Sunday, 17 June 2012

Breakfast in America

In the classic 1969 song, The Boxer, Art Garfunkel – or Paul Simon – refers to the ladies of negotiable virtue he used to encounter along New York City’s Seventh Avenue. “I do declare,” sang Paul – or was it Art? – “there were times that I felt so lonesome I took some comfort there.”

While I can’t admit to having sampled such earthly delights, I too have felt great comfort in a similar area of that great city. While my current diet means I probably can't do it now, I have in the past experienced that wonder of the modern age, that miracle of the culinary and gastronomic arts. I have eaten breakfast in an American diner.

Now,I’m not going to pretend to be well-travelled. I certainly can’t make any claims about being some sort of expert on the United States. I’ve been there a handful of times and, on each occasion, limited my experience to the Eastern seaboard. I have not eaten from sea to shining sea, despite appearances to the contrary. And, yes, I am aware that it’s wrong to characterise an entire nation simply by writing about one meal in one city. I hear rumours of breakfasts in New Mexico that feature cheese and peppers, tequila and beans. In the mid-West they go for corn in a big way – ordering the low-carb option is probably still a hanging offence. In Maine I suspect it’s lobster and peach cobbler all the way.

But I discount all these tales. For I have breakfasted in the Big Apple. And never has my fast been broken more conclusively. It was on our second or third visit when we discovered the place. We were staying in mid-town Manhattan, on 57th Street, just a couple of blocks down from the sudden green strip of Central Park. As seasoned travellers, or so we thought, we’d eschewed the more obvious commercial delights of Sixth Avenue or Times Square.

The truth is, we were still in downtown touristville, but by moving a few blocks further out we found the places that other Americans used when they were visiting. This also meant forgoing the blandness of a hotel restaurant. We were going to have to go out for breakfast – a novel concept in itself. So that’s when the diner made its delicious, hustling, calorie-laden impact on our lives.

We crossed the afore-mentioned Seventh Avenue and were drawn in, like moths to a chrome-plated, neon-lit flame. A six-foot-tall black guy in full evening suit welcomed us in, smiling broadly and making us feel genuinely as if his entire life had been building up to welcoming these latest two customers that morning. I’d just like to repeat the salient point of that last sentence; an evening suit. Bow tie, cummerbund, shiny patent leather shoes – the whole nine yards. It was eight in the morning and our breakfast already involved a maitre d’.

He showed us to a booth, one of thirty or so, and I had a few moments to take in our surroundings. The booths were decorated with hundreds of small brass plates, each only an inch across and inscribed with the name of a famous patron. Apparently we were sitting in a booth previously occupied by Ted Danson and the bloke from Seinfield with the tall hair. The whole of one wall was taken by a mural of the boardwalk in Atlantic City; the home crowd at New York Giants stadium peered out from the one opposite.

“Something tells me we’re not in the Grab-a-Bite in Acocks Green,” I said to Katie.

“I know,” she replied, eyes wide open. “Look out, here come the menus.”

Tyrone was possibly even happier to see us than his tuxedo-wearing colleague.

“Good morning Sir, Madam!” He meant it. “Here are your menus.” He gave us each a bulky tome and checked our coffee order. Because, let’s face it, we were always going to have some. The aroma of freshly-ground beans permeated every nook and cranny. Even the most avid tea-drinker was going to be beaten into submission by it. Looking over to the coffee station was to see an industrial process in place as the barista dispensed the brew to a never-ending stream of punters. At the marble-topped bar, suited-and-booted New Yorkers perched, waiting for their take-out order. They barked at Blackberries, thumbed their NYT or WSJ or simply glanced at the 24-hour rolling news. There was a cacophony of conversation; it seemed as if they were already making deals before moving on to the concrete and glass eyries next door.

“Phil. Have you looked at this menu?” said Katie in a low voice.

I had. Although I hadn’t fully understood it. There were items there that I’d never considered for breakfast before. There was a heady mix of Italian and Yiddish, interspersed here and there with familiar words. I pounced on one of them like a lifebelt.

“Eggs. Right, they do eggs,” I said under my breath. “You know where you are with eggs. Oh blimey..”

I ran my finger down the menu. I had been given fewer options the last time I bought a new car. How do I want them, what do I want in them, under them, to the side of them? What type of bread to accompany the whole shebang? I eventually settled for three eggs scrambled with Nova Scotia salmon, crispy polenta and something called challah toast. Katie had cinnamon raison and pecan French toast, topped with strawberries, whipped cream and maple syrup.

“Great choice,” said perma-happy Tyrone. “I’ll get these to you as soon as possible.” The contrast with your typical British Harvester employee could not have been more stark.

By this point I think we were hyperventilating ever so slightly. It was like being on an alien planet. Our pulse rates went up another notch when the food actually appeared.

“Christ on a bike,” I gasped, “this isn’t breakfast. This constitutes my entire set of nutritional requirements for the next fortnight.”

“You’re telling me,” said Katie from somewhere behind a mound of whipped cream.

“How is it that they’re not all the size of houses?” I pointed an egg -laden fork at the coffee line. “Look at them. You’ve heard the stereotypes about American people, yet this lot all look like racing snakes. They eat like this and yet none of them are even remotely at the waddling stage.”

“It’s a city thing, I suppose. They must burn it all off through nervous energy.”

“But Katie, we live in a city.”

“Not this one. Not this one." She had a point.

And so we rolled our sleeves up and set to. My eggs were scrambled to perfection and shot through with sea-fresh chunks of salty salmon. The polenta, crispy on the outside, yielded to creamy softness in my mouth. Challah turned out to be French toast but made with traditional Jewish braided bread. All of this was washed down with thick dark coffee, constantly refilled by orbiting staff closely watching to see if your cup fell below the half-way level. I looked over at another table, watching in awe as a gentleman poured what looked like maple syrup over some rashers of bacon. My mind was sufficiently boggled by the whole sweet/savoury interface.

“Katie, we’ve got to come back here tomorrow.”

“I’m not entirely sure I’ll have finished these pancakes by then, but why?”

“I’ve just seen what I’m trying on our next visit.”

We turned back to the breakfast challenge and after fifteen minutes of Herculean effort, managed to finish. While both being fully aware of the general concept of ‘leaving some food behind’ it was just too good to even contemplate. I sat back against the wall of the booth and patted my distended belly.

“That breakfast was quite possibly the pinnacle of civilisation. After something like that to start you off, I reckon you could build a transcontinental railroad, bolt together a Boeing or put the finishing touches to a moonshot. That’s how to do it.”

Katie raised an eyebrow. “I’m not so sure, she said. “I can actually hear my arteries furring up. If everyone had breakfast like this back home I’d give the NHS eighteen months, tops.”

We left some dollar bills at the table, like they do in movies, and gently manoeuvred ourselves back into the manmade Manhattan canyon outside. My heart was singing Home of the Brave while my stomach provided a counterpoint with Hava Nagila. Yellow cabs honked and jostled. At the street corner, steam arose from a manhole like a well-placed cliché.

We did not eat until that night. And even then it was more out of tradition than anything else. One thing is for sure. I shall return. To the city, to the diner, to the more experimental parts of the menu. Because, in the immortal words of Messrs Simon and Garfunkel, I am leaving, I am leaving, but the breakfast still remains.


alejna said...

That was, without doubt, the most entertaining "what I ate for breakfast" post I have ever read.

We used to have a great diner in our little town. The menu was perhaps not as extensive as the one you experienced, and there were certainly no empolyees in evening wear, but the food was delicious and plentiful. I was rather partial to the egg things in the Benedict family. Nothing like smothering your food in hollandaise sauce in the morning. I suppose my arteries might be glad that the diner eventually moved to another town.

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