by Dwain Hebda // Photos by Jamison Mosley and Phillip Thomas
On September 23, 1986, my beloved and I welcomed our first child. The beautiful lad was born healthy, without much fuss, and early — both by the anticipated due date and by the clock on the wall — arriving just a few ticks before 4 a.m. After tending to all the requisite details that follow a happy arrival, I walked out of the hospital under a sky just starting to flush with the light of a new day. I was hungry.
My college buddy, who’d camped out in the waiting room all night, said he could also do with chow, and we went off to find someplace open at what in the 1980s was considered an ungodly early hour. We found our way to a Perkins Restaurant and slid into a booth where I ordered extra-large, fueling up for the new chapter of life that had just unfolded before my very eyes.
In between bites, I told every table within earshot that I was a new father; even told the distinctly unimpressed waitress. Twice. I don’t recall the food being all that great, but it’s one of my favorite meals of all time. There was just something magical about that breakfast.
There’s a mighty good chance you have a similar story concerning the most important meal of the day. Maybe it was some post-prom hash browns or your first newlywed plate of eggs. Maybe it was the aroma of your Nana’s biscuits and gravy that you’ve never been able to replicate. Maybe it was the all-nighter you pulled before college finals. Or that time you just sat and silently watched the steam from your coffee curl from the cup, stunned at what was ending, or summoning the courage to face what was to come.
“My grandparents lived right next door so we would walk across this little sidewalk, and my grandmother would make us breakfast every single day,” says Helen Grace King who co-owns At The Corner diner in Little Rock. “It’s what woke us up; it’s what made us ready to face the day.
“Even as children we were having coffee, and we were way too young to be having coffee with lots of sugar and creamer. But it was just what started our day.”
Breakfast can mend a broken heart, ease a throbbing hangover, put a problem into context, shake you out of a hundred-mile stare. It’s either the surefire cure for, or the root cause of, acute homesickness, depending on where the grits meet the gravy.
“I go to the restaurant, and I look around at the different tables, and I see the people sitting in those seats,” says Anna Russell who created Bentonville’s The Buttered Biscuit with her husband Sam. “There’s a mom and her grown daughters out to catch up or business meetings happening or senior citizens who drive down from Bella Vista.
“And I’m like, ‘oh my gosh, they actually thought of The Buttered Biscuit as a place where they can enjoy a meal and really just connect and have that intentional time together.’ That’s what fuels us; it’s that opportunity to be part of someone’s day on a more casual basis.”
There’s some science behind our love for breakfast — the very name means to break the fast of the night’s sleep. Breakfast is generally your most guilt-free meal, considering anything you throw down at sunup has all day to get burned off, prompting 1960s nutritionist Adelle Davis to famously quip, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” If you’ve ever wondered why truck stops serve those mammoth portions, they’re meant for people who move and improve a nation, that’s why.
And, of course, breakfast is communal — the kids home from college at Christmas, duck hunters in from the hole, the bone-weary coming off the night shift. Do you want to know what this country’s really all about? Go to any town you like at the crack of dawn, head to where the lights are, and you’ll find America.
“People always came together for food, for sharing different grains and meats. It was that one time during the day that a culture would sit down and relax,” says King. “Throughout the day, they were hunting or gathering, they were building homes, they were working, working, working. The only times that they actually sat down to enjoy and share conversation is when they were sharing food. Breakfast is just the first part of this.”
Breakfast is so central to our sense of community, it’s hard to believe that it’s such a recent phenomenon. The meal as we know it has only been around since the 1800s; prior to that time, the first nosh consisted of the previous day’s leftovers, says TIME Magazine. Breakfast cereal didn’t come along until the Civil War, a box of rocks called Granula that was so hard, it had to be pre-soaked in order to chew it.
Thankfully, John Harvey Kellogg soon came along and perfected the ubiquitous breakfast cereal, of which it is estimated Americans eat 160 bowls per person per year. Along with myriad flavor and texture combinations, cereal manufacturers also developed the breakfast cereal box and, indirectly, American literacy rates. I don’t know about you, but after sounding out “niacin” and “riboflavin” from the ingredients list, second-grade’s “See Spot run” was a walk in the park.
Breakfast is also arguably the most universal of meals. From Pittsburgh to Petaluma, Seattle to Shreveport, from Big Falls to Little Rock, breakfast foods don’t generally display the kind of regional differences of say, pizza or barbecue. Oh, there are exceptions, of course — I’d never heard of chocolate or redeye gravy until I moved down here. Nor had I tasted a bona fide Southern biscuit, just like many of you have never heard of scrapple. And out in California, they do what they always do, which is take something wonderful like breakfast and mess it up beyond recognition.
Families add their own breakfast traditions and quirks; ours included Polish sausage as the breakfast meat of choice, or at least one of them, and eating your way through the notorious Plains’ winters on oatmeal and cream of wheat. One of my older sisters moved to the South and turned us on to grits, which was marvelous except when we went to buy them in the local grocery store of my small Midwestern hometown. We might as well have been asking for iguana steaks. Happily, many of these regional cuisine lines have blurred.
“We’re constantly inspired by our grandmother’s cookbook, but we don’t think that food has geographic boundaries,” King says. “We love to be inspired by what they’re doing elsewhere. Food is an art, and like art, it is constantly being innovated, and it’s constantly changing. We’re open to that, and we incorporate that.”
Breakfast has come under assault in recent years. According to MobileCuisine.com, 58 percent of Americans don’t eat breakfast regularly. This is a shame and something I blame on our ridiculous schedules. But I can’t talk much, because I myself have fallen into bad breakfast habits over the years, either from work, family obligations or just plain sloth. Ironically, it is this very insouciance that makes me love this meal, when done right, all the more.
“I think, being the first meal of the day, having a high-quality fresh breakfast can either make or break your day,” says Russell. “If you have the choice of hitting a drive-through or eating a three-ingredient, from-scratch biscuit made that morning, you’re going to feel better. Not only in your health, but it just makes you happy. Food makes you happy. It’s an encouraging element.”
Breakfast is our daily baptism, washing us clean of our failings and frustrations past and anointing us to embrace what lies ahead. In the cacophony of our daily lives, it is the family hymn that leads us through. With the New Year approaching — an election year at that — we need the peaceful nostalgia of breakfast more than ever. As my grandfather was famous for saying when faced with a difficult issue, “Get a good night’s sleep. Things will look better in the morning.” By better, I like to think he meant with a side of bacon.