When You’re Broke, Breakfast Is Hot, Buttered Hope
I eat breakfast for dinner. I eat breakfast for lunch. I eat breakfast for breakfast. Sometimes, if I have time to burn between afternoon errands, I will eat breakfast. I eat breakfast when I’m sad. I eat breakfast when I’m triumphant.
I eat breakfast whenever I want. I once ate breakfast because I had no choice. But before I get to that story I need to tell another story because stories are best when they’re like pancakes, stacked on top of one another.
My grandfather was a Baptist preacher. I was raised both Baptist and Catholic. I call myself a Batholic, which is like a Catholic who can sing, or a Baptist who loves incense. His name was Jack, and my father was a junior. Jack is a solid name. It’s what you call a president, or a famous author, or a world-weary bear fighter. I always wanted to be named Jack. He was a kind and patient man who use to enjoy terrifying me by popping out his dentures. I like to keep a catalog of happy faces in my noggin for overcast days, and his amusement when he’d freak me out is one of those faces.
He raised my father and daughters during the Great Depression. I think we forget that those years were a near post-apocalypse. The system failed. It wasn’t hobos eating beans and playing banjos; it was millions of people hungry, lost, scared. If you want to fast-track systemic social and economic change, a back-breaking 17 percent unemployment is hard to beat.
In addition to the times, of course, was his profession. There are plenty of gelled temple merchants on TV who give the appearance of wealth, but for the most part the clergy isn’t what you do if you really like money. It’s a calling. My granddad made a humble living serving Southern communities.
His generation were not complainers. My generation’s current ability to constantly whine about everything is proof our civilization is successful, if overripe. So I never really heard stories about the tough times. Maybe once I remember my dad remembering how his family used the last of the flour and milk to make biscuits for dinner, then prayed, and the next day they received a modest sum from a local parish. God’s timing is one of His most annoying mysteries.
So my granddad used to tell me a story that I loved. It was a family story. He would tell it to his kids, and then would tell it to the kids of his kids. It’s a story born of the Depression. It’s been so long since I’d heard the story that I don’t remember all of the specifics. But it stuck with me.
Here’s the simple version: A farmer had a talking goat. I am not making this up. That talking goat would frequently be kidnapped or get into trouble. The farmer would have to rescue the talking goat, who could bleat the name of the farmer. The climax of the story was the happy reunion between farmer and talking goat and then they’d have a celebratory meal. That meal was breakfast.
At this point, the story became participatory. He’d ask us all what were the things they’d eat at this amazing feast and I’d take over. Waffles, sausages, strawberries, eggs, hashbrowns, I’d list. I was a well-stuffed Little Lord Fauntleroy and I had thoughts about what should be served at The Greatest Breakfast Ever! My grandfather loved all of his grandchildren. But I hope this member of the Greatest Generation looked upon his son’s chubby prince and saw that the Depression had been soundly defeated. The new generation were plump, happy weaklings who would never know what it meant to go to bed hungry.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line “Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink” from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” applies to America and food. We’ve got food everywhere. Piles of it. Our supermarkets are ziggurats of plenty. The freedom to waste isn’t exactly enshrined in the Constitution but it’s a lovely little byproduct. And, yet, almost 49 million of our citizens don’t know where their next meal will come from.
Here’s the other story I warned you about, and thanks for reading this far. At the turn of the century I was hungry. This was before the country truly lost its mind. Like so many, I sought my fortune in New York City. I had just graduated from college with a BFA, and no practical skills. But I had dreams—vague dreams, but still—and New York City was where dreams flowed like concrete.
My plan was simple: Move to Manhattan, get a high-paying job in either art or literature, live a comfortable life of moderate wealth. A month later I had moved deep into the heart of Queens, I was nigh-unemployable, and living a life of desperate hustle. This was not the plan. The plan was the American Dream: Whatever you want, cheap and easy.
But this isn’t a story about a young, dumb, broke bro living off knishes. Oh wait a minute. Sorry. It is. One way to have your privilege checked is to have that privilege reduced, even minutely. There is no pain like your own pain.
Still, I knew no one in New York. But that’s what a state school gets you. I had no money. I was losing weight the old-fashioned way. I knew nothing except what TV had taught me, which was to grow a shitty goatee. Every young man in history is a stumbling foal. It’s almost funny, in retrospect, but most things can be funny if you pretend they didn’t happen to you but to some other dope with your name.
I was raised in a middle-class family but my parents were both frugal from habit. They were raised humbly and so was I. I went to school in second-hand clothes. Meals were gravies, sauces, salsas. Every penny was counted. The 1930s taught a lesson that has been forgotten: Things can change for the worse very quickly. So my folks had tried their damndest not to raise a spoiled little snot. They were almost successful. Despite their efforts, I was still a coddled suburban ponce. I craved snacks and pillows and comfort. I wanted success delivered to my door in thirty minutes or less. Pride not only goeth before the fall, it also goeth before calling your parents for money.
But what they tried to teach me came in handy. You can’t roast ego and eat it. So I learned how to shop for groceries at the dollar store and cultivated a taste for tinned mussels. There was a local bakery in Queens that would thoughtfully bag day-old bread before dumping it in a dumpster from which one could conveniently pilfer, far from judging eyes. A kingly meal was a two-hotdogs-for-a-buck deal at a nearby cart. This story has a happy, if predictable, ending. I am a biracial man who looks white with a college degree. Statistically speaking, things work out for us. Many years later I gained back all the weight—and more! I always knew I could charge a plane ticket and fly home to the Lone Star State to eat a pickup truck full of my mother’s enchiladas. It was never really, truly touch-and-go but it was a lesson I do not take lightly. There are few things more terrifying than not knowing if you’re going to eat that day, or the next.
There was a week, however, when I did come into a little cash. Enough for the essentials: electricity, wart remover, beer. There was some left over and I decided to splurge on a filling repast. It’s important to feel “full.” A national ideal. Sorrow is an empty tank of gas or an empty wallet. The glass is always half-empty. Always.
I’d say it’s more important than having a head full of information or a heart full of love. Mostly because you can’t inhale information and self-sacrifice at a buffet, and then drive home to nap. I didn’t want to waste my funds at a diner or fast food restaurant because I felt I wouldn’t get the maximum carbohydrate tonnage I required. So I would buy food and cook it at my kitchenette stove that rattled when the upstairs neighbor slammed their door.
I needed a meal that would satisfy for very little money. A meal that was not rice and beans with Spam cubes. Then I remembered my grandfather’s story, you know, the one that delighted me. That would make me clap my hush-puppy hands together in excitement when we got to the part when I could shout out the foods that were near and dear to my heart.
It helped that we were a breakfast family. Eggos, Egg McMuffins, huevos rancheros, biscuits and gravy or Karo syrup. The only thing that kept me awake during Sunday mass was the knowledge that Canadian bacon, grits, and mini-muffins awaited.
But it wasn’t until that moment that I realized who that story had to be for, and it wasn’t weeble-wobble me. You invent a story that concludes with heaps of food when you don’t have heaps of food. Once upon a time, during many lean years, a struggling preacher told his hungry children a tale with a happy ending: Everybody gets to eat the delicious treats they dream about. There are desperate times when the only thing you can feed a grumbling stomach is hot, buttered hope.
I would eat breakfast for dinner. The groceries were relatively inexpensive; it’s not like I was buying steaks and fresh vegetables. Breakfast foods, for their cost, deliver what your taste buds crave: sweet and savory, crunchy and creamy, carbs and protein.
I had a cheap metal skillet and mostly spoons. I didn’t have a toaster so the Eggos slowly browned in an oven that clicked like a bomb. The bacon was too cold and the skillet too hot so I got fatty wrinkles of chewy pink pig flesh. I scrambled eggs with too much milk. The frozen orange juice was sugar slurry. But I had syrup and hot sauce and those two things fix most things. I scrambled more eggs with less milk. I burnt an Eggo but I am a clever scraper. What I wanted was fresh strawberries and runny fried eggs and juicy sausages and cantaloupes and chocolate croissants and both hashbrowns and potatoes fried up with onions and peppers and spicy chorizo with eggs wrapped in warm tortillas. But after my sad little evening breakfast, I slept with a full belly and did not worry about anything until morning, when I would have breakfast for breakfast.
I dreamt of goats. I called his name. I was rescued.
John DeVore is a James Beard Award-winning writer and editor living in Brooklyn. The last time he had Eggos was two days ago.