"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Kiss My Grits



One of the great, underreported life lessons: Tamper with breakfast, risk death. Cookies and milk devoured after an all-nighter of raquetball and gigantic eyeglass wearing sent Elvis Presley to his porcelain Waterloo, while Princess Diana may have been picking pieces of a tasteful dinner omelette from her teeth as she was sent careening through the streets of downtown Paris. Official lists of "last meals requested" — including that proud media darling, the constantly-updated Texas list — contain several references to landmass-sized offerings of eggs and flour. Given that these are almost always nighttime meals taken without the benefit of alcohol consumption beforehand, it's safe to say breakfast plays a reasonably important role in the realm of outlaw culture.

On the other hand, fewer than one in ten of those Texas campaign issues-to-be choose breakfast as their end-of-the-road pick-me-up, an ominous indicator for the group of establishments that caters to scary late-night clientele and includes amongst its best-known members the most unfortunately-named restaurant chain in American history. Blame the fundamental schizophrenia of breakfast's public image, where late-night waffles and cigarette smoke gives over to television's idea of motherly attention and a wholesome start to the day. Even those cafes where one scrapes orders onto a greasy countertop with a fork promise "home cooking." Reality is less important than established cultural norm: The diminishing likelihood of a home-cooked start to the day is a sitcom joke of a previous generation, while a bachelor's misguided attempt to achieve intimacy through wheatcake-making and by-the-bed service can pop up in any TV show or movie where one man scolds another. Clearly, our growing international reputation as gender-confused oddballs depends on breakfast.



Teenagers soon learn to negotiate breakfast's two-sided identity like seasoned pros. Cast out of most public spaces by inattention, strict liquor laws and unfocused spending patterns, uprooted young adults grace 24-hour breakfast-anytime chains with long, black coats and more deep dialogue than a Kevin Smith movie. Drawn into patterns of consumption by these establishments' discounted one-hitter stunt meals and their own inability to take meals in a house where they're misunderstood, most teenagers soon make eclectic distinctions according to price and clientele. In the silence before dawn you can almost hear them wistfully recalling Sunday morning meals of potato pancakes and Cream of Wheat devoured to Star Trek re-runs; these events may have made up less than one percent of actual mornings spent, but the embrace of them provides a thin veneer of comforting nostalgia between the aging kids and the adult world in which they are obliquely but dramatically participating. The relative lack of young persons in bagel houses and restaurants known for their crepes indicates some of the better-off ones may equate adulthood with lower class thrills.

For adults, specific class myths define the two-sided role played by the professional breakfast. Prayer breakfasts, civic breakfasts, working breakfasts of any kind play to the idea of the stolen moment, white collar workers so busy with the events of the day — as opposed to those so incredibly bored they sit at their desk and alphabetize former roommates by annoying habit — that specific, necessary duties must invade the private sphere of morning consumption. Statesmen venerate working breakfasts to the point that its powers may even be invoked as a likely avenue to heal thousands of years of territorial and religious strife. Unless they need to show themselves in control of a rumored-to-be-unwieldy campaign machine, politicians prefer to wrap themselves in the idea that the first consumptive meal of the day endows upon its participants unguarded, fragile authenticity. Dinner with a presidential candidate reeks of cigar smoke and screwing over Samuel Tilden, but sharing a bowl of oatmeal with an electoral challenger somehow reveals the inner man at his folksy, unguarded best. Who knows how history may have been changed if Lamar Alexander had given up those flannel shirts for a grapefruit bib?



If reports of breakfast in colonial times are to be believed, Americans used to eat the first meal of the day in the manner of college students renting a lakehouse for the weekend: something spread on a piece of starch combined with whatever cold meat was left lying around from last night's repast, with the next meal dinner. The growing popularity of having lunch left breakfast rootless when it came to defining itself in ways other than literal. That more than anything else makes breakfast the meal most susceptible to 20th Century advances in gimmicky food preparation(sugar-coated cereals and toaster-made pastries) and attitudes toward diet. It may also explain why a meal well-known as the most important of the day is the one most routinely skipped. When tradition becomes susceptible to the whims of culture, the end result is the most unfortunate and ludicrous of all multi-generational nostalgia, cold cereal fetishism. Breakfast may play dress-up and try harder than the other meals to establish a 24-hour presences because it has a lousy time slot — the potential family meal with a full day on the horizon. If dinner is the traditional meal of divorce announcements and bankruptcy confirmation, then breakfast is the bad news meal with time left over for chores. Dinner is "I have a drinking problem." Breakfast is "Your mother and I believe you have a drinking problem." Even brunch, a horrible, bastardized meal whose sole benefit is a built-in excuse not to see the people with whom you've eaten until the next time socializing on a Sunday morning makes sense, is preferable to packing for eight weeks in a treatment center on a stomach full of Canadian bacon.



The best kind of breakfasts are those which are defined by time spent alone, rituals involving coffee and a specific chair, or a can of Budweiser and buck full of catfish. Extending those times would be infinitely more appealing than increasing access to meals which in general are to cooking what plastic-strand summer camp bracelets are to weaving. Nostalgia and conflicting images find their best home in a meal where a creation of a kitchen patronized by the toast of Wall Street can be a top-menu item in a roadside inn near Atchison, Kansas, all while sharing a name with the great American general turned traitor and a myth with a far-off religious order. Certain meals may be worth dying for.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black