The best breakfast ever

1410_food_chef_don_curtoby Don Curto

Breakfast. Pronounced “breck-fist.” This meal was truly, for most of us, a “break the fast,” as an early supper could be 5:30 p.m. in the dark days of winter and the first morning food, even on a school day, might be as late as 7:00 a.m. This fourteen-hour period certainly classifies as a fast. I know I have mentioned this breakfast in the long-ago past, but this is a new appreciation.

The year was 1931. That might seem like a long time ago to some of you, but I remember it quite clearly—or at least I think I do. The season was winter. In Marquette, that meant cold, snow, icy wind. Everything was darker, colder, windier, lonelier than today because the Great Depression was just underway, and there were very few feelings of safety or optimism and damned little good cheer in the Queen City of the North.
It was nearly the end of the Hoover administration, that poor president who got a lot more mud on his reputation than he really deserved. We were on the cusp of the FDR years, but I did not know just how bad things really were.
I was seven years old, still protected by grandparents and parents from the worst of the realities around me. As an only child, my protection was even greater. I did not realize, yet, all the terrible selfishness, rivalry and competitiveness that poor people with siblings had to live through. That realization would come to me later.
My father had a good job with the DSS&A railroad. He mostly was employed as a fireman, but was a tested and qualified engineer, a position he would hold regularly in years to come. But the worst thing that was ever going to happen to my dad was a work layoff that stretched into two years and eleven months as the Depression broke the back of Marquette’s economy. He paced the floor nights, sleepless, dreadfully worried, and almost broken in spirit. Bits and pieces of work here and there, some significant help from my grandparents and ingenuity in snaring and shooting kept us alive and fed.
The years leading up to WWII produced better times, but we lived all this time on the very edge of poverty. There was no real help from government in 1931.
I have never lost the understanding of poverty, of asking for help from those who did not really want to give it, but felt compelled by their relationship. My French and Irish grandparents were wonderful people—talented, hard-working and fairly frugal. However, unconditional generosity was not high in their genetic makeup. Help often was given grudgingly enough so that even a small boy could sense it. This poverty of generosity still is around us today. As my great friend and sponsor Red Klinger used to say in these ungenerous circumstances, “I never saw a hearse pulling a U-Haul.”
At this time, we had no telephone. Many in Marquette were in a similar position. The railroad solved the problem of keeping in contact with employees, including notification of start times where these could vary, by having a “call boy.”
The call boy was not a boy and he didn’t call. He was an adult in good physical condition who went to the home of the employee, knocked on the door or rattled a window to notify the employee and give him the message. In the case of my father’s job, the start time to get his locomotive ready to roll frequently was very early in the morning.
It was not uncommon for the call boy to arrive about 3:00 a.m. to warn my dad that he needed to be at the round house at 5:00 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. start to St. Ignace to meet the ferry and hook up with the New York Central railroad to carry his train downstate and on to the East. No one in our house got out of bed except my father.
During this time, before we got a furnace in the small basement to provide central heat, our house was heated by a single “Heatrola” in the dining room, in front of the small fireplace. This heater was exhausted through a hole in the fireplace chimney. The Heatrola burned wood—in our case, mostly wet wood—producing creosote that discolored the chimney connection and smelled up the small house.
Despite the “stoking” of the heater before the last person retired, it frequently burned out and had to be restarted in the morning. My dad usually did this, when he was home. If not him, then I did it before getting ready for school. Yes, in the winter we lived in a cold house. It was quickly warm by the heater, but it remained cold elsewhere. We did have an electric heater for the bathroom.
On the particular morning I write about, I have no recollection of any special circumstances bringing about my father’s invitation to join him for breakfast. I guess he just thought I was old enough to get up early and get to work. It was a morning of great excitement for me.
The first smell was frying onion. These bits and pieces were lightly fried to blend with the sliced potatoes to be cooked almost crisp. The potatoes were boiled leftovers.
Our house had a rather strange kitchen cooking set-up. The main stove was electric with four burners on the right side, with large electric oven beneath. On the left side of that stove there was a wood-burning section about twelve or fourteen inches wide with a cast iron cooking top. Wood was inserted just beneath the top through a door that opened outward. Ashes were shaken into a pull-out drawer just beneath the firebox.
On the wall opposite this huge stove was a rather flimsy kerosene stove with an oven on the left, and two burners on the right. I have no idea how or why these two units were acquired, but I do remember that each had its separate purpose. The kerosene oven was used almost exclusively to bake potatoes. Potatoes baked anywhere else were not nearly as good, it was believed. I think it was the thickness of the baked skin that made the difference.
Slow cooking was done on the wood-burning section of the electric stove. In the winter, of course, this also helped to heat that section of the house and keep down the cost of electricity, although with a city-owned power plant, it was very economical. At that time, the city provided maintenance and parts for electric stoves as I recall. Figuring out what to cook where required some more-than-usual knowledge of foods, and this might be where my lifelong interest in this began.
In the pantheon of smells after the onion came the pork chops. I don’t know where my father got the idea, but he removed the bones from the morning pork chops and cut them very thin so that when fried properly they got deliciously brown and crisp, almost like bacon. The cooking fat, no longer liquid, was from bacon, kept in a bowl close by. (From time to time this bacon fat replaced butter on whole wheat bread. A little salt was used in the final flavoring.)
This portion of the breakfast was kept warm in the kerosene oven, which also gave some early morning heat while the wood-burning heater got going. Next came the preparation of the eggs. This was a delicate process. Brown butter is prepared in a frying pan to be used for the eggs. As you probably know, brown butter has a very nice nutty taste when it is done right. If done poorly, it can be bitter.
It is quite easy to do. Put some butter in a frying pan and using moderate heat—it goes faster with high heat, but is spoiled more easily. Let the solids in the butter slowly cook, turning a rich brown. Stir constantly when doing this.
Have two eggs ready to drop into the frying pan. Cook them slowly, and after they are set, tilt the pan just enough for the brown butter to run to one side of the pan. Using a teaspoon, pour this brown butter over the top of the cooking eggs. Continue doing this until you achieve an “over-easy” appearance and the egg yolk remains rich and yellow.
So the breakfast menu served on a large, warmed plate was two brown butter eggs, a pile of fried potatoes with onions and crisp pork chops. Toasted whole wheat bread from the Marquette Baking Company up the street finished the meal. My father had coffee, but I suppose I had milk because I was not permitted coffee at this age.
It was cold, snowy and windy on this morning. The dishes were put into the sink; my father bundled up in winter gear, gave me a big hug and was off into the winter morning. I know we talked about something during this time, but I can’t remember anything but being with my father and watching the cooking. From our house at Crescent and Third, the walk to the roundhouse at the end of Baraga is just about a mile and a quarter. Tough guy, my Dad.
I went back to bed, warm and happy. I can’t recall any breakfast in my life better than this one. I was for the first time treated as a male companion rather than as a child.

—Don Curto

P.S.—I don’t think there has been any time when Marquette looked as beautiful as it does right now. We should perhaps be known as The Flower City of the North, rather than the Queen City. And you know, I am sure that it is Ms. Barb Kelly that really got this whole thing going with her Front Street Petunias and her Front Street Petunia gang of volunteers. Drive around the city and you will see flowers everywhere. What a sight.

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