I made a wonderful, hearty breakfast yesterday morning: steel-cut oats, cooked slowly overnight in a bain marie, served with milk and pancake syrup on the side. Ah, the joys of waking up to a warm, nourishing meal and sending everybody off with full stomachs and happy hearts!
Actually…the youngest had a bagel because he doesn’t like the oats; the oldest had a few bites, and threw the rest away; the middle boy will eat anything, so he doesn’t count; and I was soon hungry for a bagel and cream cheese. So what gives? Why doesn’t our reality conform to the narrative I find so prominent on the whole-foodie blogs?
The easy answer is our chronic non-conformity, even among non-conformists: “too crunchy for the Christians, too Christian for the crunchies.” We’ve been plagued for years by this failure to find any sort of niche in one community or another. It’s a convenient, compelling narrative. “Poor us; we just don’t belong in cool-natural-world; we’ll just go shop at Big Box.” I’m not entirely convinced of this, though. For one thing, while I believe in “typical,” I’m not so sure about “normal.” Two other possibilities spring to mind: first, that we’re missing part of the picture; second, that the picture itself is wrong.
As to the first: how much real information can one get from reading a few blog posts? People filter, both by habit and by necessity; we notice those who don’t, and often wish that they would. What’s missing, then, is the necessary context for evaluating the information. Nutrition is especially contextual: a person’s age, body type, exercise and stress level, and lifestyle patterns all bear on the matter. Shopping and cooking habits can vary as widely, for as many reasons. I think, then, that a grain of salt is due with each tidbit of interweb info we receive.
Regarding the second, which is but a logical extension of the first: who are these culinistas, anyway? I must confess to a suspicion of bloggers, especially food bloggers, as irrational and ironic as that may be. The elitism of food as a hobby comes across hard to those of us just trying to make the budget last for the month, and the obscurity of some of it really seems to come from the far ends of the bell curve. I understand that the cutting edge is where progress takes place, whether in fashion, food, or real research, but tying it to the “anyone can do this!” donkey just adds insult to injury. Put all that into the interweb echo chamber and it’s hard to hear one’s own self think.
If this incomplete picture is incorrect, three things logically follow: one, I’m free to view or ignore it as I see fit; two, if I choose to look into it, I need to remember that grain of salt. As my dad would say: “Don’t believe everything you read, and only half of what you hear.” Third, since I am a part of this mosaic yet decry its distortions, I have a responsibility to make my own contributions as honest and clear as possible.
As for breakfast, then, I need to revise my point of view to reflect what’s really happening. First of all, the grain-based breakfast seems unbalanced: heavy on the carbohydrates, short on the protein. Although the numbers may say otherwise, our experience is that oat-based breakfasts leave us high and dry in a few short hours. Why is that? Is the protein/carb/fat balance wrong? Are the portions too small? Of course, serving a good portion won’t guarantee that it will be eaten, and two of my sons are willing to endure great hardship to avoid eating food they don’t like. Nor can I assume that they’ll like something because I do: I think the steel-cut oats are delicious, and they obviously disagree.
On the other side of the coin are some constraints I face in making breakfast. For one thing, there is the time factor. The older boys need to leave the house by 7:45, so they should have finished breakfast by 7:30, so I should have it ready by 7:15, so I should be up and at it by 7:00. Easy enough in theory, but when I get to bed between midnight and 1 a.m., not-so-much-fun-to-do. I might not get to bed so late if the boys would turn in before 10 p.m. or so, but that shows no sign of changing, so here we are. Breakfast, then, must be a streamlined, no-frills affair. Special requests and separate items are discouraged, at best.
Another factor is cost. Whole grains and such are wonderfully inexpensive; the steel-cut oats, for instance, cost me $1 per pound, and half a pound makes enough for four to five people, assuming they all have some. That’s half the price of a dozen eggs when I can get them cheaply, let alone bacon ($7 per pound!) or sausage to go with. On the other hand, is it a bargain if I need a second breakfast, especially if it’s a coffee-stand bagel for $2? Or if the oats wind up in the garbage? Cold cereal is fairly cheap and very popular, but carries what the economists call “externalities” in nutrition and footprint. Also, it’s mighty hard to reduce the family’s food-miles when breakfast is trucked in from Battle Creek, Michigan.
“Yes,” you say, “but wouldn’t these issues perish in the face of
monotony uniformity? Just find the Magic Meal and have it every day forever!” Thank you for bringing me to Point Number Three: Variety. I’m sorry to say that I’m not the sort of person who can have, or make, the same thing every day, nor is the family up for that either. Even when I worked in restaurants where I got to eat during my shift, I wouldn’t get stuck on one item, but rotated among several favorites depending on my budget, mood, and available time. For instance, fish tacos go down much faster than a Cobb salad. So, regardless of recent urban restaurant trends, the family menu is not going monochrome any time soon.
Clearly, I have some work to do on the breakfast menu. however, I noticed something else this morning, while I was writing this very essay, that made me look at this from another angle. We had scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast this morning at about 7:15; by 10:15, having done nothing more strenuous than open a browser window, I was feeling peckish and toasting a bagel. Are the boys hungry again after three hours anyway? Maybe our demands on this meal are unreasonable at the specified portions. If so, I will need to re-think portion size as well as item selection, while keeping it both under budget and as local as possible.