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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Grading Shakespeare Papers in a Pancake House

May.23.16

Grading Shakespeare Papers in a Pancake House

by Susan Harlan

Flapjacks in Maggie Valley, North Carolina

“So what have you got there?” my waitress asks, turning over the coffee mug on my table.

“Papers to grade,” I say.

“Hmm. Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

It’s the end of the academic year, and a stack of Shakespeare papers divides me from the summer. They must be graded, and I have come to Joey’s Pancake House to accomplish this. The small mountain town of Maggie Valley isn’t far from Asheville, but it’s a different kind of place. The town’s visitors are mostly bikers (of the motorcycle variety). Dinner isn’t farm-to-table; it’s bloody prime rib and potato. Breakfast is pancakes.

A pancake house is a perfect place to work, particularly on a rainy May day. The constant movement of people, the clanging of dishes, the bright lights, the endless coffee. I spend a lot of time in libraries, and they can be too silent. If you shift in your chair or rummage around for a pen, you disturb the universe. But this isn’t the case in a pancake house, a place so comfortable that its name assures you that you’re home. It’s a house, but with pancakes.

Joey’s opened in 1966 and replaced its sign just before its 50th anniversary. The old sign proclaimed JOEY’S PANCAKE HOUSE on a slightly yellowed and weathered background. Below, “& Restaurant” was rendered in cursive, as an afterthought. First, Joey’s is a pancake house, and then it is a restaurant. The new sign is similar, but it depicts a stack of syrupy pancakes and notes, “Since 1966.” The old sign was the past; the new sign looks back on the past.

The dining room feels timeless, or perhaps just out of time, with its wagon wheel chandeliers, wood paneling, green gingham window valances, and green padded booths. In an adjacent waiting room, people read over posters for spring festivals and visiting preachers.

My table is set with everything I could need: a caddy of Smucker’s Concord Grape and Strawberry Jelly packets, salt and pepper, sugar, syrup (two bottles), and a small dish of disposable white plastic creamers. The menu is printed on a paper placemat. Pancake house menus are plenitude embodied: eggs and omelets, French toast, waffles, breakfast meats, and starches – grits, hash browns, toast, and biscuits. Plain pancakes or pancakes with strawberries, blueberries, pecans, bananas, chocolate chips, or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Seemingly endless options.

Joey’s pancakes are pancakes of the South. There are pancake houses all over the country, but I didn’t have much experience with them until I moved to North Carolina, so to me, they are the South. My father made buckwheat pancakes when I was growing up, but these were healthy, California pancakes. They weren’t topped with a scoop of whipped butter.

My breakfast arrives on heavy, unbreakable diner dishes, cross-hatched by countless knives and forks: pancakes, two eggs over-medium, and a slab of ham. I set one of the eggs on top of the pancakes and puncture the yoke with my fork. And I read through my stack of papers, endeavoring to write legible comments and then placing each finished paper on another stack. When I accidentally spill coffee on one, I write an arrow next to the brown splotch and scribble, Oops sorry coffee. The stack of finished papers grows.

Customers pay at the cash register at Joey’s. I buy a mug, too – something to take home. When I walk back to my table to leave a tip, I see that it has already been cleared and reset, with new, spotless paper placemat menus. A paper placemat menu is only yours: you drip egg yolk and syrup on it, and then it is thrown away.

I survey the parking lot, trying to remember where my car is before I run out into the rain. Down the street, a large plastic bear stands guard in front of a souvenir shop, reared up on his hind legs, his mouth open and his paws outstretched. I pass him as I drive out of town, and it feels a little like driving into summer.

The Great Railway Breakfast Bazaar

Feb.17.17

The Great Railway Breakfast Bazaar

by Bulbul Mankani

Kachoris in Jaipur

Indian trains provide an astonishing variety of fresh food all day. Food carts abound at major stations, serving fluffy fried poories with spicy potato curry, kachoris and chutneys, rice and cholas, and samosas. Sweet chai is a favorite. Vendors scurry between train windows with steaming kettles and precariously balanced cups. You need to call out for them quickly and have the correct change in hand: for the chaiwallahs, every second counts at the short station stops.

Traditionally, Indian travelers carry food from home, but it’s more exciting to buy breakfast from the train window, and Indian train journeys bring you regional specialties. Chugging through Uttar Pradesh, the asafetida-flavored curry with fried wheat puffs will sell out unless you yell for it loudly enough. In Kerala, breakfast is a crunchy crisp paratha with its spiral layers and yellow egg curry with a hint of coconut. In other southern states, idlis are king: steamed rice cakes with spicy daal and a few vegetables and coconut chutney, wrapped in a banana leaf. Also in the south, coffee from the region’s coffee estates replaces chai.

For three years, I took the Shatabdi Express train from Jaipur to New Delhi once a month. This early morning train served meals on board, but I could never resist the food carts. Waiting for the train, I could smell the pyaaz ki kachoris, a Jaipur specialty, being made. This deep-fried, savory snack travels well: a wheat pastry filled with fennel, coriander, chilies, cumin, and finely chopped fried onions.

Pyare Singh, one of Jaipur’s train station vendors, has been making kachoris for about a decade. He learned to make them in a small shop in the Old Town, and got the license to sell them when he was 29. He quickly understood that he would move more kachoris if he kept his product hot, and now he can stock about 80 of them in a glass box warmed by a hot-plate.

For me, two of Singh’s kachoris, downed with piping hot chai as I boarded the Shatabdi, gave me a sense that all was right with the world.

Divided By Politics, United in Salty Cheese

Feb.16.17

Divided By Politics, United in Salty Cheese

by Samantha Shields

Halloumi in Cyprus

When I lived in London’s Cypriot enclave, Green Lanes, I used to buy slabs of halloumi cheese from the huge, plastic buckets overflowing with cloudy brine that lurked in the corner of every greengrocers on the road. I’d eat it for breakfast raw, sliced in fresh pitta bread, loving its saltiness and squeakiness between my teeth, and the hits of freshness from flecks of mint.

It wasn’t until I moved to Cyprus many years later that I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. While it’s delicious raw, halloumi is at its very best straight off a hot grill. The char on the outside intensifies the flavor of the salt, and the inside doesn’t melt but instead keeps its wonderful texture. If you need a condiment, it goes equally well with Greek-Cypriot mosfilo jam, made from the tiny yellow fruit of a local hawthorn tree, or with Turkish-Cypriot ezme salad, a fiery chopped mixture of tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and pomegranate molasses.

Another thing I realized when I moved to Nicosia: this cheese is political. In the Republic of Cyprus, the southern part of the island that has been a member of the European Union since 2004, it’s called halloumi. In the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, occupied by Turkey since 1974, it’s hellim. Both cheeses are made from a mixture of goat, sheep and cows’ milk, although they shouldn’t contain too much cows’ milk.

A 2008 Greek-Cypriot attempt to secure European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for halloumi failed, dogged by Turkish-Cypriot accusations of gastronationalism and a German company’s attempt to trademark the name hellim.

But last year the European Commission published an application to register the names halloumi and hellim, in Greek and Turkish, as PDOs for cheese of this type produced in all the territory of the island of Cyprus. Hopes are high that the attempt will succeed this year, putting halloumi and hellim in the same category as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, and feta. There are some concerns that small producers won’t be able to afford to pay the international body that will carry out production controls to monitor the milk ratios, but overall, the cheesemakers on both sides of the divide have managed to come together in a way that politicians have so far failed to.

At Mousikon Kafeneion, a traditional old-style cafe on the Greek-Cypriot side of Nicosia, a stone’s throw from the Green Line dividing the island’s capital, I ordered the Cypriot breakfast. Generous slices of grilled halloumi came with a dollop of mosfilo jam, the local smoked ham called lountza, chunks of fresh tomato and cucumber, and good bread and olive oil.

I listened to the call to prayer drifting over from the Selimiye Mosque on the other side of the border, and later the church bells from the Greek Orthodox Faneromeni Church not far from the cafe. Maybe the reunification of Cyprus will start with cheese.

A Love Letter to London’s Best Cheese-Soaked Potatoes

Feb.15.17

A Love Letter to London’s Best Cheese-Soaked Potatoes

by Phylisa Wisdom

Raclette in London

I lived and worked in London for a little more than four years. I recently went back for a whirlwind one-week visit: seven opportunities for my favorite breakfasts. One of them comes from Borough Market, the iconic food market next to London Bridge train station.

Borough Market is one of the most crowded spaces in London. On any given weekend the prepared food and cart section is full to the brim with a crowd queuing for burgers, Turkish delight, brownies, coffee, salads, and Afghan curry, to name a few of my favorites. But the jewel in Borough Market’s crown—according to me and the poor, unfortunate souls I’ve spent many hours queueing with—is Kappacasein Dairy.

The menu does not change. Raclette or a cheese toastie, both £6 ($8). For me, it’s the raclette every time. The word raclette comes from the French word racler, “to scrape.” In this case, it’s a thick, locally-made Ogleshield cheese heated and scraped onto steaming baby new potatoes and crisp pickles. It is not exactly traditional breakfast fare.

When I was a 9-5 London worker, I liked Kappacasein raclette best on a long weekend midmorning or as an early lunch. You really need to allow for a midday slump after this breakfast.

On this occasion, I stopped by around 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and the queue was a fraction of what it usually is. My belly was empty on one of the coldest London days I can remember. I watched the enormous half-circle of cheese bubble and pop under an industrial-sized raclette set. I watched, breath visible in the chilly air, as the cheese heated up. Then the woman serving me grabbed the cheese, turned it about 45 degrees, and scraped the top layer onto the potatoes. Unlike many of the best heavy breakfasts, this is one for which you stand and wait.

After she added the pickles and fresh ground pepper to my cheesy potatoes I took my heavy plate to find an empty bit of curb to sit on. I noted as I walked that the immense weight I was carrying would soon be in my stomach. I wanted to eat fast so the cheese wouldn’t harden in the cold air, but it pays to savor both the raclette and the curbside view for people-watching.

After this breakfast, you have to keep moving or you’ll fall asleep. I walked to get an espresso from Borough Market institution Monmouth Coffee to cut through the fat. Digestif coffee in hand, I headed to the South Bank of the Thames to continue my day of visiting old favorites.

A Very Habit-Forming Pancake-Burrito Hybrid

Feb.14.17

A Very Habit-Forming Pancake-Burrito Hybrid

by Charlotte Edwards

Jian Bing in Hebei Province

I’ve never been one for breakfast, so pre-baby, I usually skipped it. A month after giving birth and returning to work, I didn’t think twice about resuming my usual routine of preparing my husband’s breakfast and rushing off to catch the bus to work. However, I’d neglected to realize how much my appetite had increased because of breastfeeding.

By the mid-morning break on my first day back teaching English to nursing students at the local college in Renqiu, China, my stomach was growing uncontrollably. Luckily, outside the sprawling campus was a street filled with vendors preparing all sorts of delicious street foods for students who were unsatisfied by the cafeteria fare and hungry teachers like myself.

I needed to make a selection quickly so I got in a short line to buy a food that I’d never seen before: jian bing. A helpful student who was in front of me called it a pancake, but the only way it resembled the ones I grew up eating in the United States was that it started out round.

The woman who made it, probably no older than my student, poured a butter-colored batter on a large, round griddle and swiftly cracked an egg on top of it. When the egg was partially cooked, she used her hands to flip it over. Then she started asking me questions in rapid-fire sequence as she worked with impeccable precision and great speed.

“Can you eat spicy foods?”

“Just a little.”

“Do you want scallions and cilantro?”

“Yes, extra scallions, please.”

As she added a liberal amount of green atop the fiery red chili paste she asked, “Do you want crispy fried crackers or fried dough sticks?”

“Crackers, please,” I said, having just noticed the two options sitting on a shelf over her mobile makeshift kitchen that sat atop her three-wheeled cart. The crackers resembled a thin, rectangular tortilla chip, while the fried dough stick was just what it sounded like: a long piece of dough fried until the outside was crispy.

“Cut or uncut?” was her next question.

I wanted the huge burrito-like food cut in half, so I replied with a simple, “cut it.”

In less than three minutes, start to finish, my first jian bing was in my hands. It was piping hot and savory, and both soft and crispy. Thus began my daily jian bing habit, which lasted for the next two years.

It’s been several years since my first taste of jian bing, and while I’d like to eat it daily, my jeans tell me otherwise. So it remains a special treat that transports me to a past season of life.

This Is Basically Just Porridge But It Sounds So Wrong

Feb.13.17

This Is Basically Just Porridge But It Sounds So Wrong

by Olga Mecking

Milk Soup in Poland

I love Polish food, but there is one dish I could never stomach: milk soup.

There is just something about milk. Cold, it was barely palatable, but could be eaten with cornflakes. Warm, it was impossible. Just the smell was enough to make me gag. Luckily, my parents never made it, let alone forced me to eat it, so I only had to deal with milk soup at camp. But that was bad enough.

Milk soup is exactly what it sounds like: warm milk, sometimes served with pearled barley, oats, or with zacierki—tiny dumplings made by grating pasta dough directly into the soup.

Milk soup fits into the Polish tradition of sweet soups. Tart cherry soup
was a very popular first dish in my school’s canteen. It was served with pasta. It was delicious, but I wasn’t used to sweet soups because my parents never made them. No wonder milk soup was a no-go for me. To me, soup is just not made to be sweet, and my parents taught me that mixing pasta with fruit was just not done. But then again, I come from a nation that does exactly that: makaron z truskawkami, a Polish dish that combines pasta with cream and strawberries.

When I moved abroad, some of the dishes I knew from Poland became impossible to make because some of the ingredients just weren’t available. And then I had children, and suddenly, it became increasingly important to me to make for my children the Polish dishes I knew, even the ones I never made myself.

At some point, I thought I had to introduce them to milk soup. I didn’t even know the recipe, so I had to look it up. But the recipe for the dumplings was pretty much the same as the one I usually use for my noodles: 100g of flour, one egg, and a pinch of salt. But instead of rolling out the dough and cutting it into longer strips like tagliatelle, or into squares like for Polish łazanki, I just grated them into the hot milk. I also added some honey, because I remembered that though the soup was usually not served sweet, children would add sugar.

I rarely make such elaborate breakfasts for my children. I was just finishing it up when they came back from school.

“What’s that, mama?”

“That’s milk soup. With dumplings. Do you want to try it?”

They enthusiastically agreed. Unlike me, they enjoy milk. They drink it, they eat it with cereal. And now they were about to experience it as a soup.

They ate so quickly that their ears shook, as we say in Poland. And then they asked for more. I was surprised to find that the milk soup, something that I hated growing up, elicited such an enthusiastic response from my children. I thought it must be all the honey I put in there.

When my children were done, my eldest looked at me and said, “This is the best soup you’ve ever made, mama.” Actually, I don’t mind. Because at the moment, my foreign-born children were much better at being Polish than I ever was.

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