Daniel Mallory Ortberg Would Like to Eat Breakfast Like a French Duke
"My body and I are just like FDR and America, having little fireside chats."
Daniel Mallory Ortberg is beloved across the internet for his idiosyncratic, thorough wit, which brought us so much joy as it unfurled at The Toast, a now-defunct website Ortberg founded in 2013 with writer Nicole Cliffe. Subsequently, Ortberg took over the Dear Prudence role at Slate, and wrote Texts From Jane Eyre, a best-selling book based on material that was originally published on The Hairpin and The Toast. His second book, out this week, is The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, and you might be able to catch him in your town as part of his reading tour.
Below, Ortberg talked with us about breakfasts that last all morning, when to use a refrigerator, and Cap’n Crunch-inflicted injuries.
Extra Crispy: I suspect you might talk about breakfast more than most people would expect, because in my experience, on a variety of podcasts, they reliably ask what you’ve had for breakfast while they try to get your levels right.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Yes, that is always the question. It’s been over two and half years [of doing Slate’s Dear Prudence podcast] at this point, and that’s always the question we go with. And I always answer honestly.
So, what did you have for breakfast today?
For breakfast today, I had: a spoonful of peanut butter, half of a sugar-free Red Bull, a warm protein shake, two bites of a pretzel, and then I had to leave.
Was the protein shake intentionally warm?
Yes, inasmuch as I forgot to refrigerate the pea milk. Sometimes I forget to refrigerate stuff because I’m like: “it’s not from an animal, I don’t have to refrigerate it.” Which is not true. You should refrigerate food. Food safety is so important. But I just left it out on the counter last night after I got home from the grocery store because I was like, “This will probably be fine.”
Well, I’m a proud vegan and that’s how I am about everything I eat: This doesn’t need to be refrigerated, it has no animal products.
Yes. “Oh well, if it’s all from a plant, it will never spoil or go bad.”
Plants don’t biodegrade. Everyone knows that.
Which is the opposite of truth. And yet here I am… alive. So anyway, today was not an exciting breakfast, but it was a breakfast that worked.
I’m going to hazard a guess that the spoonful of peanut butter is a fixture of your breakfast.
Yeah. I’m beginning to resent the fact that I appear to have painted myself in a corner as like, the peanut butter guy. But I have a friend who I would say eats more peanut butter than maybe anybody else in the world. And when I compare myself to him, I think: I am a sane, reasonable peanut butter consumer. I eat a normal amount of peanut butter. He was once at my house and said, “I have to have my peanut butter today. Can I use your blender?” And I was like, “Yeah, man, go for it.” And he proceeded to pour like, hmmm, twelve ounces of water and half a jar of peanut butter into the blender, blended it up into the worst looking liquid I’ve ever seen, and chugged it. It was horrifying.
What’s your relationship to breakfast, does it feel obligatory or are you excited by it?
Ideally, every breakfast would take two hours. I would be crisply opening the paper, like William Powell in a Thin Man movie, I would have nine cups of tea, and it would take for-fucking-ever. I always want a breakfast like a French duke’s: now I will nibble on a toast, and later I will have some sort of jam, and a little after that, I will eat some sort of savory thing, and now it’s time for tea again. And then I’ll lie down on the couch because it’s so exhausting, and go back in later.
Is this an ideal eating pace in all situations?
No! Lunch, I’m happy to eat a nice meal at a table, but I’m also perfectly happy eating in a car. And dinner I like to eat with people; I like to eat and talk with folks, and to do so sitting up in public. But breakfast, I just want to linger and feel like at any moment, Jeeves might drift into my room and tell me the weather.
It sounds like you want to be mostly alone with your thoughts.
That’s it. You’ve got to ease into the day. You just got to be so alone while you were sleeping!
So that’s your dream breakfast, but in reality...?
I often get to achieve my dream breakfast—one of the many, many benefits to working from home. Generally speaking, I can pull breakfast out from the hours of 8 to 10:30 a.m., and I often do so.
How soon after you wake up is this process starting? Are you waking up and immediately going for tea?
I wake up, and it’s tea. I also like coffee, but I can’t have coffee before I have tea. Coffee first is too jarring. You have to suggest to your insides that caffeine is coming. Tea is within the first 15 minutes of getting up. Then it’s just: What do I wish? Do I wish to postpone breakfast until later? Am I hungry right now? The tea is a necessity and everything else is at…my...leisure.
You’re a practitioner of the oft-advocated, rarely-performed “listening to your body.”
Shit, yes. Yes. Oh, I’m finding it to be a good thing, it’s very exciting—yes, I listen to the body! I wake up and the first thing I think is, Body, what are you saying to me? And my body says, Oh, thank you for asking.
This is why you’re so qualified to dispense advice. You have mastered a skill most of us don’t even bother attempting.
My body and I are just like FDR and America, having little fireside chats. I will say, inasmuch as transitioning has a lot to do with listening to yourself, it has also been helpful in terms of [knowing what else is] going on. Like, I just had to spend so much time in the last year checking in with myself on an hourly basis: What am I feeling right now? Do I still want the thing I wanted an hour ago? That facilitates [more listening,] like when my body says, “Hey, what’s up? I would sure enjoy not finishing this Red Bull.” And I’m like, “Right-o, I will put it back in the fridge, and have the rest tomorrow, when it tastes weird and flat.”
I think that’s an incredible triumph.
Just having half a Red Bull? Thank you. It’s hard. It’s hard to stop drinking a Red Bull in the way that it’s hard to not chew nicotine gum until my teeth fall out. That’s straight up hard for me to listen to. I’ll feel like: My mouth hurts. Why don’t I stop chewing nicotine gum, especially in a fashion that is contraindicated by the label? But then I’m also like, “You shut your mouth.”
Shut your mouth, and keep chewing.
When I was a kid, we didn't have sugary cereals, so whenever I’d go into my friends’ houses I would lock myself in their pantries and lose my mind. The first time I had Cap’n Crunch, I think I just ate it until the roof of my mouth bled.
Ok, time to design your fully ideal breakfast: Jeeves walks in and says, “What will you be having today, Sir?”
Whoa. First of all: that’s awesome. OK. My favorite tea. The Fairmont blend, from the Fairmont in San Francisco. I want that. And then I want sourdough toast, and I want avocado on it. I just do. Because those are two foods I enjoy. And then some kind of lentil situation, whether warm or otherwise, that would be delightful. And then, like, strawberries and oatmeal.
I love beans! I really love beans.
Beans are the greatest. Have you ever gotten the premade lentils at Trader Joe’s, that they sell next to the salad? I often will roast a potato and then throw lentils on at the very end, and I always feel like an industrious character in a Dostoyevsky novel, like I represent goodness and sturdiness and wholesomeness, and I should be eating this with a big wooden fork I made myself.
I approve of that sequence, with the strawberries and oatmeal at the end, because they’re little dessert-y. Just the tiniest bit.
It’s certainly a step up from a warm protein shake and half a Red Bull.