When you grow up in a home where they serve sambar for breakfast, the idea of a savory start to the morning is something less than the radical idea proposed by the New York Times.
But I can appreciate how liberating it must be for someone like Mark Bittman, especially if he grew up ploughing his way through cream of wheat with a little salt thrown in every morning, to find out that people elsewhere like to begin their days in considerably more flavorful fashion.
In fact, I appreciate it so much, I feel like an ingrate. After all, back when I was growing up, I was offered some excellent early morning fare, full of flavor and nutrition, cooked without any thought as to time or convenience, and I always turned my nose up at it.
You can chalk it up to my being a nightbird if you like, but the reason why breakfast has been a relatively recent addition to my diet is because I had to leave for school at half past seven. It sounds bizarre but you simply can’t force my body to swallow food at that hour of the morning. Around nine o’clock my body is finally awake enough to keep the food down, but anything before that and my stomach stages an instant revolt.
For a while there my mother thought it might have something to do with her idlis and dosas, and so out came the cornflakes and cold milk. No go. So she tried it again with warm milk. I ran for the bathroom and refused to come out unless she removed the revolting mess from the table. On Sunday morning, Daddy sat down to our weekly breakfast of leisure and asked for the despised cornflakes – “Me too,” I piped up. “If you vomit, I won’t take care of you,” my mother threatened. I rolled my eyes at her naivete. It was Sunday, it was nearly ten in the morning, why on earth would I waste my precious day off by barfing up my guts?
Next came the toast and eggs. I didn’t even get to eat that. (Any of that: she tried them hard boiled, soft boiled, poached, sunny side up and in an omelet. Zip.) The smell alone was enough to make me gag. She simply handed me my pocket money for the day and asked me to make sure I got in a good meal at recess before shooing me out. When I came back home, she asked me what I’d like to eat for lunch – “Toast and eggs, please,” I said. “Sunny side up. I’ve been dreaming of it all day.” She pursed her lips tightly and asked the cook to take care of it.
So then she went Punjabi on me and the parathas she usually made for my lunch made their appearance on the breakfast table as well. But then – problem! She didn’t think it was good for me to eat pickle at seven in the morning and she couldn’t serve it with curd because I wouldn’t touch that stuff at any hour of the day. Harassed, she gave it to me with jam. I surprised both of us by enjoying every bite. And then I came home early from school because I’d thrown up everywhere.
She toyed with the idea of toasted sandwiches long enough to actually buy a toaster. My best friend in school had recently opened my eyes to the fact that tomatoes could actually be very yummy, especially if you mixed them up with a little red onion and cheese before toasting the whole. I excitedly shared my discovery with my mother who carefully restrained herself from tearing me limb from limb and screaming “But I Made You That and You Refused to Eat It, You Evil Devil Child!” Somebody else’s kitchen was obviously the missing spice.
In the end she decided eleven o’clock was early enough for me to eat my first proper meal of the day and stopped trying to feed me before I left for school.
But the simple fact of the matter is that Ma’s example is something of an increasing rarity these days. Not only was she a stay at home mother, she had live in help who could cope with the kitchen while she sat guard outside the bathroom, banging on the door every five minutes to make sure I would be ready on time and on my way to school. She could experiment with recipes by simply telling other people to do this and that. I can’t imagine the average mother today having either the energy or the time, much less the convenience, to come up with an elaborate breakfast on a daily basis.
Or even dads for that matter. Mine was a workaholic who worked almost around the clock and the only reason he stayed home on Sundays was because he could never get anyone else to come in on that day – even with the promise of a free lunch. But he would still find the time to fix me my early morning chocolate milk and pick me up after school so he could eat lunch with me… and the reason he could do all that was because he was considerably older when he had me and was the boss man at work so he could arrange his schedule to suit his parenting needs.
I find it simplistic when people think money equals privilege, when it’s time that is the real privilege, at least as it pertains to raising a family. Money obviously helps, but by itself it’s limited in what it can do for you – it is what it facilitates that really gives it worth. Bittman, for example, is a food writer for the New York Times. In money terms, it’s probably pretty average if not low on the totem pole, especially by Manhattan standards… but it’s a high status job that allows him to change his dietary habits around so he can eat a polenta that took 40 minutes to cook for breakfast. Maybe he made it the night before and heated it up the next morning – but it’s still a lot more work than the usual person would sign up for, isn’t it?
It’s one of the paradoxes of the slow food movement that fascinates me, especially as an Indian who has seen the clock move so radically in her own, relatively short, lifespan:
The items Bittman recommends in his article, be it the congee or the polenta, are food that the people native to the lands that inspired them have consumed for ages. And it’s food that developed organically because it was the most convenient and cheap item available. Congee for instance is a dish from the rice growing parts of Asia, and it basically involves you throwing a little rice in with a lot of water and boiling it to hell and back, adding whatever you want on top to give it flavor, drinking it starchy water and all. You could even eat it plain with nothing but a little salt: it’s the Asian version of cream of wheat.
But such food is becoming increasingly marginalized in the countries of its birth, because it’s too time consuming to allow the people who traditionally ate it to compete satisfactorily with people who usually nuke a bowl of cream of wheat for breakfast. So they buy a box of Kelloggs or Poptarts or what have you because that allows them to run out the door faster in the morning, which in turn allows them to be more competitive.
And when they’re more competitive, it’ll lead to more success, which leads to their achieving a position of privilege… where it becomes once more possible to go back to the things that they discarded to get ahead in the first place.
Everyone’s either giving an excellent imitation of a hamster on a wheel or there’s a deeper philosophical comment to be inferred here.