I had an appointment with a guy named Earl.
We had met the day before, at the aerial tanker base on top of the ridge in Billings, Montana. Earl was a pilot, a bit of a legend. He flew Tanker 10, a Lockheed P2 Neptune with both jets and turboprops hanging off the wings. He flew above wildfires and dropped bright red slurry to stop their advance. Earl sported a flattop crewcut and the sleeves had been ripped off his flight suit. There was a hole, a big hole, in the fabric at his knee. Inside Tanker 10, he had a surfboard tacked up on one of the walls.
When we met, a great deal of eastern Montana was on fire, grassfires racing through the sage and brush. There really wasn't time to talk. Load and return was the phrase you heard at the airport tanker base. Load and return. But he would be free the next morning.
"Stella's," he said. "Have you been to Stella's?"
I said I had not.
"I'll meet you there."
The next morning, I arrived early. Earl arrived on time. We were seated separately and grew a bit annoyed, thinking one of us had stood up the other. But soon I saw Earl walking through the restaurant, coffee in hand, coming my way, a huge smile on his face. He sat at my table and we began to talk. I had important questions, deep questions about a life at risk. Then the food arrived. We tried. I swear, the both of us, we really tried to stay focused. But oh lord, we said. The food was huge, steaming. Soft where it needed to be soft. Crisp in the places to be crisp. I think I took a bite of hash browns first. I am sure I closed my eyes and paused. Words like humility came to mind. Then the pancakes. The warm syrup. I think I was slightly afraid of the omelet. The menu said three egg omelet, but I didn't believe it for a moment. Thirty, perhaps. At least thirteen. The onions and peppers and bacon and sausage were inside, yes. But also heaped over the top. There was cheese inside and on top as well. The fold was perfect. Even at breakfast, I think, you don't press a fork against the sublime. But I will admit I did.
If you have the good fortune to travel, you will learn the edges of food. Food is nutrition, yes. It is also circumstance and mood and surprise and joy. If you notice the food, it might be in anger or worry. If you really notice the food, it is almost always an act of love.
I used to think the best breakfast in New York City was a little single-wide Italian place just off Times Square. I have always eaten there alone. Breakfast there is an omelet, rich in whatever, stuffed into a long French roll. Whoever supplies their bread, combined with whoever brings their bacon, their red and green peppers, their cheese, it's all most likely an accident. But the combination, eaten outside, standing on the sidewalk, watching yellow cabs and moon-eyed tourists, is deeply moving. But then I ate at a place called Penelope, where the Bloody Marys are made with sake. Sake! I ate there with friends, old friends and new, smiles and shouts across the length of the table. The omelets were large and the coffee strong. I couldn't imagine any place better.
No place better, perhaps. But certainly other places with calls to my heart. The split and toasted blueberry muffins at Jake's Café in Northampton, Massachusetts. The hot chocolate at Le Café in Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand. The history of my life is marked by places where days of exploring have begun with a hope, a kitchen, and an idea.
Breakfast is more than simply the breaking of the overnight fast. Breakfast, when done right, is deep core celebration of the act of beginning, the act of setting forth. Think camp stove and sunrise. Think Sunday brunch.
There is a hotel in London, on Gower Street, where guests are served breakfast in the basement common room by the owner and an assistant. Nothing special. Just eggs, toast, English bacon and sausage, coffee and tea. There is juice and yogurt if you want them. The television is on against the far wall. You sit close enough to the other guests that conversation is natural and easy, and soon the room is filled with people who do not know each other behaving like relatives who get along. You tell each other your plans for the day, excited to get going, but then you linger. This food is good. The coffee is dark. These people are interesting. You have the whole coming day for exploring.
At home, breakfast is either perfunctory or performance. A dash out the door or an improvisation in jazz. Either oatmeal, the ever-present definition of the mundane, or something that makes you tilt your head a little more steeply. Ever had ebelskiver? Think spherical -- not round: spherical -- pancakes. Or think my own corner of breakfast theology: eggs, cheese, butter, bacon, onions, peppers, toast, jelly, juice, coffee, and then potatoes. Only during breakfast is the word skillet a verb.
Breakfast is story. Breakfast is the gathering of attitude and grace. Once upon a time, I watched a woman at Penelope get syrup, real syrup, all over her hands as she tried to wrangle the French toast on her plate. She smiled at her companion. This was not embarrassment. On the contrary, this was adventure. Breakfast is like that, sometimes.
There is a reason breakfast food can be served for any meal. Once upon a time, I happened to sit next to a man named Matthew at a conference. Matthew is serious about his food. This was an evening gathering, a great many of us at the table, glasses of wine, appetizers, some social worry over complicated menus, but one of us mentioned breakfast and suddenly the whole table smiled as everyone launched into stories of joy and the extraordinary. Tulsa, we asked? Chicago? Red Lodge, oh Lord! What was the name of that place? Matthew and I compared and railed and laughed. We agreed that my grandfather, who used to tell servers he wanted bacon he could point with, got it right.
With breakfast, Plato got it wrong. Or, perhaps, just backwards. He said the ascending order was thing, then representation of thing, then idea of thing. He said the idea was the highest form of reality. Yet Billings, Montana is a day's drive from my home on the eastern border of North Dakota and I seem to wind up there a lot. Without fail, the next morning is a breakfast at Stella's, a silent thank you to Earl as I walk through the doors. I begin with an idea. Three egg omelet. Stuffed with Provolone and Swiss cheese, onions, red and green peppers, bacon and sausage. Hash Browns. Pancakes. Real syrup. Coffee. I see representations of these things on the menu and I give voice to these hopes. And then the plate arrives. The thing itself. This, I think. Just this.