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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

Pretzels: the Bagels of Philadelphia

Jan.19.16

Pretzels: the Bagels of Philadelphia

by Sarah Grey

Pretzels in Philadelphia

“Fresh! Hot! Pretzels!”

It’s 7:30 am in Philadelphia, and there’s a pretzel seller touting his wares under my window. Here in Fishtown, on the banks of the Delaware River, things have been changing quickly: the brick rowhouses that housed fishermen, Irish immigrants, and brewery workers a century ago are being renovated and flipped faster than you can say “gentrification.” Between the hip coffeehouses, galleries, and warehouse lofts, though, longtime Fishtowners carry on the old traditions, like selling hot soft pretzels carried on a stick first thing in the morning.

And is there any Philadelphia tradition more beloved than soft pretzels? You can find them on just about every corner in Center City, though every Philly native you ask will point you toward a different bakery (there are at least a dozen). The prominence of pretzels is part of Pennsylvania’s German heritage, which goes back four centuries. The central and eastern parts of the state are famous for their Amish and Mennonite residents, many of whom speak “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a German dialect that’s evolved on its own since it was imported to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. (“Dutch” is a misnomer; it’s actually a corruption of Deutsch, or German.)

Pretzels are popular all over the U.S., of course, but here in Philly, they’re breakfast. New Yorkers bring bagels to work and Southerners bring Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but here, if you want to make friends at the office, you swing by Furfari’s Soft Pretzels on Frankford Avenue (or wherever your secret spot is) and pick up a dozen soft pretzels still warm from the oven. You’ll even find their fresh pretzels sold inside the local elementary schools first thing in the morning, with a line of children clutching quarters stretching down the hall from the pretzel cart.

The iconic Philly breakfast pretzels aren’t the wide-open twists you find at every Auntie Anne’s: they’re dense and squat, very nearly rectangular. They come in a cardboard box still connected, with a little container of mustard on the side. When you tear one away, a little puff of steam tells you how fresh it is. They’re also dirt-cheap: think fifty cents apiece.

Furfari’s pretzels have been the same since the bakery opened in 1954: elemental, conjured from the simplest interplay of salt and flour and water. A little yeast, maybe a hint of sugar, some egg wash to burnish the top and make the salt stick. They get more chewy as they cool, but the clean, yeasty flavor always plays well with coffee for a quick rush of morning carbs.

At the Mennonite-owned Miller’s Twist in the Reading Terminal Market, on the other hand, it’s all about butter. Here tourists watch women in T-shirts and women in bonnets roll the dough for a wider, richer pretzel with less chew, one that leaves your fingers slick. They’re delicious on their own, but Miller’s has locked down the Reading Market breakfast game by combining pretzel dough with a breakfast sandwich. Pretzel wraps stuff the buttery dough with egg and cheese, sausage, or even the glorious grease-and-Cheez-Wiz mixture that Philadelphians just call “cheesesteak.”

There’s debate about how much butter is too much, but you’re unlikely to go wrong if you show up early with a salt-shedding armload of pretzels and mustard. And if the pretzel-seller disturbs your sleep? Get up and run outside like a kid chasing the ice-cream truck. That’s how we do it in Philly.

Trust Us, We Meant to Order the Cow-Head Stew

Apr.28.17

Trust Us, We Meant to Order the Cow-Head Stew

by Dave Hazzan

Paçe in Tirana

Albania has a message for the world: after decades of war, dictatorship, and Ponzi schemes, we now have our shit together.

This is especially the case when it comes to eating. Restaurants are open and full. Tirana has a lively, packed, and affordable selection of restaurants, cafes, and bars. They’re like 10,000 middle fingers pointed at the days when finding enough to eat in this war-ravaged, totalitarian hellhole was a Herculean task.

For breakfast, most Albanians, at least in Tirana, have adopted the regimen of their continental brothers, especially the Italians across the Adriatic: pastries, sweets, and coffee, either espresso or overflowing with foam. But for those looking for something a bit more traditional, a fat bowl of paçe is what you’re after.

Paçe (pronounced PAH-chay) is a stew, made from the meat from the head of a cow. The head is boiled until the meat slides right off the skull, and is then stewed with salt, pepper, garlic, and onion.

At Qebaptore Tini, which according to Google Translate means “Cheeky Teen,” the waitress wasn’t sure if paçe was really what we wanted. It was a small diner off the main road, and they’re not used to seeing a lot of foreigners in there.

When we assured her the best we could we did want paçe, she pointed to her stomach and then to her head. It took a few moments to get the point–did we want it made with stomach meat or head meat? We were under the impression it was only made with head meat, so we chose that. I suppose the stomach one is for the more adventurous.

She wobbled off to the kitchen to put it together for us. When it came out, it looked like a bowl full of vomit, with shredded beef and many little globules of fat. I’m no anatomist, but rubbing my own head, I never thought of the meat up there being particularly fatty. Or green.

Despite how it looked, it tasted like your run-of-the-mill beef soup, but knowing an entire cow’s head had gone into its preparation made it extra special. It was thick, savory, and salty, and I finished it gratefully, mopping up the remains with the bread that comes with every Albanian meal.

Photo by: Jo Turner

Always Eat the Fish Eye At the Bottom of the Bowl

Apr.25.17

Always Eat the Fish Eye At the Bottom of the Bowl

by Efraín Villanueva

Fish broth in Barranquilla

It’s Carnival in Barranquilla. There are marimondas, negritas Puloy, ITALgarabatos, monocucos, and many other traditional figures joyfully wandering in every street. There is dancing in all the ways the locals know: cumbia, mapalé, chandé, fandango, porro, merecumbé, bullerenge. There are kids, adults, pets, houses, and cars dressed up in colorful costumes.

A very well-organized recocha (which Urban Dictionary defines as “to be disorderly in the name of fun”) reigns in the town. There also is, of course, lots of alcohol involved. It’s been like that for more than a century, so the mayor and the police have agreed to make an exception from the recent national law that forbids the consumption of alcohol in public spaces.

If you ever come for the Carnival and you want to keep up and party non-stop during the five-day celebration, you need to know how to hold yourself together. What does it for me is food.

“Are you really gonna have fish soup for breakfast?” my German girlfriend, Sabeth, asks with a surprised expression on her face.

I inspect her side of the table. Her plate is filled with two carimañolas (yucca dough stuffed with ground beef), one arepa e huevo (corn dough stuffed with a fried egg and extra ground beef), suero costeño (a fermented milk-based dip) and corozo juice. I smile. It makes me proud how much she enjoys our fried-stuff cuisine.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she defends herself, “for me it’s different. I’m a foreigner, I’m supposed to try as much as I can.”

“Yeah, right. You’re just embracing our culture. Nothing to do with you being a good eater.”

She grins.

“Look, it is not fish soup. Not technically. This is just a caldo, a broth. A real soup would include a big piece of fish, potatoes, green plantains, yuca, ñame. The real deal. Wanna try?”

“It’s breakfast time. Soup is for lunch,” she argues.

“In Germany you guys have Weisswurstfrühstück… and that’s with beer.”

“That does not count. That’s Bavarian,” she says, making her Germany-is-bigger-than-Bavaria-you-people face.

“Wanna try it or not?”

She does. She always does. And her closed eyes confirm what I expected: She loves it.

We eat. I dive to the bottom of my plate and find a pleasant surprise, at least for me.

“Look, I got a prize!”

“What is that?” she asks.

“It’s the eye. I love this but I’m willing to give it away just for you. Wanna try?”

She always does.

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

Apr.24.17

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

by Andrew Strikis

Breakfast in Cyprus

As the rosy-red flesh of tomatoes basked in the light streaming through the stone-and-timber window frame, I could sense Karen’s reluctance as she mentally prepared herself for that first bite.

Less than 48 hours earlier we were in the U.K., slack jaws mechanically processing a lukewarm airport curry, a flaccid coda to our exploration of Scotland’s bonnie but slightly stodgy shores.

The tiny, cobblestoned village of Vavla, in Cyprus, was our new home, and we were hoping for something, anything, to resuscitate our neglected taste buds.

Over mugs of hot coffee, we could hear our hosts Donna Marie and George nattering back and forth in the kitchen; she with her Yankee drawl, rusty from disuse, he with his thick, gravelly, Greek-inflected English sporadically tumbling forth like slow-moving boulders, a verbal dance born of decades of practice. They met in the U.S., but Vavla is their home now, and food was the pivot on which their lives spun gently.

First, a simple plate. Humble fare, familiar not just to Cypriots but to the Mediterranean. A basket of freshly baked bread, thickly cut and steaming. Sliced cucumber, tomato, halloumi: green, red, white. Threatening to none except Karen: since childhood, tomatoes have been her culinary nemesis.

Not this morning. With eyes wide, we shared a moment of revelation from the most unexpected of sources: tomatoes. Sweetness, with barely a hint of acidity. Here, you were just as likely to pick up a tomato as an apple for a snack.

The term ‘foraging’ is everywhere now, but for Donna Marie and George, this is their life, and they laugh to hear the terms ‘organic’ and ‘foraged’ used with such reverence. To wander their garden was an education, as they shared their knowledge of the land, the seasons, and the fruits of their labor.

George’s eyes lit up as he spoke of his passion for split green olives. With a generous measure of diced garlic and a splash of lemon juice, these are still the best green olives we’ve ever woken up to. Also on the table: Mosphila berries transformed into the sweetest of jams, a small bowl of local almonds, freshly squeezed orange juice. And yet more olives, air-dried and packed with umami.

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

Apr.21.17

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

by Sarah Witman

Carnitas in Mexico City

The Mercado de Medellín feels like an open-air market stuffed inside an aircraft hangar. Whole baby sharks sit on ice, arranged artfully among freshly caught shrimp and starfish. Stall shelves are covered with neatly arranged apples, watermelon, plantains, and cartons of strawberries—the same brand I buy back home in Wisconsin. An entire wing is dedicated to flowers: fiery red lirios (lilies) and delicate gipsófila (baby’s breath).

The market is a cross-section of Mexico City culture, along the intersection of the traditional Roma Sur and hip Roma Norte neighborhoods. During the week it’s a sleepy, sensible grocery store. Saturday mornings are a different story.

Carnitas?”

By mid-afternoon on Friday, I had seen the carnitas vendors already beginning to set up: sharpening knives, wiping down gleaming metal workstations. This is what I’ve been waiting for all week.

“Si si si! Gracias…” I say, accepting the most succulent shard of meat I’d ever seen from the vendor’s outstretched hand.

“Dos tacos, por favor.”

No need to specify what type; there is only one. The carnitas are cooked on a steaming spit. It’s then chopped up fairly fine, and lovingly portioned onto two corn tortillas. The tortillas are fresher, and more substantial, than the papery rounds I’m used to getting in the Midwest. So instead of doubling up, I can split the carnitas among them to make four tacos.

I spoon on salsa verde, one taco at a time. There are the ubiquitous little dishes of chopped onion, cilantro, and lime wedges on the table, too. Mexico City has taught me to appreciate limes.

The vendor bustles back over, asking how everything is, and hands me a crispy piece of chicharrón, deep-fried pork rind, free of charge.

“Mucho gusto!” I say with enthusiasm. This is a rather formal way to say “pleasure to meet you.” But I think he got my point.

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

Apr.20.17

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

by Heather Arndt Anderson

Biscuits and gravy in Portland

Biscuits and gravy may be a bastion of Southern cuisine, but they have also been embraced in Portland, Oregon, the land of brunch lines and culinary trend-spotting.

Everywhere from greasy dive bars like The Trap to Instagrammy critical-darling Tusk has it on the menu. People queue up for an hour to order it at Screen Door. As a 4th-generation Portland native and historian of both breakfast and Portland’s culinary scene, I intimately understand the fuss.

I grew up below the poverty line, the firstborn to two ex-military kids on the cusp of their twenties. My mom had herself been the firstborn to two teenaged parents from Oklahoma, and her childhood had seen struggle.

Between her role as Alpha Sister to four siblings and her stint in the Marines (she was a corporal), she had learned how to stretch a dollar in the kitchen with simple fare. This often meant our meals focused around a pound of dried navy beans flavored simply with a ham bone and a bay leaf, but occasionally, when the food stamps had run low, she fell back on perennial classics like chipped beef on toast, known affectionately in our household as shit-on-a-shingle.

My mom’s version was as economical as it can get: ground beef crumbles simmered in a white sauce made with powdered milk, thickened with roux made from the hamburger drippings, served on a slice white bread. It was a study in beige. It wasn’t glamorous, but it filled our bellies. I always really liked it, and not only because it came with a free pass to cuss at the dinner table. I enjoyed the soft, white warmness of it. Similar iterations came in the form of biscuits and gravy, made with leftover Jiffy mix biscuits and the same pasty hamburger gravy, and I ate it all with gusto.

When I grew up and started dipping a furtive toe into the world of fancy food, one of my first experiences was eating at Bread and Ink Café on Hawthorne. Back in the mid-90s the street was only starting to get hip, and Bread and Ink was the nice place with real napkins and white tablecloths, in a brick building that had once been a grocery store. It was a little out of my price range, but breakfast was an affordable luxury.

The first time I had biscuits and gravy there, I wasn’t transported back to my mother’s elbow or anything so melodious, because although she could ably feed her family, my mom never derived any joy from it. This B&G tasted like love, not making-do.

I had never known that shit-on-a-shingle could be decadent, but here it was: a broad plate of tender biscuits flecked with butter, blanketed in silky cream gravy scented faintly with nutmeg and black pepper, punctuated with sausage bits and needlessly gilded with melted cheese. This was manna from heaven, if heaven was the once-nicest joint in a formerly working-class neighborhood and God was Baron—the venerable gentleman with the jangling chain wallet and slight limp who’s been waiting tables there for thirty years.

There are countless ways in which Portland has gotten too big for its britches, but Bread and Ink’s biscuits and gravy are my favorite example.

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