit-and-cheese boxes, “fold-over” sandwiches, and entree-size salads.  But it’s the smaller offerings I want to talk about today.  Look closely through the glass – you’ll see sous vide egg bites and Bantam’s bite-sized bagels.  Those little guys could be the future of fast food.

egg bites

I haven’t tried the mini bagels, but Starbucks wins me over with its egg bites.  The first time I gave them a whirl, my wife and I were in the middle of Lent, trying to find alternatives to the foods we gave up.  Egg bites to the rescue.  The sous vide prep means cooked in water, with nothing but a bit of spinach, red pepper, and cheese mixed in for flavor.  Simply elegant (elegantly simple?), and the light, fluffy texture makes them as delicious as they are convenient.

Three Little Griddles

Æbleskiver

Now let’s talk about real breakfast foods.  Last weekend, my wife and I went to a nearby restaurant called Three Little Griddles.  Much to my delight, Griddles had Æbleskiver on the menu.  If you’re Danish, you already know what I’m talking about.  Æbleskiver is heaven-sent breakfast: puffy little balls of pancake with a sweet surprise in the middle, finished off with a delicate dusting of powdered sugar and a side of raspberry jam.  Æbleskiver is Danish for “apple slices”, but you’re more likely to bite into a strawberry or a fruit-compote filling instead.  Three Little Griddles also offers Æbleskiver with an egg/bacon filling, coated with a maple-syrup glaze and powdered sugar.  A complete breakfast!

NOT Æbleskiver

If you haven’t heard of Æbleskiver and the first thing you thought of was “doughnut hole”, shame on you.  Doughnut holes don’t even qualify as poor man’s Æbleskiver.  Doughnut holes are a clever product designed to get you to buy more when it appears you’re buying less (think “fun-size” candy bars).  I have two issues with doughnut holes.  One, they’re not actually the “hole” of a solid doughnut, but prepared and baked separately instead.  Two, they’re not shaped like a doughnut hole should be (picture it – something more like the hub of a wheel).  They should be called doughnut balls.  But enough of this talk; I’m wasting words.  Let’s keep the focus on Æbleskiver.

My first taste of Æbleskiver came when I was little, in the Central California village of Solvang.  Solvang is like, well, a kid’s “Little Denmark” – a town small enough to walk around, with an overabundance of shops selling toys, candy, and ice cream.  Several windmills spin slowly above Solvang’s high-pitched shingle rooftops.  A church sits prominently on the edge of town.  A small park serves as the town square, complete with a bandstand-sized gazebo.  All that’s missing is some water-filled canals and cobble-stoned streets.  But meanwhile, there’s plenty of Æbleskiver.  Some restaurants even bake them out on the sidewalk, rotating those little dream puffs to perfection in their unique iron skillets.

If you credit the Danes with the invention of ball-shaped food, the rest of the world takes a distant second with its imitations.  China makes a spherical egg-based fruit-filled waffle called Gai Daan Jai.  Japan makes a variety of savory ball-sized snacks called Takoyaki. (Savory? Yuck.)  And America makes doughnut holes called Munchkins.

As if Æbleskiver isn’t cool enough as a food, it’s also a cool word with a unique spelling (note the “letter” Æ).  Perhaps Starbucks will start carrying it, along with the egg bites.  I’d buy both and a coffee for a complete breakfast.

Finally, if Æbleskiver has you wondering what other delights Denmark has to offer, consider ÆblekageÆblekage is “apple charlotte” – stewed sweetened apples layered with butter-roasted bread crumbs and crushed makroner (an almond-flavored meringue), topped with whipped cream and red currant jelly.  Oh my; sounds like dream stuff.

Æblekage

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

The Meal of Champions

Last weekend my family and I had breakfast at a small place in downtown Denver called “Syrup”. Syrup’s menu includes breakfast and lunch, but make no mistake; breakfast is king here. I chose the Eggs Benedict with corned beef hash, and all of us shared the Cinnamon Roll Waffle flight – a delight to the senses.  It was a breakfast to savor.

28- breakfast

Breakfast has always been my favorite meal, or should I say breakfast “out”.  People always say “really?”, but I never hear them go on to say whether lunch or dinner is their favorite.  Lunch is the neglected and oft overlooked meal of the three – perhaps a topic of its own for a future blog.  Dinner represents 95% of what people mean when they recommend a restaurant.  Maybe that’s what makes breakfast so endearing to me.  It’s the most compact of the meals.  Breakfast has its essentials and therefore creativity can only go so far.  Dinner has no boundaries, but breakfast can go very wrong if you stray from the expected.

I’ve sampled several of the more exotic approaches to breakfast.  I’ve been to the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans for the famous coffee au lait and French-style beignets (fried dough topped with enough powdered sugar to sneeze at).  I’ve been to the little Danish town of Solvang, California for aebleskivers (pancake balls with fruit in the middle).  I’ve even toured the Kellogg’s factory in Michigan, and to this day I still can resurrect the smell of cooked corn flakes.  Put all that aside though, because breakfast for me comes down to just a few essentials on the plate.  Eggs any style.  Bacon or sausage (the requisite “protein”).  And toast or some other form of carb load.  At breakfast “out” the eggs may become an omelet or a skillet or a scramble.  The bacon may be applewood-smoked and the sausage will have a hint of sage.  The toast usually runs a distant second to a freshly-made waffle or fruit-topped pancake.  But dress it down and the plate looks pretty much the same as what I prepare for myself at home.

I like breakfast because I’m a morning person (though not one of those restless souls who make it to 5am yoga).  I also like breakfast because virtually everything on the menu appeals to me.  Except bananas.  If I ever opened a breakfast place you’d have to bring your own bananas.

Sunday brunch is not only a favorite meal but a favorite activity.  I associate Sunday brunch with family and with special occasions like Easter and Mother’s Day.  I love dressing up for church and going to brunch after the service.  I love the serve-yourself aspect of brunch – the more options to savor the better.  But the “unch” in brunch gets no love from me.  As my family will attest to, my plate is always 100% breakfast.

I never understood the term “American breakfast” until college, when I spent a year abroad in Rome.  I love the Italians and their “dolce vita” way of life.  They perfected the coffee bar concept long before it became a staple in America.  But they never gave breakfast it’s proper due.  Indeed, “breakfast” in Italy is a small cup of espresso and a hard, barely-sweet roll, downed hastily at the counter before rushing off to wherever it is one is going.  No eggs or bacon or pancakes.  What’s the fun in that?

In Ireland breakfast essentials include tomatoes and blood sausage.  I can’t come to terms with vegetables for breakfast, and blood sausage shouldn’t even be mentioned in a post about breakfast.  Again, no fun on that plate.

Here’s an example of breakfast fun.  In the classic movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang my favorite scene is with the breakfast machine.  Dick Van Dyke’s character creates the magical car of course, but he also creates a contraption that cooks and distributes eggs, sausage, and toast, all while the breakfast plate moves along a heated track, eventually rolling down to the table ready to eat.  Genius.

Breakfast places – at least in Colorado – are a born-again trend these days.  Rather than Denny’s or Waffle House we now choose from “Over Easy” or “Snooze” or “The Egg & I”.  And in the ultimate nod to my favorite meal, McDonald’s recently changed their menu to include All Day Breakfast.  I think McDonald’s gets my drift.  Breakfast is not just “the most important meal of the day”.  It’s the one that should be on the menu morning, noon, and night.