Breakfasts with my father

The author with her father, circa 1960s.

The author with her father, circa 1960s.

by Katherine Larson

Throughout my childhood my father was the family cook, and most of the kitchen lore that lies at my fingertips today stretches back to his teaching and his example. This includes breakfasts—indeed, especially breakfasts.

My first-grade teacher also played a small part. Miss Bitter, I will call her, though that was not her name. She and I were an ill- suited pair. Miss Bitter did not like it when I spelled better than she did. She did not like it when I did arithmetic more accurately than she did. She especially—and understandably—did not like it when I publicly corrected her; the fact that I was right made it worse. After enough passages at arms in which I prevailed, she stopped calling on me.

But, of course, I did the classwork. One day, she announced that we were going to study nutrition. For this unit, we were asked to keep a food log, recording what we ate for three meals each day from Monday through Friday. The following week, we would pres- ent them for first-grade-level nutritional analyses and discussion about ways to eat better.

I don’t know what Miss Bitter thought her young charges would do with any suggestions she might make for our nutritional improvement—carry them home and demand changes in the fam- ily menu, perhaps?—but she didn’t ask our opinions about the assignment.

Still, I was delighted. I knew my father was a superlative cook. I knew that he fed us food that was imaginative and healthy and delicious. In a classroom where I usually felt like the ugly duck- ling, here would be my opportunity, through my father, to shine.

So I brought my food log home and spent the week filling it out in the best wobbly cursive that my 6-year-old self could muster. The following Monday came, and to my astonishment and delight Miss Bitter actually called on me to present my week of breakfasts. I stood up proudly.

“Monday, sage omelets.” These were always a treat; my father made them individually, one per child. He would go out to the gar- den and pick the daintiest, freshest, most fragrant of the sage leaves available. Shaking off the morning dew, he would melt a nugget of butter in the omelet pan and then frizzle a few leaves until they were crispy and their almost-piney aroma suffused the kitchen. A swirl of beaten egg swept up the sage and butter, and then he gen- tly decanted the soft, tangy, unctuous golden mass onto the waiting child’s plate. With a slice of toast, profoundly satisfying.

“Tuesday, mushrooms on toast.” One of my sisters had had a birthday, and this was the prescribed breakfast birthday celebra- tion. On mushroom days, my father used the extra-large sauté pan so the mushrooms would have enough elbow room to sauté rather than steam. In my childhood mushrooms loomed as fabulously expensive, wildly extravagant, and so they were counted out care- fully: four mushrooms per child, with sizes carefully balanced so that no one, not even the birthday girl, had more than her fair share of the larger ones. Halved or quartered or sliced, these mushrooms were put to sauté in a lavish quantity of hot butter, then cooked until they reached a rich crispy brown. Nothing flac- cid, pallid, or rubbery here—my father drew deep loamy flavors from his delectable fungi. Shortly before they were done, he would

mushrooms on toast can be made even more lavish when you slide an egg, over easy or to your taste, onto the toast before ladling the mushrooms over everything.

mushrooms on toast can be made even more lavish when you slide an egg, over easy or to your taste, onto the toast before ladling the mushrooms over everything.

add a splash of white wine, and then a shower of minced garlic and a big grind of black pepper. In the meantime, we children made ourselves toast and then waited, toast flat on plate, for him to come wielding his big pan and smother the toast with mush- rooms and butter and luscious juices.

I was enjoying myself, but Miss Bitter’s face was sour. She had never experienced a sage omelet and probably didn’t know whether sage had any nutritional value. (It does. Vitamins A and C, the whole B-com- plex including pyridoxine, folic acid, and thiamine; Vitamin K, beta-carotenes…) And in her world garlic was unthinkable for breakfast, white wine even more so. Worst of all, none of these foods fit nicely into her prepared food chart. Where was the cereal?

Oblivious, I caroled on. “Wednesday, Camembert.” Poor Miss Bitter did not know about Camembert, that lovely runny, stinky, earthy French cheese that makes today’s supermarket Brie appear a lump of white rubber by comparison. We would have it for breakfast with a big crusty loaf of sourdough bread, sometimes with a few slices of garlicky Italian salami on the side.

“Thursday, zucchini frittata.” That did it. Sadly, Miss Bitter had never heard of zucchini—yes, in California! Yes, in the late 1950s!—and, even more sadly, she did- n’t believe that it existed. She thought that I was making fun of the assignment by inventing some silly-sounding words, zoo- kee-nee-free-ta-ta, and she sat me down in a corner to ponder my sins.

What she missed hearing about was one of the world’s great ways to start a day. Take tender fresh young zucchini, no more than six inches long and commensurately slen- der, and slice them into coin-sized rounds. In your large sauté pan melt a generous combination of butter and olive oil and then lay the rounds down, if possible all crowded into a single comprehensive layer. Add black pepper and a whisper of salt, then simmer the zucchini relatively slowly until its liquid has evaporated and what remains is beautifully caramelized. (It takes a while. You can do this part the night before, if mornings are busy in your kitchen.) Gently pour in some beaten egg, possibly with a little grated Parmesan added, and let the bottom set.

Flipping the frittata can be a challenge. A small one in a small pan can be flipped with a wide spatula, a firm wrist, a daring spirit, and a prayer. For a large one in a large pan, I do what my father did: use the spatula to cut the frittata into quarters in the pan, then flip each quarter separately. You are aiming for flatness, with a nearly solid expanse of greeny-golden-brown zucchini held together with a little egg. Another grind of black pepper, and the dish is done.

And what Miss Bitter missed most of all was my father’s triumph of the week, Friday’s birchermuesli.

This was not the box of hamster shavngs that has appeared under that name in health food stores in recent decades. No, this was the real thing, and birchermuesli days were glorious high holy days in our family’s culinary pantheon.

They required a big bowl and a little forethought, as the raw oats were soaked ahead of time in water or fruit juice or yogurt. To this my father added big dollops of plain yogurt, the juice of a lemon, and quite a lot of ground hazelnuts. Then he positioned a flat grater over the bowl and rubbed an apple (peel and all) back and forth; we watched, hungrily, as the apple goo dripped through the grater’s holes and into the mixture below. What followed depended on the season: chunks of more apple, slices of banana and oranges, straw- berries or raspberries or blueberries, what- ever was ripe and fresh and good. Then my father stirred it all together and, frowning, tasted—enough yogurt? maybe more nuts? how about a few grapes?—until he judged it ready for our delectation. This glorious messy mixture tasted ambrosial.

he author’s father is pictured more recently.

he author’s father is pictured more recently.

So here’s to you, Miss Bitter. In my book, people who undertake the education of other people’s children are heroes, no mat- ter their personal limitations. And I hope that somewhere, sometime in your life you found it possible to open yourself up to zucchini and strong cheese.

And here’s to my father, who taught me to be curious, to demand rigor, and to approach the world with a questioning mind. He did not always find it easy to express love overtly. But love shone forth when he worked in the kitchen—love, appreciation, deep enjoyment of zucchini and strong cheeses and all the other good things of the earth.

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