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In Praise of Breakfast


“In a commercial country, a busy country, time becomes precious, and therefore hospitality is not so much valued. No doubt there is still room for a certain degree of it; and a man has a satisfaction in seeing his friends eating and drinking around him.” — Dr. Samuel Johnson

Doctor Johnson, who lived during only the beginning of the industrial revolution, nevertheless understood what was in store for us as that movement spread to all aspects of life. The diminution of hospitality in all life has now been noted by many authors, from Margaret Visser to Leon Kass to Christine Pohl. Working in a hospital, one is keenly aware of how industrial processes, whether they are imposed through government force or private insurance companies, diminish the possibility of expressing hospitality to the infirm.

The myriad regulations which define the hospital experience diminish hospitality as other goals are advanced. We cannot even use patients’ names in many circumstances for fear of a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act‘s privacy rules. We cannot sing or laugh too loudly among them for fear of lowering our federally mandated Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems scores, a metric that Medicare uses to advance “quality.” The hospitals are graded on quietness. HCAHPS scores, together with the satisfaction of mathematical goals with respect to certain diagnoses, constitute the Value Based Purchasing program of Medicare, a program designed to limit payment to hospitals. The law encourages anonymity and silence. Quality managers tell us that silence promotes healing—an evidence-based claim with dubious evidentiary support. Silence, through Medicare rules, also generates better reimbursement, and this is what hospital administrators and boards attend to. Hospitality is thus subordinated to other concerns.

One area in which the hospital remains true to its calling is in its provision of breakfast. There are many practical difficulties in serving hot, pleasing, and well-presented food to a building full of people; nonetheless, hospitals consistently offer patients an ample, traditional breakfast. They may fall short by comparison to an equivalent home-cooked breakfast, but the intent and desire to provide it is laudable.

In fact, examining a hospital breakfast with its eggs, bacon, juice, pancakes, butter, and hash browns, one is prompted to contrast this to what has happened to breakfast in the broader culture. Why is it that the average doctor or nurse has an individually wrapped oat bar and a styrofoam cup of coffee for breakfast? Their suburban children scurry around before catching the bus to take the pop-tart out of foil and place it in the toaster for as much of the heating cycle as they have time, before bolting for the door.

Breakfast is the meal most likely to be associated with hospitality. In homes that are open to travelers as bed and breakfasts, the morning meal is the culmination of the welcoming experience. The sense of belonging was once engendered and reinforced in family breakfasts. Upon awakening, the family member was reminded of his place within his family by participating in the meal.

The Theology of Breakfast

Breakfast was part of a daily ritual with a certain wordless liturgy associated with it.

In my own family growing up, mornings we sat at the formal dinner table with eggs, toast, and occasionally bacon or grits. Cold cereal or a pop tart would have been out of the question. Occasionally, in winter, a bowl of cream of wheat was served too hot to eat with a pat of butter melting. During the cooling, brown sugar was quarried out and deposited in lumps on the molten cereal, dissolving into brown rivulets. My father would read the paper from 6:30 to 6:45 and breakfast would be from 6:45 to 7:00. We were all out the door, except mother, at 7:05. Breakfast was part of a daily ritual with a certain wordless liturgy associated with it.

Nowadays, families are not organized to continue such a breakfast practice. While men and women might argue about how or whether some elements of the tradition could be resurrected, our present situation is lamentable. The loss is evident, not only in the prevalence of disordered eating practices that result from removing eating from a social context, but also in a general diminution of hospitality expressed to one another.

Perhaps hospitality was hopelessly bound up with paternalism from the very start. The Abrahamic narrative in Genesis 18 shows the patriarch recognizing the need for and the scope of hospitality to be given to the divine visitors, but he delegates the provision largely to his wife. After all her preparation, she doesn’t even get to sit with the visitors, and she endures their upbraiding her for laughing at their imprudent assertions.

It is worth noting, though, that the very name ‘breakfast’ is religiously charged.

There is no specific Christian theology of breakfast. The Eucharistic meal is, after all, a supper. Christ famously did appear with a shore-side breakfast after the Resurrection at the Sea of Galilee. It is worth noting, though, that the very name ‘breakfast’ is religiously charged. Fasting is a religious practice. This fact seems to have escaped our perpetually-offended secularists, who probably endorse the “school breakfast programs” of inner city schools. They have bigger issues to address. Perhaps after the last cross is removed from ‘the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening,’ they might turn their attention to renaming it “morning school nutrition.” This will be a small step, in as much as breakfast is promoted in schools not from the standpoint of hospitality but for the enhancement of student performance.

As Christine Pohl points out, hospitality is a major theme of the Gospels. The bringing in of the Gentiles is ultimately done through hospitality, a hospitality foreseen in Isaiah and fulfilled in the Book of Acts. The Gospel of John notes that God in Christ “pitches his tent among us.” While Christian theology doesn’t specifically address breakfast, nonetheless that gospel theme of a gracious welcoming informs the practice of breakfast. In addition, consideration of the Eucharist leads us to the expectation that the profoundest spiritual realities are expressed in a meal fellowship. The meal at Emmaus was not a breakfast, but following that meal, breakfast was never the same.

How the Manhattan Project Ruined Breakfast

The general enemy of hospitality is, of course, technology and it is clear that technology has had a hand in bringing down breakfast.

The general enemy of hospitality is, of course, technology and it is clear that technology has had a hand in bringing down breakfast. Technology itself could not do this. The disposition to accept technology as an unalloyed good or, at least, see it as a manageable improvement over the present, is at the heart of the problem of inhospitality in modern life. As Wendell Berry points out, the Luddites had the good sense to recognize that technology was going to destroy their way of life, but nowadays people do not question technology in those terms. Those that do are called, well, Luddites.

There are many technologies that have helped to destroy the hospitable breakfast: the individually wrapped item, Teflon, the pop-tart, etc. The piece of technology most central to the destruction of breakfast in this sense is the microwave oven. The microwave enables all other breakfast-destroying technologies. A product of the military-industrial complex, the microwave was used in the Manhattan Project and in Radar technology. It became practical for home use in the early 1970’s. As I was preparing to leave for college, our home’s first microwave arrived.

No one sidles up behind a microwave cook and says “What’s cookin’, good lookin’?”

The microwave is designed for optimum efficiency and maximum individualism. The microwave is a small box which rarely holds a central place in the kitchen and requires little participation of the cook in the cooking. The item to be heated is placed in the device and shut off from the human world. No one hovers over the microwave, smelling the soup as it is stirred. No one sidles up behind a microwave cook and says “What’s cookin’, good lookin’?” We all have a lingering fear that microwaves are physically dangerous. We know that grandpa, with his pacemaker, has his life put in jeopardy with each Hot Pocket his chubby grandchildren cook up. We wonder whether there is a general danger for all of us.

The microwave has no continuity with any previous tradition of cooking. There is no low flame to brown the butter; there is no gentle turning of the bacon, carefully avoiding the sputter and pop of the grease. It is a violent device. The magnetron jerks on with frightening force as the cooking cycle is initiated. Certain foods, the egg and the bowl of oatmeal being notable in this regard, explode when cooked. The pyrotechnics that ensue when a bit of foil or metal is left in the machine are alarming. Our language regarding the microwave is likewise violent: we ‘nuke’ the muffin or ‘zap’ the cup of coffee.

The individualism engendered by the microwave is illustrated by how the microwave is cleaned. Open a microwave at work or in a college apartment and this point will be made dramatically. Microwaves are seldom kept clean. There is no felt communal responsibility for the microwave. The dried spatterings are kept safely behind the honeycomb shield of the door.

We save precious minutes to have more billable hours at work or spend more time with the iPod at the bus stop.

Despite all these horrors, we are attached to the microwave oven. My own mother now heats the oatmeal for my father in a suitably high-walled ceramic pot, so as to contain the porridge eruptions. Most breakfasts, from coffee heat-ups to egg muffin combos, are microwaved with family members lining up behind one another to access the machine. We save precious minutes to have more billable hours at work or spend more time with the iPod at the bus stop.

Other sources of technology haven’t delivered a better breakfast. The Space program promised to bring a fourteen-fold benefit to the broader economy; that is, for every dollar spent on space rockets, that amount of multiplied value would be generated in other areas. With regard to breakfast, NASA has been weighed in the balance and found wanting: its notable contributions to breakfast being Tang, Teflon, and Instant Breakfast. Tang is obviously a poor substitute for OJ, in spite of its enhanced vitamin delivery. Young children love the slurry of pure sugar at the bottom of a glass of Tang, but no one else does. Teflon has some benefits with respect to cleaning, but the pleasures of brown and crusty home fries are virtually unknown to the Teflon generation. Instant Breakfast deserves no comment.

The Space program’s own breakfast tradition as practiced by the early astronauts was better than the program’s general effect on that part of culture. The shared breakfast of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts consisted of steak and eggs, toast and coffee. This was breakfast writ large, an expression of communal solidarity as they faced an uncertain future with America’s then notoriously unreliable rockets.

The Necessity of Breakfast Rituals

Breakfast is more than nutrition. Breakfast coffee is more than a stimulant.

These technologies, whether from the Space program or the Manhattan project, fail to attend to our essential sacramental nature or at least the appeal of sacramental action in our lives. Breakfast is more than nutrition. Breakfast coffee is more than a stimulant. One of the glories of Christianity is the sense that God comes to us most profoundly in common ways—eating , drinking, washing, etc. The beauty of this idea is appealing even to atheists who deny its source.

Consider how coffee was made prior to the microwave. The percolator slowly and methodically brewed the coffee while a group of needy morning-risers gathered around it. There was a bit of conversation around the pot. Hands could be warmed on the pot as it brewed. Nowadays, though, coffee is pre-dripped from a timer while we are in the snooze cycle of the alarm clock. We zap it individually as needed before leaving the kitchen. What a loss.

A Lutheran church I have attended in Southern New York illustrates the importance of coffee preparation and its sacramental dimension. In this parish, a large urn sits in the narthex. It is plugged in at the start of the service. During the service of the Word, the low rumble of the pot can be heard in silent moments. By the time the Sacramental liturgy has begun, the rumble is loud enough to compete with the Preface, or better, seems to speak back to the liturgist in responsorial fashion. As the communicants approach the rail, the smell of coffee wafts through the sanctuary. The actual drinking of the coffee after service then has a genuine connection to the sacramental action of the church. The meaning of the coffee would be different if a soundless Mr. Coffee were plugged in at some point, or worse, if people used Keurig machines to manufacture their individual cups after church.

Starbucks, a secular institution, used to understand the importance of sacrament and coffee.

Starbucks, a secular institution, used to understand the importance of sacrament and coffee. Following the ordering of the coffee, the beans were ground before you, tamped in a straining cup and latched into the espresso machine. The sounds of grinding and attaching were familiar and expected. The milk was steamed and bubbled, and the froth was gently folded in after the espresso was brewed. Now, with the advent of more efficient machines, the grinding, tamping and discarding of grounds is eliminated. Starbucks also offers microwavable sandwiches for breakfast now.

The Hospital moves along with the culture in the diminution of public hospitality. It cannot be stopped; it can only be lamented. I cannot stand in the gap and prevent technology’s march through our culture even in a place where one might think I, as a doctor, could have some influence. I can, however, attend to my own need for hospitality.

Breakfast as Refuge

Saturdays are particularly long rounding days as I round for another physician in hospitals where I feel like a bit of an interloper, not being familiar with the patients or staff. After morning rounds at Jameson Hospital in New Castle, PA, I seek refuge at Hazel’s, the downtown diner.

New Castle is like a lot of cities in western Pennsylvania. It was founded by English-speaking white Protestants so that most of the institutions reflect that origin. In the lobby of Jameson Hospital is a stern picture of David Jameson, the founder. His visage communicates the seriousness of our duty in a fallen world.

New Castle has changed since its founding, as has much of western Pennsylvania. The labor needs of the industries started there brought in an amazingly diverse population of peoples. In New Castle there is a substantial Lebanese Catholic community, as well as Syrian Maronites. Most of the population is composed of Italians and African-Americans. These latter two groups are peoples with large but somewhat insular hospitalities. New Castle suffers now from a post-industrial malaise with a diminished public spirit. Not a town of obvious public hospitality, fires break out now regularly in vacant houses. National Democratic candidates love to visit this kind of town every four years to decry how America is not living up to its promises.

They come for an English breakfast, the number 10 on the menu being the best exemplar: two eggs, home fries, rye toast, blueberry muffin, sausage links, and coffee.

Hazel’s, a refuge for the weary, is a generally Protestant institution, though it is now run by a Greek family. The décor is plain with cardboard strawberries on the walls, interspersed between framed landscape paintings. The waitresses are uniformed in maroon shirts and navy slacks. The green vinyl booths and tables stretch back to the small sit-down bar with stools near the kitchen. Although Hazel’s accommodates the tastes of later immigrants with its menu offerings, people don’t come to Hazel’s for Chicken Parmesan or Perogies. They come for an English breakfast, the number 10 on the menu being the best exemplar: two eggs, home fries, rye toast, blueberry muffin, sausage links, and coffee. All is served on porcelain ovals, with cups and saucers that generally match.

The English breakfast is a marvel when considered against the general drab state of English cuisine. The English language was made so poetically rich and capable through the series of invasions and subsequent cultural growth the country experienced during the Middle Ages. There was no carryover in developing a similarly rich culinary tradition. The character of the invaders and their own traditions is undoubtedly part of the problem. The Vikings had not much to offer at mealtime. Even the French invaders were no help with respect to cuisine, the Normans being famous for their martial arts rather than their culinary ones.

Hazel’s breakfast draws in all representatives of New Castle culture. The clientele filing in are reminiscent of James Joyce’s description of the Mass: “Here comes everybody.” There are firemen and policemen crowded in booths and GM Lordstown Plant auto workers with their caps, T-shirts, and suboxone prescriptions. Older couples bring their biracial grandchildren. All are welcome.

The Denny’s up the hill at the mall stands ready to supplant Hazel’s with a more efficient and less expensive experience, but for now Hazel’s endures.

As I have become better known to the staff at Hazel’s, something similar to the same wordless regard that was present in my early family breakfasts manifests itself. The wait-staff know what I order, know that I want time to read and muse, and allow me to set cash out to pay the bill and tip at my table. The wait-staff, too, are refugees from a world of inhospitality—single mothers with badge photos of their grade school, ball-playing children. One woman started serving as a waitress out of the love of breakfast shared there with her husband over the years. The Denny’s up the hill at the mall stands ready to supplant Hazel’s with a more efficient and less expensive experience, but for now Hazel’s endures.

In an address given to the Munich College of Technology and compiled in Letters from Lake Como, Romano Guardini writes about the worldview that embraces technology without reflection on its consequences. He notes, “It is no accident that the worldview which sees in the machine the symbol of fulfilled culture—namely, materialistic communism—is trying systematically to destroy the religious life.” The defeat of a program as grand as communism in the 1991 revolution did not diminish the perils of technology for religious expression. The effect is not simply on activities that are explicitly religious, such as Mass attendance, seminary matriculation rates, and the like. The effect of technology is to impair those activities that are implicitly religious for those informed by religion. Hospitality, as expressed in an institution like a hospital or in everyday practices like breakfast in the home or community, is damaged. Perhaps lamentations for losses like this are a prelude to ultimate restoration. Hope calls us to this.