Breakfast with Maira Kalman: An Interview

October 20, 2011 · 10 comments

Breakfast people tend to be different.

My father was a breakfast person; nothing made him happier than sitting down at a morning spread comprised of anything from scrambled eggs (with ketchup) and bacon, to coffee cake, to leftover apple strudel from Mrs. Herbst, to bagels and schmaltz herring, to Spam fried in a sad little teflon pan that he used for nothing else.

My mother generally preferred black coffee and a cigarette. They divorced when I was 15.

Like my father, I’m also a breakfast person; nothing in the world makes me happier than sitting down at the dining room table on a rainy Sunday morning with the paper, a big pot of tea (black), and two eggs (poached) on toast (white). When I studied in England many years ago, I was deliriously happy every morning in the way that only a breakfast glutton who loves kippers can be; the first day of my semester at Cambridge, I walked into the dining room at Gonville & Caius College, and floated over to a banquet table festooned with platters of warm toast, sweet Irish butter, fried tomatoes, beans, smoked fish, eggs, and black pudding. English people are breakfast people. As a nation.

And naturally, breakfast people tend to be drawn to other breakfast people; in the 90s, I used to read Laurie Colwin ferociously, like a starving beast, and by the time I got to the middle of Home Cooking, I knew in my heart that she was a breakfast person. Likewise, the artist/illustrator/designer/writer Maira Kalman, who elevates the mundane to the glorious in a way that makes me alternately weep and guffaw, breathless, like a madwoman. When I attended her show at The Jewish Museum in Manhattan in June (twice), I was given a very wide berth.

Maira has a decided affinity for what one journalist called the whimsically neurotic, which is, in part, why I find her work so appealing. When you read her books, there are certain truths that become instantly apparent: she seems to love food. Cake, especially, appears to hold great meaning for her. I asked her where she stands on the subject of breakfast, and this is what she had to say:

You seem to me to be a breakfast person — the sort who might start their day with this particularly personal, ritualistic meal. You say in The Principles of Uncertainty that you read the obits over breakfast first thing with a cup of coffee. What else is there on your table?

Breakfast is the meal that I enjoy the most. And the one that I most like to share with other people. Lately, I’ve been eating sheep’s milk yogurt with pomegranate seeds. Very Biblical. There is usually jam and bread. A banana is eaten. And sometimes a lemon pound cake or biscotti, but we are trying to stay away from cake. Too bad.

I have a writer/chef friend who, when he travels, packs an “emergency” breakfast bag so that wherever he finds himself, he’s not caught short. Is there anything you must have for breakfast when you’re not at home, so much so that it might impact the rest of your day if you don’t have it?

The most important thing is coffee. Without that, we are in trouble. After that, whatever is around. A croissant. A bowl of granola. Some eggs.

You write a lot about cake. Have you ever eaten cake for breakfast?

See above. There used to be a lot of cake for breakfast. When we are in Tel Aviv, we make a strong pot of coffee and have slices of honey cake on the terrace. It feels like a good beginning. But again, the cake element is questionable these days. That might change.

Traveling the world as you have, what have been some of the more memorable breakfasts you’ve eaten abroad?

Thirty years ago, on a ferry from Spain to Portugal, hot coffee with steamed milk in a glass. Twenty five years ago, near Siena, breakfast with my family under a tree. Almond cake. Coffee. Fruit. Cheese. Five years ago at Sissinghurst in England, a full English breakfast served with mismatched china and silver in a small bed and breakfast. Raspberry jam. Fig jam.

I’ve found that the children of breakfast people tend to grow up to be breakfast people. Is this true in your case? Did you grow up in a breakfast-loving household? Are you children breakfast people? 

I can’t remember breakfast with my parents at all. And my children meet me for breakfast. But I don’t know what they do when I’m not around.

It’s a quiet weekend morning; your schedule is open, and there’s nowhere you absolutely have to be. Do you prefer to have breakfast in or out? What would be the ideal scenario for you?

I would take a walk and hopefully end up in a place with an outdoor table. I would have my sketchbook with me so I could draw my breakfast. And hopefully there would be really, really good coffee. And no music except for classical music. But mostly the sounds of the day beginning and the clink of silverware and the murmur of conversation.

Bliss. 

 

 


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Wronski October 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I too am a Maira Kalman fan. Often fantasized about meeting up with her for a nice breakfast at a diner on the UWS/Manhattan. The two of us in a booth, enjoying some straighforward food.

You may want to add yourself to The Culinary Hall of Fame (http://www.culinaryhalloffame.com/component/jreviews/new-listing_d3/)

2 Victoria October 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm

My mother was English, and up until my twelfth birthday, I spent four to six months in England every other year. In the mornings we ate Irish bacon, my grandfather’s sausages (he was a pork butcher), eggs plucked from underneath a neighbor’s chicken and softly boiled, and – maybe the best of all – thickly sliced bread speared on tongs and toasted over the coal fire then spread with butter and homemade gooseberry jam. Laurie Colwin and you would have been in breakfast heaven.

I won’t even go into what we ate for tea, and I definitely won’t mention Mrs. Lambert’s currant scones or crumbly Cheshire cheese.

My best friend’s mother was from Budapest. She was a fantastic cook, and I cannot count how many times I have heard about Mrs. Herbst’s strudel.

3 alyssa October 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm

i adore maira kalman, and am wondering just why my mother didn’t bring me to that show at the museum. (you now challenge her theory that all the members, if you are a member, are geriatric.)

4 Elissa October 20, 2011 at 4:52 pm

It was wonderful. I went once with Susan, and then once in the middle of the week by myself. Bliss.

5 Nina Schwartz October 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

My favorite breakfasts seem to involve the porch, whether we’re eating pancakes, eggs, matzo brie, or just a bowlful of cereal. It’s the sunlight and the scenery!

6 Annie October 21, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I am so with you on breakfast. I am of the hot savory breakfast persuasion. I do not like sweet foods for breakfast, nor cold cereal. I relate to the gentleman who travels with breakfast. I have been known to take bagels on vacations. Once I even packed a toaster. I also do not like eating breakfast in public. Currently I am drinking coffee in the mornings, which is easier to obtain, but for most of my life I was addicted to tea with lemon and sugar. For some reason, it is almost impossible to get enough lemon for your tea in a restaurant.

7 Annie October 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Oh yes, and my father also loved a hearty breakfast. My mother thought we ought to eat breakfast, but I don’t remember ever seeing her eat anything in particular. She probably found some leftover or other in the refrigerator, knowing her proclivities. But dad always had two slices of whole wheat toast (Oroweat Wheat Berry) and cereal.

8 Angelina October 25, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I am definitely a breakfast person but I don’t like to eat much before 10am so I like big late breakfasts. But not brunch. I’m not a brunch person. I love eggs and potatoes and fruit and toast with jam and butter or (if they’re very very good) scones, or maybe some muffins or croissants…

I love breakfast.

9 flwjane November 3, 2011 at 4:25 pm

This just gets better and better. Any friend of Home Cooking is a friend of mine.

Jane

10 Elissa November 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Thanks- Wasn’t Laurie Colwin just the best?

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