The Sunday Essay: Breakfast Praise
For Linda Burgess, the morning meal is a comforting little ceremony: toast, coffee, bed, dog, reading. And she didn’t want it any other way.
The Sunday Trial is made possible with the support of Creative New Zealand
Original artwork by Li Chen
Ah, breakfast. Our daughter Gemma, a pretty precocious talker, but with an aptitude for strangled syllables, told us when she was about three years old: “When I was little, I used to say breckstaff, is not it ?”. Yes, we said. You did it. Then she added: “Now I’m tall I say breckstiff. “
I love the breakfast. I really do. I think it’s the ritual. I wake up around 5 a.m. and I’m like, what will I have today? Then I listen to adorable Nathan Rarere on First Up, gosh, he’s good, don’t you like him, intermittently drowsy. Until about seven o’clock.
I speak normally, first and foremost, although breakfast is still a heartwarming minor ceremony, no matter what level we are at. I am adamant in my choice, even if I give myself some room to move. The world is divided into several groups – cereals of different intensities, smoothies, something cooked, nothing, or toast. So of course I’m leaving out all those people in the world who eat croissants, or meat and cheese, or noodles. I’m on the toast team.
In fact, the word “team” has always made me a little uncomfortable, actually very uncomfortable, so I’m going to rephrase it: for breakfast, I have toast. If they’re not locked up, the bread is from Leeds Street Bakery, their polenta (the big bread is toast, you know you need a decent sized slice, but I cut it down enough finely), or their rye. It needs to be shaped like a toast because other things won’t fit perfectly in the toaster. How embarrassing, how predictable: the toaster is a Dualit. Old and he looks so, although still going strong. It can be fixed, which is why we bought it, when the built-in obsolescence started to revolt me. Here in Wellington we have a plethora of top notch bakers, but Leeds Street is my favorite. I buy a few loaves at a time, cut them both in half, put one half in my bread basket and three halves in the freezer. A slight anxiety sets in when I go to the last half: I go online and order.
Butter: Lewis Road, and because my GP – hi Anne Marie! – knows better than to take advantage of small pleasures, it is the one with more salt. It’s interesting, because the weird light yellow streaks in the one with salt might make you think it goes off, but we aficionados know it doesn’t. Then the garnish. Usually tomatoes, which I cook in my small pan in the oven. They must be Campari vine tomatoes. It is the only off-season product that I shamelessly buy all year round. For example, I never buy grapes until autumn. So two tomatoes, each cut into four slices, in extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with David’s kosher salt, and after turning, a thin splash of Delmaine balsamic glaze. No one pays me for product placement. If it’s not tomatoes, then half an avocado, coarsely sliced rather than crushed, with a squeeze of lemon juice from our own tree (a miracle! It grows in Wellington!), Salt of David, ground pepper, and maybe a slice of bacon cut into eight small pieces. I always cut my toast into quarters. Third choice if there are no tomatoes or avocado: sliced banana, with, perhaps, if you’re feeling daring, some Fix and Fogg crunchy peanut butter.
Never jam or marmalade however if you do it’s your business, every man for himself, and I understand because I went, a few years ago, for a few months, for toast and the Marmite. POT I say. Not Vegemite. But I don’t care if you don’t agree. Life, as we know in the time of the Covid, is too short.
The current breakfast, because tea is for sooks, although I would really like to like tea because it would make life so much easier, is served with coffee, a white dish prepared by my personal barista in our espresso machine. Our son in Auckland has a glorious one that dominates the kitchen and looks like a 1950s car, but we bought one that costs less than a month’s board so we can get a decent grinder as well. It’s all about compromise. And this is not one of those with pods publicized by the beautiful shaggy wossis name, the one with the twins, the one who went to Meghan and Harry’s wedding, because those pods seem terribly anti-environmental to me. Where do they go, the leftovers? Don’t tell me they’re recyclable unless you want me to imagine slaves rinsing them, carefully putting fresh soil in them and then sticking new tops on. We buy Havana coffee, 5 stars because it tastes like chocolate, beans bought directly from them on Tory Street (I bought a kilo of beans, just before containment, about an hour before the announcement because thanks to our daughter-in-law in health matters, I had some insider knowledge, actually I told them this was going to happen, and they said, as they were measuring the huge sack, “I love your priorities “) and Puhoi milk. I move around our kitchen like a dancer; this is the only time that I am even remotely elegant. Letting Robert stir his porridge and add his raisins, his All Good banana, maybe some golden kiwi, a grain of brown sugar and some homemade Greek yogurt, then eat it quietly at the kitchen table, I retire with my plate. and my tumbler – small, because I love strong coffee – in the bedroom to read The Spinoff, Stuff, and The Guardian online.
Or sometimes a chapter or two from a real book. Right now EM Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady, published in 1930 and by the way I think that’s where Bridget Jones is from, you should read it, really that’s great. My electric blanket has been in place for as long as it takes to prepare my modest feast. I raise the blinds so that I can look across the valley to Kelburn, and have the sun on me, and I’m joined by Badger, a 10 month old dog, he’s had his chicken or his liver, j ‘Hope he peed outside, and he lies on top of me, panting quietly, making firm eye contact, waiting for my scabs. He prefers rye. You should smell his fur. I love it. I am the happiest.
YesYou can hate me, and really, I know I look so privileged, and I know I am, and frightfully virtue signals, a tendency that I find extremely offensive in others. But I’m also old, even though I feel like I’m lying when I say this, because I don’t feel much different, because I’m still me on the inside. It’s so cliché but there’s no other way to put it. Just as some of you are doing now, night after night, for so many years, I have been woken up by wet beds, nightmares and the simple need for cuddles. I couldn’t imagine getting a full night’s sleep again. I was always tired and got up for breakfasts that I didn’t remember eating, to teach teenagers about literature, which I loved, and some of them liked, and some didn’t.
The son had breakfast, a plate of Weetbix, a bowl of porridge, a cup of Milo, the daughter didn’t want, she just didn’t want to eat until mid-morning, and once I said to him: the health nurse comes to the school and asks you what you have for breakfast? And she said oh I’m just gonna tell her I have porridge. She was five at the time. She ate her sandwich at break in the morning, and it must have been Vogel’s bread with cottage cheese, salami, and pickle. Robert always ate porridge, as he had been brought up by decent Presbyterian parents. I had been vaguely too, although mine were less clean, a little more fickle, and porridge was not part of our ritual. I knew enough to make it part of my children’s rituals, and they did it for their children as well, for which I am grateful. I tried, but I hate its texture.
Like everyone else, I went through stages with breakfast. A variety, over the years and at one point, I’ve concluded that if you haven’t chewed, you haven’t eaten. There had been fruit cornflakes, bottled in the fall by mom. Weetbix, on which we children spread butter and honey. Later my older sister came back from Wellington and introduced us to something new; muesli.
Especially since I quietly agreed to raise a toast. Dad made the toast, standing by our manual toaster, two pieces at a time, and we had to open the little doors and turn each piece over. Dad knew I liked the rough piece, I think it’s called the kiss, where the two rounds of bread met, and he always gave it to me. He knew I cared. I am always someone who cares, even if it may be unnecessary. My brother had left home to work in Wellington and there were only five of us left and we started breakfast with half a grapefruit each. Every other day there was half a grapefruit in the fridge for the next day, and he gave it to me, because he knew I enjoyed cold grapefruit. He carefully cut the outside and separated each segment, with what I called the zizzy knife, and he dusted it with sugar. I loved this serrated knife with its particular curve; I’m still attached to knives. When I finished serving the grapefruit, segment by segment, dad picked it up in his big strong hand and squeezed it into the saucer and I overturned the saucer and drank the remaining sweet syrup juice. directly from it.
Almost 70 years later, all I want is Leeds Street Bakery bread. Lewis Road Butter. Small sweet tomatoes. And Havana coffee. The best of all meals around the world is breckstiff.
Subscribe to the Bulletin to receive all of the day’s key news in five minutes – delivered every day of the week at 7:30 a.m.