I love a multicourse breakfast alone on a quiet morning. I get up early and make myself one a few times a week. It’s a lost ritual — eating a big breakfast — in this busy culture, but it’s worth making time for, especially for those working from home now. Why not front-load pleasure with a decadent meal first thing?
I, for one, wake up ravenous and I’d be starving by 10 a.m. if I tried to get by on coffee; I got used to doing this when I was about 20. I was floundering at a dead-end dishwashing job in Philadelphia with no plans for college or a career in the kitchen. In the winter, I decided to fly toward the equator to burn off the fog in my brain. I stayed with my most regimented uncle, Luis, in Bogota, where big early breakfasts are common and, among the Colombian side of my family, associated with strength and discipline.
Luis’ prescription was this: Each morning I’d get up at 5 a.m. (this was charity; he woke up earlier), fold up the Murphy bed in the study of his small apartment and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez while breakfast was being prepared. I never tackled the major works, just the novella ‘No One Writes to the Colonel,’ because I had to look up a lot of Spanish words.
Meanwhile, the maid would make several trips from the kitchen to the study carrying lidded plates and arrange them all over two or three tray tables: a big bowl of beef soup, arepas, fresh squeezed pink-orange guava juice, a bowl of fruit, queso fresco, rich frothy hot chocolate from melted bars and huevos pericos (a scramble of egg, tomato and onion); it seemed to just keep coming. I’d sit there alone reaching around to taste everything in equal proportions, keeping all of the flavors balanced like I had eight arms. Uncle Luis would leave me until I finished and then give me forceful lectures beginning with statements like: “I don’t like your beard. It doesn’t look good: muy hippie.” Or, “You are going to start a college application while you’re here. Enough.” A word I heard over and over again was “Juicio!” —which I understood to mean something like ‘Discipline!’ This would go on until another uncle picked me up for work.
Uncle Rafael showed up in his Geo Tracker around 7 a.m. Luis warned me on the first day, clutching his shirt, “You die before you let somebody take your passport away.” It seemed dramatic, but I’d heard a lot of scary stories, so listened to him.
Rafael was a mushroom distributor. We picked up the mushrooms from farmers in the morning and delivered them to vendors throughout the city. It was fun chatting with the merchants and sampling sweet fruits from the market that I had never seen before — the big white fleshy seeds of the mangostino, and the gooey seeds in the gulupa and maracuya — but sometimes the work was stressful. At one especially hectic market, he told me, “Stay here and guard the truck,” and went inside to handle business. I stood beside the Tracker, shifty-eyed, as a short man walked by me with a squealing pig slung over his shoulder, and dozens of others bustled all around. Rafael probably just needed me to stay out of the way, but at the time I thought I really might have to fight off thieves, so I crossed my arms and hardened my face until he returned and we rejoined the herd on the highway.
Bogota traffic was apocalyptic. On my first morning, a man in a car behind us began screaming expletives at us through a megaphone with his head out the window. My uncle turned to me and said, “Vamos a ver que pasa aqui,” [Let’s see what happens,] and then grabbed a flimsy tire iron from stock repair kit in the back seat and pulled it onto the floor in between us while maintaining eye contact with the guy in the rearview mirror. The man pulled up beside us and took his seat belt off just as my uncle found an opening and maneuvered away. I don’t know what Rafael did, but he would have fought alone. After that massive breakfast I was a beached whale.
Each day we made it back in one piece and each morning after another lavish personal banquet, I heard more lectures. By the end of the trip, I was a clean-shaven college applicant who had read a little Marquez.
Uncle Luis would still consider me to be ‘muy hippie’ today, but I know he’d give a stern nod of approval if he could see me in the mornings eating a big breakfast with a book.
Twenty years later, I work as a social worker from a little windowless basement office, and I spend the days listening to whatever teenagers want to tell me. Sometimes the job is hilarious. Last week, a boy in a homemade floral vest told me proudly about his new job at JoAnn Fabrics and the 30 percent discount he is getting, all while kicking my ass in rummy — he said he’d never played! But, most of the time I’m passing out tissues. Some days I know the tragic stories will be too potent to dissipate and so I’ll absorb them instead. Working from a bleak office doesn’t help. For a couple of hours before work though, I’m as blissful as a digital nomad on a tropical beach.
At 5 a.m., no one is stirring; I go downstairs and start a pot of water, and grind coffee beans. In one pan, I sauté garlic and chile flakes before shoveling in chopped vegetables and in another I fry two eggs sunny side up until the bottoms are crispy, then sprinkle them with cayenne, dried oregano, smoked Maldon, paprika, and crushed black pepper, and breathe in the perfume of the herbs and spices as they fall over into the olive oil, spitting and sizzling. After sliding the eggs onto a plate I toast a thick slice of bread in the flavored oil. Then I pour the water over the coffee grounds in a French press and let it steep while I shake and pour orange juice, toss blueberries and sliced bananas in a bowl, drizzle them with honey, then plate and serve everything at the table.
These are the first sounds and smells of the day. The sun hasn’t come up yet and I sit under a single table light with no distraction, relishing every flavor and contour. After I’m done licking the last drop of salty yolk from my lips, I eat the fruit and drink the coffee while reading a book; this year, I finally finished One Hundred Years of Solitude. When I hear my son’s first turns in his bunk upstairs and then his feet walking across the hall to get under the covers with my wife and other little son, I go up there, lean over the bed and give the three of them soft caresses and kisses in the dark before I get dressed and leave, ready for anything.
Love this. You are a real talent, as a nephew, social worker, father and cook.
So nice and down to earth story! What is new is the appreciation of food that we should all have.