Don’t Mess With My French Toast!

Eric Weiner: On the meal that grounds us in our home culture, even on the other side of the globe

02.04.10 | 8:11 AM ET

French ToastiStockPhoto

When it comes to exotic cuisine, I’m no wimp. In Japan, I’ve eaten sashimi so fresh it was still squirming. In Iceland, I braved harkl, rotten shark. But when it comes to breakfast on the road, I prefer a simple omelet, or that old backpacker standby: banana pancakes.

Sometimes, finding an American breakfast requires resourcefulness. In Afghanistan, I brewed my morning coffee using an improvised French press, precisely measuring the water and grounds like some sort of mad scientist while a group of young Afghan men stared incredulously. Usually, though, I can count on some enterprising expatriate who has tapped into this hunger for an all-American breakfast. One of my favorites breakfast joints is the wonderfully named Rick’s American Café in Qatar. The blueberry pancakes are divine—or maybe just taste that way because of their geographic incongruity. It doesn’t really matter.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my breakfast parochialism. A friend recently explained how every morning the staff on a cruise ship laid out three distinct breakfast choices. There was the European section, with bread and cheese and fishy fish. There was the Asian section, with rice and noodles and dumplings. And there was the American section, with heaps of bacon and sausage and pancakes. My friend, no culinary wimp by any means, instinctively headed straight for the American section. “If it were lunch,” he said. “I would have gone for the Asian or European food.”

He’s right. Food, like much of life, is all about timing. I adore a good South Indian uttapam, just not for breakfast. Miso soup, salmon and rice are fine but, please, not before noon. And the thought of starting the day in Cairo with fool (fava beans) turns my stomach, and not towards Mecca.

Breakfast, for me, is a sacred meal, and lately I’ve been wondering why. Sure, breakfast is comfort food, but what does that mean exactly? Comfort food, I think, is really memory food. The taste of challah bread French toast—the very idea of challah bread French toast—transports me back to the small ground-floor apartment in Baltimore where I grew up. (My mom was a master of the challah French toast, and always found time to make it, even on a frantic Monday morning.)

All food, of course, contains that power to transport us, but none more so than breakfast. Maybe it’s because at that early hour we’re still finding our bearings, still vulnerable. Breakfast is our way of reconnecting with our past before venturing into the world and forging our futures.

For the traveler, breakfast grounds us in our home culture so we can work up the gumption to explore a new one. It also reminds us that however adventurous our spirit, however global our citizenship, we’re still products of a particular culture. At least once a day, preferably at the start of the day, we need to reconnect with that culture. Ideally, maple syrup is involved.

24 Comments for Don’t Mess With My French Toast!

Ryan 02.04.10 | 10:28 AM ET

In eight months in southern China I’ve eaten fried scorpions—which I recommend—and pig feet—which I don’t—but I refuse to try the comparatively benign local breakfast staple: rice soup with pickles.  I just can’t do it.

I’ve given in to the Starbucks temptation a few times, resorting to a shrinkwrapped blueberry muffin or a scone, but it’s just not the same.  I fly back in four months, and I don’t care what time it is when I land.  Noon or midnight, I’m finding a 24-hour diner and stuffing myself with pancakes until I pass out.

Thanks for the great piece, Eric.  Breakfast purists of all countries, unite!

Doug Mack 02.04.10 | 11:14 AM ET

Wow, I’ve never thought about this before, but I completely agree: I’ll be (a bit) adventurous later in the day, but not at breakfast. Heck, even the “full English breakfast,” with its cold toast and beans, is different enough from my norm to give me pause at that time of day.

Per your observation about the cruise-ship cuisine, I was recently in Venice and saw the following sign outside a cafe:

Breakfast 8 euros
Italian: Cappuccino/tea + orange juice + croissant with jam
American: Cappuccino/tea + OJ + ham and cheese omelet
British: Cappuccino/tea + OJ + ham and cheese on toast
French: Cappuccino/tea + OJ + bread with butter and jam

Scott Bravard 02.04.10 | 11:55 AM ET

Great piece.  I find when I’m traveling, breakfast is often my favorite meal of the day.  Even if I partake of the local cuisine, breakfast is when I reflect on my location and savor the anticipation of the day ahead.

Sophia Dembling 02.04.10 | 12:18 PM ET

Bravo! Couldn’t agree more! And though we are supposed to be ashamed of this, my husband and I prefer plain old American coffee (a k a swill to many people) as our first cup of the day, so we often travel with our own.

Zora 02.04.10 | 12:43 PM ET

Funny. I have been a serious American breakfast loyalist, but somehow, going to Thailand, I busted out of that. In fact, I just this morning posted about this on my blog:

But, Thailand aside, I _do_ still believe there’s no shame in eating your own culture’s breakfast. And dessert—my god, that can be even more of a shudder-inducing travesty than an odd morning meal.

Barbara Brotman 02.04.10 | 12:48 PM ET

Breakfast is indeed sacred, Eric, but you have strayed too far past the orthodox liturgy for me. Cold cereal and milk, that’s the sacrament. I have travelled to Europe with Bran Flakes in a baggie.

Chuck B 02.04.10 | 1:05 PM ET

Breakfast is indeed the best meal of the day if it includes waffles (a more architectural designed pancake). Sadly, this repast isn’t enjoyed as much as it should be if you are married to someone (named Barbara) who thinks that cold cereal and milk is the ultimate morning fare. Also give your potential bride a written form so avoid the heartbreak later.

Mary Arulanantham 02.04.10 | 1:56 PM ET

My (foreign born, South Asian) husband happily wades into the selection of dumplings, noodles, and hot sambols available at most hotel breakfast buffets, but I am content to stay in the shallows of yogurt, fruit and toast. After that, I’m ready for almost any culinary challenge. But coffee! I also often travel with with a pound of Peet’s and my little filter cone and papers. If I can have my coffee, I can even take on my mother-in-law’s pittu, mild prawn curry and coconut sambol. After all, it’s my mother-in-law!

Leif Pettersen 02.04.10 | 2:09 PM ET

I have an omelet fixation that you don’t even wanna know about. What’s even worse than not eating a proper omelet for 5-8 weeks straight while in Romania, is when I see the word ‘omelet’ on a menu, foolishly order it and, just like the 87 previous occasions that I made this mistake, feel my heart break when a blob of over-salted, grease-dripping egg matter is delivered with a couple pieces of processed cheese carelessly thrown on top.

Meredith 02.04.10 | 2:51 PM ET

Love this article.  So very perfect.

And as a Canadian I am with you on the maple syrup

Robin Berman 02.04.10 | 3:39 PM ET

Well, I thought I’d add another perspective from the Berman/Brotman clan on breakfast. Now all we need is Nina. I could not agree with this article more. At college, I am somewhat strange for eating breakfast daily. Without cold cereal and earl grey tea, things just don’t feel right. I also go to a college where sometimes beer is for breakfast (football, woo!) and I just can’t stomach that.

Jenny 02.04.10 | 5:11 PM ET

Missing my toast and strong coffee on the road while traveling through southeast Asia, I almost cried as I stood on a street corner on my first morning in Hue, Vietnam and ate a piping hot baguette (fresh from an old man’s sidewalk cart) washed down with a joltingly strong black coffee. Truly a westerners breakfast heaven. 02.05.10 | 11:05 AM ET

French toast sounds good!  No matter where you’re at in the world, sometimes you want comfort food from home.

Stephanie Hatton 02.05.10 | 11:34 AM ET

You’ve nailed the meaning of breakfast with this article. I really enjoyed finding out that I’m not alone when it comes to the American breakfast. In my blog, I strive to try the new and different; I’ve only just begun this journey. However, when it comes down to what makes my heart sing in the morning (or any time of day when it comes to breakfast) is a stunning plate of bacon and perfectly cooked hash browns.

@Travelblggr 02.05.10 | 2:39 PM ET

So, what’s your FAVORITE breakfast?

I love your reasoning ... that perhaps in the morning we’re still vulnerable and just trying to find our bearings.

The scent of freshly brewed coffee and holding a hot mug in my hands is equivalent to the cozy blanket.

Breakfast happens to be the main subject of my website,  Check it out for a good recipe next time you’re abroad and want a taste of home in the US.

aka @TravelBlggr

D.T. Shindler 02.05.10 | 11:24 PM ET

Sometimes, even an attempt by cooks in another country can get one nostalgic for the “comfort” of North American breakfast food.  Here in Australia, they normally do something with toast—vegemite (yeech), or jam—or a pastry or fruit (if they’re healthy eaters), and sometimes the Asian breakfast is eaten (since it’s a large cultural influence here).  But on weekends, they do big “brekkies” (yes, everything is said as if the average age is 8 or 9).  And when they cook up eggs and bacon, the bacon is more like a thin cut of ham.  It may be bad for you, but I _do_ miss crunching into one of those thin, crispy strips of bacon one could get just about anywhere in the USA.  On the otherhand, a chain store called “The Pancake Parlour” _knows_ how to do a great pancake (and variations thereof).  Maple syrup included!

Melissa Smith 02.09.10 | 2:00 PM ET

I work for a company where we put out “Bettina’s Blog” breakfast, breakfast conversation, etc.  Some of the hottest issues of the day are discussed over breakfast.  I’ve been at a couple homes where some incredible things are served.  I don’t have a cultural need for a particular breakfast, but since I’ve worked at this bed & breakfast company I have come to really like soup for breakfast.  It isn’t that well known, but when you start the day with a hot bowl of any kind of soup, it does something to your digestion which keeps you going all day.

Robyn 02.11.10 | 5:38 AM ET

Oh gosh, this is a wonderfully written piece but I just so don’t agree with the gist or it. You miss out on so much if you don’t at least sometimes go local for breakfast. I still remember the day that I busted out of my ‘no pm food in the am’ mindset—it was liberating in so many ways.
Thanks. You’ve just inspired a blog post.

Pragya 02.16.10 | 7:15 AM ET

A good breakfast is indispensable for starting a wonderful day & for me nothing better than having 4 slices of bread with butter on top, omlette made of 2 eggs & a hot cup of coffee….........or 1 plate of South-Indian breakfast of Idli-vada with hot cup of tea……...just perfect to start my day & refresh my mood

Gail Di Marzo 02.19.10 | 1:20 AM ET

I love this! I’m so happy to be feeding your breakfast this week, Eric. I had no idea you were such a breakfast-head. You shall have your banana pancakes on the day after tomorrow. Because tomorrow we’re having Sweet Potato Home Fries with Ginger along with the other usual suspects. It’s been a pleasure having you here. You’re not really as grumpy as I thought you’d be ;-)

iBagwan 02.22.10 | 7:11 PM ET

I am an American and was traveling in 2004 with my wife, in-laws and mother in Europe. I love the adventure of different foods but you should have seen my in-laws eyes when we found Breakfast in America! It is a small restaurant in Paris,  in the Latin quarter, that is a replica of a US based diner from the 1950’s. Awesome restaurant, everyone speaks english (U.S.) and they keep the coffee and eggs coming! They have everything that you would expect from an American diner, it really was a treat! It was started by a young American when he was going to school in Paris and it seems to do a very good business. I heartily suggest it to any American in Paris that gets a little homesick for hometown cooking!

Kittym 03.15.10 | 4:26 PM ET

And I LOVE eggs and bacon for breakfast when I am in the US, but one thing I DON"T look for is exactly that when I travel: I’d have missed congee and steamed dumplings in Hong Kong; chilaquiles in Mexico; yummy fishy mysteries in Tokyo; olives, ripe tomatoes, baghrir pancakes smothered in honey, scrambled eggs with sun dried khlee (jerked lamb), when I return to my native Morocco.

Kitty Morse
Coking at the Kasbah

Car Hire 03.18.10 | 8:42 AM ET

mmm… I like this theme… I prefer omelette with vegetables and glas of milk! But I’m also a big fan of Japanese cuisine - sushi, sashimi, etc.

Kelly 03.18.10 | 11:30 AM ET

The way you use your love of American breakfast to explain a deeper rooted message, that understanding and appreciating our own culture is the only way we can begin to understand and appreciate others, is brilliant! Of all aspects of a culture, I definitely find food the most interesting. Just look at the vast differences between breakfasts in China and breakfasts in America.
If you have time, I hope you’ll check out our website and possibly post some pictures of all the different food you’ve enjoyed while traveling!
The website Life Beyond Tourism gives people all over the world the opportunity to share their own cultures, heritages, traditions and travel experiences through posting photos on the photoblogs. So feel free to browse through tons of interesting photos, upload your own or simply leave some comments! The website will provide all the directions you need. Have a great day!

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