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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

The Serious Business of Breakfast in Northern Italy

Mar.17.17

The Serious Business of Breakfast in Northern Italy

by Rachael Martin

Cappucino in Brianza

It’s 8:30 a.m. in the northern Italian village, and the café is in full swing. The businessmen and bank managers are there in their suits, having a quick caffè, as they call the espresso round here. They stand at the bar, against its glass cases filled with every type of brioche and croissant. They chat opposite shiny polished coffee machines where smartly uniformed staff prepare caffé, caffé lattes, and marocchino, coffees in chic little glasses.

But the cappuccino is the star of the show. Cappuccino, that unassuming coffee copied all over the world, smooth and light in a simple white cup. (But never order it after 11 a.m.) Cappuccino e brioche is the staple breakfast of northern Italy.

It’s the weekly market day and locals from the village gather in the bar. Old ladies fresh from morning mass in pearls and dark woolen coats sit around one of the tables, women who were once busy with grandchildren, but the grandchildren are grown now. They talk together in a mixture of Italian and local dialect about daughters, grandchildren, people they know. And did you hear about Francesca, what a terrible life she’s had, and now this?

The tables fill up, mostly with women. Women who have come from school drop-offs, women who no longer do the drop-off, women in black coats and black sunglasses with designer handbags. They prefer the longer breakfast, spreading it out until past mid-morning.

It’s mid-morning now, and the staff are clearing away what remains of the brioches and preparing for the pre-lunch aperitivo. A few retired husbands have come to join their wives at the tables, back from a walk through the market and a look around its stalls with the fresh ricottas and salamis brought down from the hillside farms.

Mothers are starting to come in from the market. They queue up at the deli above glass-cased pasticcini, cannoncini—small tarts topped with strawberries, raspberries, kiwi, and grapes—next to sticky, rum-flavored babas. There are biscuits, chocolate, butter, almond, two-tone beige and chocolate swirls, and a tray of pastel-colored macaroons. And then there are the cakes: tarts with jam, tarts with fresh fruit, chocolate cakes, apple cake, various forms of cream cakes, all with fluted edges.

These are the mothers who buy pizza and focaccia and bread for hungry children who will soon be home for lunch from school. These are the mothers who rush around in lives they never quite envisaged, just like their mothers before them. They stop at the bar for a quick caffè, then say goodbye to their friends and go off back into their lives.

Delicious, Flaky Pastries Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make

May.17.17

Delicious, Flaky Pastries Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make

by Dave Hazzan

Burek in Dubrovnik

Ottawa, 1989.

When we were children, my grandmother, Mariette Setton, would take the Voyageur bus from Montreal to stay with us. These trips happened about once a month, and I loved them.

Grandma would take us all to the fast food joint of our choice, stuff us with grease, and then spend the weekend telling us how wonderful we were compared to our father when he was our age, back in Egypt, the old country they had fled in the 50s as very unwelcome Jews.

When not stroking our egos, grandma would spend most of the weekend making “cheese bits” and “spinach bits.” There was a routine to this.
First, she complained that she had to work all weekend like the Hebrews of old.

Second, she complained about the quality of the filo, the paper-thin pastry used to wrap the cheese and spinach with. Is this really the best filo they had? To which my father replied, would you really like to drive to the Arab market across town and try them all out for yourself?

Third, she would complain about their taste once they were finished and baked, for which she only blamed herself. They were wonderful, of course: a taste of the old country my grandmother would not talk about. I also appreciated it when she told my Dad that 13 was perfectly old enough for me to drink beer with them.

Dubrovnik, 2017.

It turns out cheese and spinach bits are called burek. You can also get them with meat. It also turns out they’re a Balkan specialty, not just from Egypt. The Croatians shape them like Danishes, whereas my grandmother used to fold them over each other into squares or triangles. But the food is the same.

They’re also hella good for breakfast. At our home they were appetizers, but my God, what did we miss by not eating them in the morning. The most miserable 15-year-old could be persuaded to eat breakfast before school if it was salted cheese or spinach with lemon, wrapped in pastry.

Of course, when you get them at the bakery down the road (and outside the Old City) and eat them on a park bench, you save on the extortionate prices they charge for restaurant breakfasts, which aren’t as tasty anyway.

And the flakes make for great bird feed. My wife, Jo, has taken to imitating Snow White, and crumbling flakes into her hand so sparrows will land on her and pick them off. That the flying beasts are filthy with disease is apparently not an issue.

Mariette Setton died in 2007, at the age of 95. It wasn’t the kind of death where you cry, “Why God why?” to the skies. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss grandma anyway. So, if I take nothing else away from Croatia, at least I’ll take away morning memories of my grandmother, who has never been here.

Photo by: Jo Turner

Honor Your Ancestors With Their Favorite Food, Or Whatever’s Easiest to Carry

May.16.17

Honor Your Ancestors With Their Favorite Food, Or Whatever’s Easiest to Carry

by Charline Jao

Dragonfruit in Taiwan

The heavy cloud of incense overwhelms me. I’m not used to the smell. Thin wafts of smoke draw out memories of household shrines, street-side temples, and our most recent visit about a year ago.

“It is not good for you to breathe in,” my mother tells me, when I ask if she likes the smell. Qingming Festival isn’t officially until next month—April 5th in Taiwan for the day Chiang Kai Shek died and different elsewhere depending on the solar calendar—but some places of remembrance have already opened for Tomb-Sweeping Day.

The temple has prepared vases, plates, and cups for families to use as we remember our ancestors. A colorful dragon stares at me from the bright red plates, just a little damp from people rinsing them after use. We set our white flowers into a vase and lay out our offerings—dragonfruits, apples, cookies, and savory snacks. Having few memories of them, I ask if the crackers and fruits were chosen to suit my grandparent’s taste. My mother explains it is more because they are convenient to carry. Next to us, a family brings out an entire fish and a huge piece of pork belly that the red plate struggles to hold. Another carefully removes the lids off the takeout they brought. The generic packing suggests they are from a local shop.

For any situation, you can find a Chinese food idiom or phrase to match it. Every festival food typically has a story or pun behind it, elevating eating into a cultural activity full of history and mythology. Fish symbolize prosperity, bananas stand for brilliance, and apples mean peace. One verse from an old Song dynasty book comes to mind here: “Firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea are the seven necessities to begin a day.” If we think of the sticks of incense burning unevenly into the white rice as some kind of firewood, we have all the components of an ideal morning. It’s almost like we’re having breakfast with the dead, though we ourselves are not going to be eating until later.

Here, my parents talk about their fathers in the present tense. “Dad must like it a lot here,” says my father. “The view is great, he has a lot of company.” This meal ends when the incense burns out, at which point the ashy rice is thrown out.

The food brought out for tomb-sweeping differs widely by region, with some focusing on dumplings or spring rolls. However, there’s just as much variation within this one temple. The family with the fish packs up and another takes their place, slowly pouring out rice wine into tiny cups. It’s easy to try and paint images of the deceased based on their offerings—this one loved drinking, this one enjoyed meat, this one really liked pea crackers—but I suspect it’s more telling of the families visiting.

You’d Dream About This Pancake For Four Years, Too

May.15.17

You’d Dream About This Pancake For Four Years, Too

by Lydia Tomkiw

Banana pancakes in North Sumatra

Before I even knew what was on the menu for breakfast, the orangutan mother and her baby had started eating theirs. I could hear them moving, rustling. Their breakfast would consist of whatever was reachable among the thick, leafy branches over 100 feet above me in the canopy of the Sumatran jungle. Our tent, pitched slightly uphill from a medium-sized stream, felt a world away from civilization, but in reality the city of Bukit Lawang and the surrounding palm oil fields weren’t too far away, and occasionally a bar would show up on my cellphone.

I had my hopes up about my own breakfast after I’d seen our guide Adi pull a bunch of small, yellow bananas from a black plastic bag the day before. I’d been dreaming about this pancake—thinner than American ones but a little thicker than French crepes, with pieces of caramelized banana—since I’d left Indonesia four years earlier. It’s a simple dish for breakfast or a snack you find across the sprawling nation of thousands of islands. It likely has its roots in the Dutch colonial period and their version of the pancake, pannekoeken. Sometimes it comes with a sliver of lime to squeeze on (a favorite in Bali and the Gili Islands), other places will drizzle chocolate sauce or condensed milk on top (a Jakarta street food option), and occasionally a dash of sprinkles is added.

The day before, I hadn’t eaten much. All of my clothing was sticking to me in places I didn’t even know were possible. I’d started sweating as soon as I had woken up and all I craved was water, and more water amid the haze of the dense jungle. I’d given up hope of seeing an orangutan in the wild. After all there was no guarantee—deforestation, palm oil plantations, farmers harvesting rubber and cacao are all encroaching on the natural habitat of orangutans.

I also had no idea if Adi knew how to make pancakes. Was he trekking with flour, sugar, and oil in his bag? Would there be a large enough pan at the campsite?

The light was beginning to fade, and as we approached our campsite I could see a giant pan resting on logs. Then Adi froze and pointed high above the tent, and there she was. A large adult orangutan slowly moving, using branches as links between trees, and then I saw the second pair of eyes amid her red hair—a baby clinging to its mother. Our eyes locked and we examined each other for a minute before some berries among the branches became more interesting to them.

In the morning, I could smell the smoke from the fire and hear chopping noises. “Pisang pancake,” Adi said using the Indonesian word for banana as he approached with a silver-colored metal camping dish. As I finished the last bite of sweet banana and craved another, the mother and her baby had already started to move on—it would be lunchtime soon.

A Close Encounter With a Monk and a Chocolate Muffin

May.12.17

A Close Encounter With a Monk and a Chocolate Muffin

by Jessica Allen

A muffin in Laos

We woke to the bang-clang of metal against metal. The tak bat had begun.

My husband and I slipped out of bed and into shoes. We left the hotel room door open, just so, to the street, but prayed our small son would continue to sleep as the meditative procession of monks started to move through Luang Prabang.

Dawn after dawn, the faithful feed the faithful. Orange-robed monks walk barefoot and single file. They receive handfuls of sticky rice, fruit, incense, and sweets from men and women who sit or kneel, shoeless and sashed, along the route. No one speaks.

The daily Buddhist ritual of almsgiving knits the community together, as it has for hundreds of years. Pots full of food let the receivers focus on spiritual concerns, rather than earthly ones. Generous deeds help givers earn merit for the next life.

Rules for observing are simple, if self-evident: no touching, no talking, no blocking the flow. No eye contact, no crop-tops, no crowding. No flash photography, no in-your-face photography. For the love of god, leave the selfie stick in your suitcase. In short, don’t be a fool. Or a toddler, a group not generally known for its dignity or decorum. So we watched, and waited, and stutter-stepped toward our room if we heard so much as a sigh.

When a murmur threatened to tip over to a wail, my husband jogged into our hotel and returned bearing our tuckered blond boy. Right away he reached for me. Tugging his airplane jammies over his belly, I put a finger to my lips. He put a finger to his lips, and popped in a thumb. We touched heads. The youngest monks were only a few years older than him.

“Are they holy men?” he whispered, echoing our explanation of the people who lived in the temples we’d visited the day before. He called the dollhouse-sized shrines outside of stores and restaurants “palaces,” and begged us to stop and admire each one.

In a heartbeat, an elderly monk appeared in front of us. He stuffed a chocolate muffin into my son’s hand, the plastic wrap crinkling. He stroked his cheek, and grinned a great big grin. Before we could do more than smile our thanks, he’d blurred back into line.

Later, in the hotel’s courtyard, we drank coffee and watermelon juice, and split the muffin three ways.

The Subtle Pleasures of Solo Breakfast Dining

May.11.17

The Subtle Pleasures of Solo Breakfast Dining

by Emily Ziemski

Sup ekor pedas in London

As a traveler, I would consider myself pretty green. All of my jaunts rely on riding the coattails of the carefully-laid plans of others: a study-abroad program Italy, a romantic weekend in Paris with a paramour, and a family trip to Puerto Rico, to name a few.

In January I took a trip to London, solo. It was purposefully timed around Inauguration Day—it seemed like the perfect time to get away. I was always craving something warm to eat, as it was the dead of winter, but couldn’t stomach a Full English breakfast. The idea of black pudding and sausages with my morning coffee felt gluttonous compared to my usual eggs and toast. On top of this, having to eat alone at every meal felt daunting, because sitting down to eat is synonymous with socializing. Most meals consumed on a daily basis are in the presence of friends, colleagues, or even just my curious cat, hoping for a scrap.

My first morning, I left the tiny flat in Paddington I was renting, wandered down Leinster Gardens with my stomach as empty as the facades at numbers 23 and 24, and set out to meet my self-inflicted demands.

The first shop that welcomed me was a Malaysian restaurant nestled between an aggressively-lit tourist trap of vibrant, cheap baubles and a family-run pharmacy. Tudkin sat unassumingly on Craven Terrace, a mere 10-minute walk from Hyde Park. Plain wooden tables and chairs lined the walls like students at a middle school dance, and the rich smells of tamarind and coconut drifted inside.

It was there that I had sup ekor pedas—spicy oxtail soup—for the first time. For breakfast. Legend has it that a version of this soup originated at Spitalfields, in East London, soon after the British established the Straits Settlements in the 18th century, which were later dissolved in 1946. The soup, and Malaysian cuisine, retained an influence on British culture.

Nothing was more satisfying than chasing my three or four morning espressos with the thick broth dotted with splashes of spicy oil and meat so tender that my spoon felt like the sharpest knife. It was clear someone had taken much care with this dish. A a pile of delicately bias-cut green onions floated on the surface.

Toward the end of my meal, a group of bawdy businessmen sat down to my right for an early lunch. Debates on politics in America and the future of Brexit hung, smoldering, over their plates of curry.

I was very grateful to be dining alone.

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