Friday, January 24, 2020

What we Talk About When We Talk About Breakfast

As if the pending election news and impeachment hearings aren't enough, the sustainable food movement has now forced me to reconsider the very fundamentals of traditional meal priorities.  Contradictory to everything our mothers assured us (and we in turn indoctrinated our kids) about nutrition, it seems breakfast is losing ground as a frontrunner.

I grew up in the 1950's with cereal boxes as the morning centerpiece on a black formica deco table, sitting in a Breuer-style chair upholstered in indestructible woven yellow vinyl.  We read the box text over and over  while we shoveled in the contents, motivated by the promise of some small toy at the bottom.  Tony the Tiger-- the athletes and cartoon heroes... My mother read the paper next to me with first a cigarette and coffee,  then a single warmed doughnut.  My Dad ate toasted buttered Italian bread with 'the boys' at a Trattoria near Grand Central Station and drank mugs of dark roast.  It set them up for an energetic workday.

As a teenager, I discovered hot cereal and Wheatena... I had to get up early to walk the dogs, and cooked myself a hearty breakfast with melted butter and cream.  The box looks nostalgically identical today on the supermarket shelf but nothing tastes the way it did then-- it was just so good...

In college I had instant Cream of Wheat and electric-kettle boiled eggs.  Someone was gifted the first Mister Coffee machine which improved our lives.  Among the Ivy League boys I dated initially was a privileged one who introduced me to Sunday Eggs Benedict and Vodka Screwdrivers at a local French restaurant.  He also showed me how to produce wonderful coffee with a Chemex beaker and filters.  There was French Roast-- Kona, Jamaican Mountain... it was a new world.

My first gallery job in New York was on 69th Street.  There was one delicatessen on Madison.  One.  They provided a buttered roll and coffee for something like 50 cents.  I was poor-- a student-- and this was a ritual... I traded bus fare for morning food and walked to work.  Those were sacred days... things happened... I could smell sweet butter on my fingers as I typed and people like Andy Warhol came through the door.

When I was pregnant I craved McDonald's eggs and biscuits.  I ate multiple orders and fantasized about them at 5 AM.  As a mother, breakfast was important-- cereal, pancakes... my son was an athlete.. I tried hard to force something on him at 6:30 AM and also signed him up for free BOE morning meals.

While my son was in school, I took on extra jobs.  Once, to earn the extra cash to pay for a double bass, I painted kitchens for a contractor; I learned how to carefully finish cabinets.  My 'boss' flirted inappropriately with me... but brought the best mandarin orange muffins every morning from a place called Petak's.  I can still taste these-- how I collected any stray crumbs from the brown bag.  One day my 'boss' pulled me into a bedroom and asked me to paint his dick.  That was the end of the muffins.

Since middle age, I've been a slacker musician-- making my own schedule according to gig ETA's... staying up nights... I abused Starbucks for a while, and traded morning meals for massive amounts of coffee.  Milk, for adults, is not a priority.  On the days I'm awake early, I see most of the world brown-bagging bagels, biscuit sandwiches, Whole Foods hearty oats options... yoghurts.  Even Taco Bell has pre-11 AM specials.  While I shun food until I'm fully awake, I love the sense of breakfast-- the human coffee-and-muffin line, the scent of croissants.

Recently I bought a box of cornflakes.  They were god-awful... they tasted medicinal and synthetic.  I haven't found a muffin that compares to those Petak masterpieces from the 1990's.  I've binged on pancakes while on the road and don't have much desire except occasionally a hotel buffet of scrambled eggs somewhere feels nostalgic.  I remember having breakfast with Lou Reed in Amsterdam in a darkened dining hall...  trying to order an omelette with my first husband in Times Square where we were refused service because of his dreadlocks.

So now even Dr. Oz has conceded that the whole culture of breakfast is a hoax.  The quality of contemporary cornflakes made it feel less sad, but for those of us who grew up in the 1950's-- and my own father came from farm country where they ate leftover popped corn with milk in bowls-- this requires something of a cultural reset.  Of course I begin to suspect there is some marketing or financial reason for the 'demilitarization' of breakfast.  Steering us away from the cereal box heroes and milk-carton tragedies, somehow aiding the coffee culture to fill some nutritional vacuum and eventually sell more lunch options... to increase morning productivity by taking away the line-waiting and desk-eating.  I'm not sure.

I do know that no 2020 Wheatena comes close to the stuff I cooked in the 60's; no butter or cream has the fragrance of the small glass bottles and tubs of my school years.  And the muffins-- well, I am jaded now, and poor-- food stamps cannot buy a croissant on Spring Street.  Even bagels are a disappointment.  Every now and again I walk through Zabar's on Third Ave. and they are giving out
chunks of crumbcake or bread.  I am reminded that, unlike  Les Miserables, there is a hierarchy-- it is not simply a loaf of bread-- but there is a class system of food.  Maybe breakfast is simply too pedestrian and proletarian for our current food-fad and weight-obsessed culture.  Still, I can't imagine those workers in the old photos, sitting astride steel beams above the city with their bags open and their thermoses steaming hot.. without a hearty morning meal.  I am quite sure that drive-ins and truck-stops will be forever serving bacon and eggs-over-- French Toast, hotcakes, whatever.  For the rest-- the Dr. Oz followers and the Trump voters-- well, let them have their noontime cake.  Or, as some of the senators were served this week-- a glass of milk.

I will forever remember the funky diners with the taped-up vinyl booths where we sat smoking and talking after gigs in the 1970's until the sun came up and the early birds-- especially the loners and bachelors--  came to start their day... where the posted menu in the window, like a loyal friend, announced in bold red italics 'Breakfast All Day!'

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Seeing through Walls

The new year always opens with caution... we are given a slow pass on day one to expunge our deeds of the night before-- or the sins and failings of the previous year, as though we have a choice... as though we have anything but a moment under our human thumbs here...

Now that my Mom is gone and my son is probably hung over in some girl's bed, I choose to speak little on this day--generally take a late afternoon walk through Central Park, stop in at St. John the Divine at sunset, and spend a couple of hours browsing the shelves in my favorite upper west side bookshop where I am always humbled by the selection.  The way home always seems cold and crisp and the night sky blackish and ignorant of celebration, of mourning, of time.  A great wintry galactic yawn in the face of us humans who try to break things down into segments and landmarks; we do laps and log mileage in an illusory course of unknown length.  For some reason I feel clean and religious-- as though I'd been baptized under anesthesia.

By day two I am overwhelmed by my failure to seize the new year's opportunity-- as though the magic of renewal has already evaporated and gone on to the next universe.  I almost wish for something like jury duty to force me into some finite project-- but I've just finished my service and narrowly escaped being pooled for the Weinstein trial.  It occurred to me, sitting in the oversized halls of the criminal justice system, that there is no greater human irony than a random group of flawed individuals with our bad habits and problems-- our grocery lists, dirty laundry, cheating spouses and dysfunctional families-- passing judgment on another.

So here we are, all too quickly, in another election year.  I wonder if anyone else noted that our elections always coincide with the leap year-- as though we are guaranteed an extra day of campaigning, of debating and deliberating.  This year already the robocalls coming from political organizations and polls have picked up.  It occurs to me that there is a certain ironic justice in the voting process... it is equally manipulated and pre-determined as the jury trials I've witnessed.  And what have we learned?  We listen and listen to these people selling their platforms to us from university auditoriums-- on CNN, on PBS... we watch them waving their arms and nodding their heads, coiffed and powdered for the cameras.  It is like a sports event-- only I suspect more people will watch and discuss the Oscars or the Super Bowl than will vote.  After all, there is a clear NFL winner.  The President is not always a winner.  As for me, for the past few terms, I have been among the losers.  Little of the change for which I've voted has ever been allowed.  Technology wins and humanity suffers.

It seems a lifetime ago I spent New Year's Day at the Cafe Figaro.  All of Greenwich Village was hung over and everyone was eating omelets at evening-- drinking the thick black coffee with the hint of spice, listening to quiet guitars-- the tall waiter called Jonathan would come and break at my table-- confide his romantic sorrows,  clink the heavy white mugs-- have a cigarette.  I was a grown woman with my rich life ahead of me... my friends my neighbors-- music was our common denominator... we knew who we were.

There was a keyboard player on Sullivan Street... he played in a famous punk band and he smoked European cigarettes and wore a hat... he was dark and a little murky.  Sometimes he'd invite me into his place which was like a small loft, with a Grand piano.  He'd sit me on the bench beside him and he'd play-- Spanish traditional melodies in minor keys-- then Beethoven and Schubert.  Sometimes I'd play a little shy Chopin for him while he lit another cigarette and smoked thoughtfully.  Sex in those days was so easy-- like the free basket of bread on the dinner table.  But we'd sit there and never touch.  Sometimes he'd talk about his family... he was complicated and smart.   He read to me from Garcia Lorca.  I loved the way he said the name.

Many years ago-- I think my son was newly born-- he died from some terrible cancer.  I don't know why but this New Year's Day I passed the church where his funeral service was held.  I remember how they played some classical music he'd written... maybe he had a wife by then... it seemed a lifetime since I'd sat at his piano those long, late afternoons in the old Village in the New Year, so long ago... a second lifetime now since he was laid to rest in the days of analogue music and realtime longing.   For the first time, on the first of January, I missed someone besides my mother.

The air this January has been warm and heavy.  Even the moon was lying down last night-- wearing the yellow incandescent light of her waning.  I walked home in the early morning among the Christmas trees piled one on top of another on the sidewalk, spent and dry... ready for God knows what.  They've yet to remove the holiday lights from the Park Avenue Mall; it's a confusing time.   I'm trying not to look back, but I'm thinking how Garcia Lorca died at 38.  One afternoon the pianist and I read from Bernarda Alba.  There was a line about how old women can see through walls... we laughed and laughed.  Here I am, in another century, another decade... walking into the new year with the tired blessing of the old moon, missing the pianist, the sad sense of Lorca in my head... maybe even seeing though walls...