Breakfast with Maira Kalman
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.