If I have never stated before that breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, I should probably set the record straight and confirm that fact now. Southerners love to eat and for some of us, any meal could be considered to be the favorite and at times, I have fallen into that category. Still, if I had to choose, there is little doubt which would win the contest. Breakfast would win and not just any breakfast but the classic Southern breakfast.
Southerners take breakfast very seriously. This dates back to our agricultural roots, when breakfast was not only the best meal of the day but the most important one. Families got up with the sun if not before and the morning meal was the way to “break the fast”, to prepare for the hard day of work ahead, be it farming, cutting wood, milling lumber or engaging in a variety of enterprises that involved long hours of manual labor. Breakfast was the meal that gave our bodies the sustenance and strength to get through the day.
Although much of the agricultural aspect has gone out of the daily lives of most Southerners, the desire for a large breakfast is still encoded in our DNA and likely always will be. We tend to love what fills our stomachs as well as what tantalizes the taste buds and breakfast has a way of doing both when properly prepared by someone who knows what they are doing.
I was fortunate to have two grandmothers who knew the business of breakfast very well. In their kitchens, I was the witness to their knowledge and skill, passed down from generations of mothers before them and into my stomach. I observed breakfast as an art form and was the willing recipient of it each time I visited with them.
My grandmother on my mother’s side of the family rose each morning well before the sun came up to fix a big breakfast for my grandfather. He would go to work early each morning in his barbecue restaurant, getting the business ready for opening and then serving up his own form of Southern cuisine to customers in a business open seven days a week. She would always allow me to sleep later than they did but no matter how deep a sleep I might have been in, the aroma of bacon frying in a skillet and fresh coffee brewing on the stove has a pervasive way of engaging the senses and I soon would find myself in the kitchen staring longingly at the bacon plate as the pile grew higher.
In addition to bacon, she would fry eggs to make fried egg sandwiches which I loved. Sometimes I would put the bacon on the sandwich and other times I would just eat it as a side item. She made wonderful biscuits too but for some reason, these were always a staple of her Sunday dinners rather than a breakfast item, probably because they required more time. Eventually I convinced her it was ok for me to have some of the coffee, having been exposed to it at the age of five by my Aunt Jean and she and I would have our breakfast after my grandfather had left for work.
My grandmother on my father’s side of the family was a breakfast biscuit baker of the highest order, making everything from scratch, rolling out the dough, cutting the biscuits and baking them to a perfect golden brown. When my grandfather’s doctor told him he needed to cut back on the number of biscuits he ate each morning, her solution was to make bigger biscuits so he could have fewer in number.
Cathead biscuits, which she specialized in, were so-called because they were “as big as a cat’s head”, brown on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. Her biscuits were good with jelly or butter but were especially good with gravy, also made from scratch using the grease from her frying pan, flour and other ingredients. She also scrambled eggs and I never saw anyone that could whip a bowl of eggs so quickly without spilling a drop. She would also fry sausage patties that were sharp enough to bring tears to your eyes.
Both were cooks of the simple order in the meals they made but when it came to the art of making breakfast, either could have been a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. My mother added to the menu the art of making perfect pancakes and grits that were properly balanced, neither too watery nor too lumpy. The only area she was lacking in was the biscuit-making department because my grandmother was notorious for not sharing that particular technique. My brother and I had to make do with “Whop” biscuits from Pillsbury, i.e. biscuits in a can that you opened by “whopping” the can on the counter. She also knew how to cook bacon perfectly (and still does) and she could scramble the lightest and fluffiest eggs imaginable.
Even my grandfather on my father’s side of the family specialized in one particular breakfast food…..French toast, which he learned how to make from my grandmother and actually improved upon it. After she died, when I was 12, he would make French toast for me and taught me how to make it too. I still make it sometimes and I was proud when my notoriously picky eater of a son tried them and decided to add French toast to his limited food choices. I can almost duplicate my grandmother’s technique of whipping the eggs, milk and other ingredients together but unlike her, I always manage to spill a little of it.
Another favorite I learned, from a non-family member, was how to make Rocky Mountain Toast for breakfast. I have heard it called other names but that is the one she used and that is what stuck with me. It’s easy to make and covers at least two of the basic food groups too. You basically cut a circle out of a slice of loaf bread, put the hollowed bread and the circular disk into a greased frying pan, break an egg into the center of the loaf bread and break the yolk so that the egg spreads onto the bread. Cook it for a few minutes until the egg gets hot, then carefully flip it over and cook it on the other side. Be sure to toast the center cutout too.
If you like a hot, runny yolk, cook it for less time and if you like your yolk firm, cook it longer. I like the yolk runny, which I then dip the toasted center into and eat. Just make sure the yolk is actually cooked though and not raw!
Breakfast shouldn’t be limited to just a morning meal and one of my favorite meal experiences is to have breakfast for some other meal. Growing up, it was a treat when my mother decided to make breakfast for supper because you got to experience the aromas and later, the taste of good breakfast food during the evening meal and just today, my wife decided to make breakfast for lunch, a nice Saturday treat.
She specializes in country ham, something I came to appreciate later in life, which I have found smells awful but tastes wonderful, full of saltiness that can’t be good for my blood pressure but sure is good for my taste buds. She has cooked it in a skillet, on a griddle, flavored with Dr. Pepper at times or just naturally seasoned with salt. Sometimes I’ll cook for her my grandmother’s fried egg sandwiches which she professes to be the best. When it comes to breakfast food, Southerners know what they like and don’t like. The best Southern breakfast tables come liberally loaded with the following staples:
- Eggs, either scrambled, fried, over easy, on a sandwich or in an omelette;
- Bacon, fried, either crispy or soft depending on your preference;
- Country Ham, fried in a skillet or on a griddle;
- Sausage, patties or links;
- Grits, liberally laced with butter;
- Biscuits, served with butter, preserves, honey or as a sandwich with one or all of the above;
- Toast, with butter and preserves (preserves can mean jelly or jam too);
- Gravy, liberally poured on biscuits, white or brown, sawmill or redeye;
- Pancakes, made by grandmothers, mothers or members of the Kiwanis Club;
- French Toast with maple syrup
- A tall glass of very cold milk;
- Orange juice, which is healthy and negates all the bad points of the above food; and
- Coffee, freshly brewed, strong and aromatic
It has been said that of all the senses, the sense of smell is the most powerful one and on that point, I agree completely for there are fewer aromas that can stimulate the olfactory perceptions than that of a good breakfast cooking in the kitchen. To wake up to the smell of bacon frying, coffee brewing and biscuits baking is an experience every Southerner knows and appreciates and if you have particularly good memories of family chefs skilled in the craft of cooking breakfast foods, those aromas can awaken good memories and bring a smile to your face and a growl to your stomach.
Even if you aren’t a morning person or if you just don’t have time to eat a big breakfast in the morning, take comfort in the fact that breakfast can and should be eaten whenever you feel like it, not just in the morning but whenever the urge to indulge in pure Southern cooking arises. Finally, while breakfast goes good with any time of the day, it always goes best when eaten with family or friends you care about and in the South, a family breakfast, infused with tradition and history in the making of each dish, is a slice of heaven on earth, each bite to be savored and each meal special.