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
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.