How Novelist Megan Abbott Does Breakfast
“It’s the meal at which we most feel like ourselves as children.”
Megan Abbott isn't afraid to go dark. Whether she's plumbing the strange psyches of suburban cheerleaders, hard-souled molls, or doomed Hollywood starlets, her noir sensibilities craft convincing, compelling characters and worlds that have amassed her legions of fans, an Edgar award, and endless accolades from publications like the The New York Times, People, and Entertainment Weekly—all of which declared her last book, The Fever, one of the best books of the summer. Her latest novel, You Will Know Me, comes out today and Abbott took a few moments from pre-tour prep to chat with Extra Crispy about a a decidedly sunnier subject—her beloved breakfast ritual.
Extra Crispy: I've got questions about breakfast for you.
Megan Abbott: I would eat breakfast for every meal if I could. It's just my favorite in every way. I tend to eat the same breakfast every day. I would eat it for lunch and dinner if I could. If I go out to breakfast, I get paralyzed by the menu—with yearning. It always appeals to me. I feel like we're in the golden age of breakfast. There's so much more possibility out there.
Golden age of breakfast? Tell me more.
I guess it's the boom of putting eggs on everything, and the celebration of bacon. There are so many more grains than there used to be. I'm exploring new grains all the time. It feels like everything is available somehow.
Do you mostly eat breakfast at home?
At home I have the same breakfast—hot cereal—every day. I do it so ritualistically that when I go out, I feel I should not have the same thing. There's often some version of it on the menu and I find myself drawn to it, but that's ridiculous. Why would I have this steel-cut oatmeal when I could have all these other things? Like huevos rancheros—but then I realize I had that for dinner last night.
Or you go out to brunch and you have a drink and that changes the whole game. It takes me a good 20 minutes to land on something. There's a pressure to try something different. Do I try something different or go with what I know I will love?
Are the people you're eating with being bullies?
Yes. I remember once my former mother-in-law scolding me for ordering oats. She took my then-husband and me out to this nice place and she couldn't believe I was ordering oatmeal—but I'd checked and this place was famous for their oatmeal! When someone's famous for their oatmeal, you have to see what that's about. She couldn't believe it because she was getting some kind of fancy variation on eggs Benedict, which to me, that would be the last thing I would ever order. She shamed me. She was outraged—I don't even know what this is! Grated nutmeg? Infused something? I went with my choice and I don't look back.
No one should have to deal with shame that early in the morning.
No! We shouldn't. Maybe it's the meal at which we most feel like ourselves as children. Until about three years ago, I had cold cereal every day. A mix of cereals, the classic thing where you mix and match. I think for a lot of us, breakfast is the first meal where we got to decide for ourselves. I think we go back to that space when we're eating breakfast. It's sacred in that way. That might be a big part of it.
I love how in your books you tap so deeply into the teen girl psyche. When you're a teenage girl, breakfast is weirdly fraught. It always feels like there's some battle of the wills at breakfast.
Very much so. In my early years of high school, it was not cool among my friends to even eat breakfast. We would get to school and go to the cafeteria before lunch, and they'd make these chocolate chip cookies. It must have been this mix that they'd squirt out of a tube or a machine, because they were barely baked, which of course made them excellent. We'd eat them all the time and then be disgusted with ourselves. You knew they weren't really good cookies, even—you were eating raw eggs for sure. There was something about watching them come off the conveyor belt. I remember that distinctly.
I saw an interview where someone asked what your favorite childhood cereal was and you said Applejacks.
That was my faaaaaavorite. Oh my gosh, yes. The pink milk. There is something about that very chemical-filled cereal, sugary childhood that does look like Candyland or Willy Wonka. It just seems magical. I was a kid in the ’70s, and it was still was sort of okay and no one questioned that I was eating big bowls of Applejacks. They're made to appeal to kids.
So much of your work is so dark and noir, and I'm trying to imagine the breakfasts of the women in your books.
In the noir world, they always have black coffee and a diner egg. The one meal you see cooked in noir novels is breakfast, because even the men would make their own breakfast. Raymond Chandler often had Philip Marlowe eat eggs and make coffee in the percolator. He had an elaborate percolator routine. One of my favorite noir novels—which was a big influence on me—was Mildred Pierce. She's famous in that for making pie. I always think that pie is a great breakfast. I remember my mom—that gave her permission to eat pie for breakfast, and she loved it. After you have pie for dessert, you can have it the next morning. That does come from noir.
Our mutual friend Jack Pendarvis said to ask you about the grapefruit scene in Public Enemy.
That was the first old movie I saw as a kid. I was obsessed with Jimmy Cagney. I was obsessed with the scene where he shoves grapefruit in her face. For years I would have grapefruit every day but at the end of the day, not for breakfast, because it's very acidic. In old movies they're always eating it, and in that movie, they're trying to trade up. It's always the society people in old movies that have the grapefruit for breakfast—on a little tray in bed. You see Mae West eating a grapefruit all sectioned for her. Or if you're being decadent, you get room service and someone has sectioned it perfectly for you.
And you're wearing a peignoir.
Yes, always. There's a maid hovering beside you, ready to help you as you indulge.
You'd have a grapefruit spoon, of course. Do you personally own any breakfast gear?
I do have a very good grapefruit knife, like a combo knife-spoon that's wooden and I've had to replace a number of times. Sometimes I've thrown it out accidentally when I've thrown out the paper and had to go get it out of the trash. It's hard to get wooden ones, but I find them much better. The one sort of semi-nice item I have in my kitchen, which is a run-down New York kitchen, is because I once won a gift certificate to Williams-Sonoma and got this really nice coffee maker and it's lasted me many years. At the time I was just using a French press, which is great, but this is fancy. And it probably needs to be replaced, but it's the only fancy item I have, so I'm probably going to keep it forever.
I think someone who's reading this should send you a new one.
Yes! And I would talk about it forever, because that Williams-Sonoma thing is the only thing I've ever won.
So what is this breakfast ritual with the hot cereal?
It's so elaborate. I always have a five-grain or multigrain cereal, and once a week, I make barley and keep it in the refrigerator. I put a teaspoon or tablespoon of barley in at the very end when I'm making hot cereal. The other thing is that every morning—every morning!—it boils over, because I'm getting the coffee ready. And I always have to clean my stovetop. Then when it is finished, I put a little agave or honey or something like that, and a lot of cinnamon, and sometimes nutmeg and a little half-and-half. And it's so good! Sometimes I have to do a half-serving after that, because it's so delicious.
I love hot cereal but I can't quite do it in the summer heat.
I am, and that's crazy, because it's 96 degrees in New York, but I'm so wedded to the principle. I can't break it.
Does the ritual change at all when you're on deadline or on the road?
On the road is the real problem. There is no substitute, but if I have to, because they don't mess with it, I go with Starbucks oatmeal. They don't add all this stuff. When you get oatmeal or any nice grain thing elsewhere, they'll fill it with junk. I like to customize my junk. I want to decide. I have to go on book tour soon, so I should really prepare this in advance and think about bringing cinnamon, nutmeg, and my little nutmeg grinder on tour. That's a really great idea.
What would you make for breakfast for your favorite character in You Will Know Me?
It's about a hardcore gymnast and she is probably eating egg whites—I think there's a reference in the book that whenever she has a great success, she'll have a doughnut with her dad. But my favorite character is the younger brother, who's eight years old and very neglected because his sister is a prodigy. I would make him the best hot cereal. I would give him several servings, and get the best multigrain barley combo I could come up with.
Is there anything else you want to share about breakfast? I just love that you love it so much.
I was doing another interview and they asked me what my favorite food was and I said oatmeal. That was so humiliating, but hot cereal and breakfast matter so deeply to me. It's my security.