"When did we decide to start putting breakfast foods on everything?" I wondered aloud while talking to my friend Stefanie Gans last week by phone. Gans is the dining editor for Northern Virginia Magazine, and was hard at work researching an article on national meat trends when she called me at home last Friday morning.
Beef, I told her, is as big in Texas as it ever was. We like short ribs -- like the slow-smoked ones drawing crowds at Killen's pop-up barbecue dinners, or the recent Menu of Menus-winning ribs over jalapeño-cheese grits from Frank's Americana Revival -- and we like Akaushi beef, such as is found in the aggressively flavored patties at The Burger Guys.
But we also still have a tendency to want to put bacon and/or a fried egg on everything. Pork bellies are still on nearly every menu, I laughed, as I looked down and realized in a bit of a stupor that I was making the very meal I was poking fun at.
I've made two strips of bacon with two fried eggs, a plate of sliced tomatoes and a pot of coffee nearly every morning for breakfast for as long as I can remember. Just the idea of it gets me out of bed on mornings when I'd otherwise hide under the covers. Plating the eggs, bacon and tomatoes carefully, sitting at the table and washing up afterward gives me the smallest sense of accomplishment that I can use as tinder to fire myself through the rest of the day.
This is my morning routine after walking the dog, but before sitting down to read the morning news. This is a breakfast born of family rituals and nostalgia, from my mother's insistence on having tomatoes with meals to my father's preference for black coffee. This is despite attempting to eat "healthier" at every other meal. I don't even think about breakfast, except to buy the actual groceries every two weeks or so, so comforting and comfortable is the ritual.
"Everyone I've talked to has kept saying 'vegetables are the new meat,'" Gans told me with a slightly exasperated tone as I turned my bacon over in the pan. "I know that. But this is a meat story." Even though she couldn't see me, I nodded my agreement.
Restaurants like Oxheart are making an especially persuasive argument for that, especially here in Houston. And I began to wonder if my little morning breakfast ritual had also become a relic of another, more antiquated age -- an age in which it simply wasn't breakfast if you didn't have pork and eggs and toast and coffee and orange juice and all of the typical accouterments of an old-school American breakfast.
Do Americans even still eat this way for breakfast anymore?
Along with many other people, I fervently read a tragic-comic blog post last week on Northwest Edible Life titled "The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater." In it, author Erica Strauss examined the current national obsession with healthy eating that borders on self-flagellation. We wear hairshirts made of kale and quinoa and it's still never enough.
"I know you," Strauss wrote. "We have a lot in common. You have been doing some reading and now you are pretty sure everything in the grocery store and your kitchen cupboards is going to kill you."
As this truism further implants itself into our hearts and minds, will standard breakfast items such as eggs -- laden with cholesterol, obtained from chickens fed other dead, ground-up chickens and kept in the cruelest conditions -- and bacon -- whose plentiful health risks are already well established -- be entirely abandoned? Will they be relegated to simply serve as trendy add-on "treats" for your occasional indulgences instead of considered a meal of their own?
"One egg plus one egg white and a shake with one apple, one banana, some kale and coconut milk every day," is how my friend Iris describes her weekday breakfast down in Florida. "Sometimes on the weekend we go out to eat breakfast and then I usually eat eggs Benedict."
Shakes were a popular response when I polled my 1,200-some-odd friends on Facebook. Still more people reported eating mostly yogurt for breakfast, occasionally with berries or granola. A smaller cross-section ate both, making shakes with yogurt and fresh fruit. A monk's breakfast of steel-cut oats was equally popular. The true believers simply juiced everything. And kale -- the super-food we're all currently looking to for salvation -- was everywhere.
"Kale smoothie sometimes -- made the night before," reported my admirably ascetic friend Judy. "Kids also get avocado halves with salt. Unless they're cranky, in which case they just get salt."
My morning breakfast was beginning to look terribly antiquated and even unhealthier than I already knew it was.
Weekends, however, were a different matter -- as demonstrated above. Weekends are when the breakfast tacos and kolaches and stacks of pancakes came out to play.
"Breakfast on a weekday tends to be yogurt or a protein bar," reported my friend Emily here in Houston. "Weekends are extravagant affairs with French toast, chocolate chip waffles, pecan pancakes, or eggs and bacon."
And the extravagance wasn't just limited to food. Although my friend Nena typically eats wheat toast and bananas during the week, Saturdays and Sundays are an exception for her and husband Sean -- days on which they create their own little bed-and-breakfast at home.
"On weekends Sean will generally make me breakfast in bed one day and I will make it for him the next," Nena said. "Breakfast is usually omelette or cheesy eggs with toast or waffles, bacon (sometimes turkey), fresh fruit, juice and a mocha for me and double espresso for him."
Bacon and eggs do still have a place at the American breakfast table, it seems -- but in more sensible amounts and portions, as weekend indulgences. It was almost a relief to see the twinned breakfast foods haven't yet been relegated to trinkets. It appears that when it comes to the first meal of the day, at least, Americans are making smarter dining decisions.
Most of us, at least.
"I am a ritualistic person," said my friend Shawn, before he laid out his own morning agenda: "I have two cups of Dunkin coffee with chocolate creamer, shower and get ready. Then get a cold Monster from the fridge and a can of V8 every weekday morning."
It was nice to see that I have a least a little company left in my corner of the world, however -- a corner hemmed in by routine, one so familiar that I could complete each movement in the dark.
Listen for the telltale sizzle that means it's time to turn the bacon over. Pour the grease in a Ball jar atop layers of congealed pork fat like so many tree rings. Cut off a tiny pat of butter and swirl it around the pan to catch all of the leftover bacon on the bottom. Snap my wrist back and forth two times in a quick, practiced, fluid motion that deposits each egg into the perfect position. Watch as the whites turn opaque before flipping the eggs and turning off the gas burner to let the lingering heat of the cast-iron skillet finish them off. Pull my 10-year-old serrated knife from its sheath, place it at the ideal angle to carve a single tomato into five nearly-identical slices. Enjoy the soft, lapping sound of the black coffee as I pour it into the white ceramic mug my mother smuggled out of a swanky Beverly Hills hotel for me while I was still in college.
There's a visceral pleasure in this that I don't think I can replace with a bowl of cold Greek yogurt and blueberries, no matter how good they both are. Because for as much as food is about health and nutrition, it's about tradition too.
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How do you decide which traditions to give up? I could easily preserve the sliced tomatoes and black coffee while incorporating them into a healthier breakfast each morning -- one made with kale, perhaps even in juice form.
But it just wouldn't be the same without bacon and eggs. And in the midst of every other uncertainty in life -- how to raise your kids, when to start saving for retirement, what troubles will befall you today at work, who'll take care of you when you're old, whether or not to cook your kale or eat it raw -- it's nice to have something that stays the same every single day, to gird yourself with the truth of one constant comfort before walking out the front door to face the furious day ahead.