Illustration: Li Chen
Illustration: Li Chen

The Sunday EssaySeptember 12, 2021

The Sunday Essay: In praise of breakfast

Illustration: Li Chen
Illustration: Li Chen

For Linda Burgess, the morning meal is a comforting minor ceremony of toast, coffee, bed, dog, read. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Li Chen

Ah, breakfast. Our daughter Gemma, a damn fine early talker, but with an aptitude for strangled syllables, said to us, aged around three, “When I was little I said breckstaff, didn’t I?”. Yep, we said. You did. Then she added, “Now I’m big, I say breckstiff.”

I love breakfast. I really do. I think it’s the ritual. I wake up round 5am and think, what will I have today? Then I listen to the adorable Nathan Rarere on First Up, gosh he’s good, don’t you just love him, intermittently dozing. Till round about seven.

I’m talking normal times, pre level anything, though breakfast remains a comforting minor ceremony, whatever level we’re at. I’m inflexible in my choice, though I do give myself a little bit of room to move. The world is divided into several groups – cereal of various intensities, smoothies, something cooked, nothing, or toast. Then of course I’m leaving out all those people in the world who eat croissants, or meat and cheese, or noodles. I’m in team toast.

Actually, the word “team” has always made me a little uneasy, in fact really uneasy, so I’ll rephrase that: for breakfast I have toast. If they’re not locked down, the bread is from Leeds Street Bakery, their polenta (the large loaf, this is toast, you know you need a decent-sized slice, but I cut it quite thinly), or their rye. It has to be toast shaped because other stuff doesn’t fit neatly into the toaster. How embarrassing, how predictable: the toaster’s a Dualit. Old and it looks it, though still going strong. It can be fixed, which is why we bought it, round the time that built-in obsolescence began to revolt me. Here in Wellington, we have a plethora of top-class bread bakers but Leeds Street is my favourite. I buy a couple of loaves at a time, cut them both in half, put one half in my bread bin and three halves in the freezer. Mild anxiety sets in when I’m on to the last half: I go online and order. 

The butter: Lewis Road, and because my GP – hi Anne Marie! – knows better than to get precious about small pleasures, it’s the one with extra salt. It’s interesting this, because the odd clear yellow streaks in the one with salt could fool you into thinking it’s going off, yet us aficionados know this is not the case. Then the topping. Usually, tomatoes, which I cook in my little frypan on the oven. They have to be Campari on-the-vine tomatoes. It’s the only non-seasonal produce I shamelessly buy all year round. I never, for example, buy a grape except in autumn. So two tomatoes, each one cut into four slices, in extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with David’s Kosher salt, and after flipping, a gentle squirt of Delmaine’s balsamic glaze. No one is paying me for product-placing them. If not tomatoes, then half an avocado, roughly sliced rather than smashed, with a squeeze of lemon juice from our own tree (a miracle! It grows in Wellington!), David’s salt, ground pepper, and perhaps a slice of bacon cut into eight tiny pieces. I always quarter my toast. Third choice if out of tomatoes or avocado: sliced banana, with, perhaps, if feeling bold, Fix and Fogg crunchy peanut butter. 

Never jam or marmalade though if you do that’s your business, each to their own, and I understand because I did, a few years back, go, for a few months, for toast and Marmite. MARMITE I said. Not Vegemite. But I don’t care if you disagree. Life, as we know in the time of Covid, is too short.

Current breakfast, because tea is for sooks, though truly I do wish I loved tea because it’d make life so much easier, is served with coffee, a flat white made by my personal barista in our espresso machine. Our son in Auckland has got a glorious kitchen-dominating one that looks like a 1950s car but we bought one that cost less than a month’s pension so we could also get a decent grinder. It’s all about compromise. And it’s not one of those ones with pods publicised by handsome hirsute wossisname, the one with the twins, the one who went to Meghan and Harry’s wedding, because those pods seem to me to be appallingly anti-environmental. Where do they go, the leftover ones? Don’t tell me they’re recyclable unless you want me to imagine slaves rinsing them out, carefully spooning fresh grounds into them then sticking new tops on. We buy Havana coffee, 5 Star because it tastes like chocolate, beans bought directly from them in Tory Street (I bought a kilo of beans, just before lockdown, an hour or so before it was announced because thanks to our daughter-in-law in health I had insider knowledge, in fact I told them it was going to happen, and they said, as they measured out the huge bag, “I love your priorities”) and Puhoi milk. I move round our kitchen like a dancer; it’s the only time I’m even remotely elegant. Leaving Robert to stir his porridge and add his sultanas, his All Good banana, perhaps some gold kiwifruit, a speck of brown sugar and homemade Greek yoghurt, then to eat it quietly at the kitchen table, I retire with my plate and cup – small, because I like the coffee strong – to the bedroom to read The Spinoff, Stuff and The Guardian online.

Or sometimes, a chapter or two of a real book. At the moment, EM Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady, published in 1930 and by the way I reckon this is where Bridget Jones came from, you should read it, truly it’s terrific. My electric blanket has been on for the length of time it takes to assemble my modest feast. I pull up the blinds so I can look across the valley to Kelburn, and get the sun on me, and I’m joined by Badger, dog, 10 months old, he’s had his chicken or his liver, he’s hopefully peed outside, and he lies on me panting quietly, making firm eye contact, waiting for my crusts. He prefers the rye. You should feel his fur. I adore him. I’m at my happiest. 

You can hate me, and truly, I know I sound so privileged, and I know I am, and appallingly virtue signalling, a tendency which I find extremely offensive in others. But I’m also old, although I’m feeling as if I lie saying that, because I feel not much different, because I’m still me inside. That’s such a cliché but there’s no other way to say it. Just like some of you do now, night after night, for so many years I was woken to deal with wet beds, nightmares and the simple need for cuddles. I couldn’t imagine ever having a full night’s sleep again. I was always tired and I got up to breakfasts I can’t remember eating, to teach teenagers about literature, which I loved, and which some of them did, and which some of them didn’t. 

The son ate breakfast, a plate of Weetbix, a bowl of porridge, a cup of Milo, the daughter didn’t, she just didn’t want to eat till mid-morning, and once I said to her, “What say the health nurse comes to school and asks you what you have for breakfast?” And she said oh I’ll just tell her I have porridge. She was five at the time. She ate her sandwich at morning play time, and it had to be Vogel’s bread with cottage cheese and salami and gherkin. Robert always ate porridge, because he’d been brought up by properly decent Presbyterian parents. I had been vaguely too, though mine were less proper, a bit more flighty, and porridge wasn’t part of our ritual. I knew enough to make it part of my children’s rituals, and they’ve made it their children’s too, for which I am thankful. I’ve tried, but I hate its texture. 

Like everybody else I’ve gone through stages with breakfast. A variety, over the years and at some stage I concluded that if you hadn’t chewed you hadn’t eaten. There’d been cornflakes with fruit, bottled in autumn by Mum. Weetbix, on which we, as children, spread butter and honey. Later, my older sister came home from Wellington and introduced us to a new thing; muesli. 

Mostly though I was quietly committing to toast. Dad made the toast, standing by our manual toaster, two bits at a time and you had to open the little doors and turn each piece over. Dad knew I liked the rough bit, I think it’s called the kiss, where the two rounds of the loaf met, and he always gave it to me. He knew that I cared. I’m still someone who cares, though perhaps it’s pointless. My brother had left home to work in Wellington and we were down to five of us and we began breakfast with half a grapefruit each. Every second day there was half a grapefruit stored in the fridge for the next day, and he gave that to me, because he knew I valued cold grapefruit. He carefully cut around the outside, and separated each segment, with what I named the zizzy knife, and he sprinkled it with sugar. I loved that serrated knife with its special curve; I still get attached to knives. When I finished spooning out the grapefruit, segment by segment, Dad picked it up in his big strong hand and squeezed it into the saucer and I tipped up the saucer and drank the remaining sugary syrupy juice straight from it. 

Nearly 70 years later, all I want is Leeds Street Bakery bread. Lewis Road butter. Small sweet tomatoes. And Havana coffee. Of all the meals, in all the world, the very best is breckstiff.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox