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Southern Comforts: The Superiority of a Good Country Breakfast : Traditions: In every corner of the South and in every season of the year, the first meal of the day is rarely taken lightly. Some remembrances from native sons and daughters.

<i> Egerton is the author of "Southern Food" (Knopf, 1987)</i>

“In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuits, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steaks, scalding coffee. Or there were stacked buttercakes, rum-colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat, juicy bacon, jam.”

--THOMAS WOLFE, “LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL”

It was his own waking to the seductive aromas of breakfast in his mother’s Asheville, N.C., boarding house that author Thomas Wolfe remembered so vividly. Wolfe was not the first Southern writer to wax eloquent over a breakfast spread, nor has he been the last. Since the days of plantations, breakfast has been a major meal in the South--for some, it is the major meal--and in almost every state from Virginia to Louisiana there remain many old and established traditions surrounding the bountiful morning repast.

Today, many Americans get their morning start-ups from a cereal box or the drive-up window of a fast-foot outlet--if, indeed, they take the time to eat at all. But on special occasions, whenever time permits, millions of people linger nostalgically over breakfast the way it used to be.

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For Southerners especially, the fondness for a substantial morning meal endures. A hearty Southern breakfast in the traditional style has more than enough diversity to draw an appreciative crowd to a boarding house or a banquet table. It’s a meal that is sometimes formal and sometimes casual; it knows no bounds of class, race or calling.

Tennessee writer Wilma Dykeman in her 1966 novel, “The Farm Family,” has Papa explain the natural superiority of a good country breakfast to his children at the table. “No Astor or Vanderbilt has better eating than this,” he tells them. “You young’uns just remember, the richest man living on Park Avenue in New York City can’t eat what we’ve got set before us right here this morning. His corn’s stale, his eggs have been shipped in from some place, his milk’s all treated some way--I tell you, we’re lucky folks!”

Never mind that most of the items on that once-standard menu--bacon and sausage, eggs and butter, milk and cream, coffee, hot breads, sweet syrups--are now deemed poor choices from the standpoint of health and nutrition. To enjoy judicious servings of them once in a while seems a pleasure too innocent to abandon. That pleasure is what keeps the traditional breakfast close to so many hearts.

Breakfast traditions have different origins in different regions of the South. For example, the fabled Virginia hunt breakfasts that date back to the Colonial era are restaged from time to time. Exceedingly popular Kentucky Derby brunches are an outgrowth of the plantation banquets of old. In the South Carolina low country around Charleston, morning feasts authentic in their fidelity to early times can be found in cookbooks and even sampled in small cafes.

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Spanish influences along the Gulf Coast from Tampa, Fla., to Mobile, Ala., still season the time-honored breakfast dishes of the subtropical terrain. Nothing can top the richness and elegance of Creole cuisine in the forenoon feasts that grace the brunch tables of New Orleans. Inland and upland across the South, people of all classes still answer the call to country breakfasts that easily make up in quantity and quality anything they may lack in the way of elegance or formality.

As much as these delicious meals vary from one region to another, they are all closely bound by the culinary traditions of the South. In every corner of the region and in every season of the year, Southerners seem irresistibly drawn to morning cookery.

It was Madame Elizabeth Begue of New Orleans who probably invented brunch. From 1863 until her death in 1906 she offered a sumptuous second breakfast in her coffeehouse near the French Quarter marketplace. Among the dishes on her menu were many Creole specialties that now are considered dinner items--crawfish bisque, for example, and jambalaya--but some of her simplest creations still rank among favorites for New Orleans breakfasts.

Madame Begue was a genius at using leftovers to make new dishes. In her skillful hands, yesterday’s potatoes and tomatoes found new life in today’s omelets, and she turned stale bread into pain perdu --what we now call French toast. Many of her recipes, published in the 1930s, have found their way into other cuisines.

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In the spirit of the German-born Madame Begue’s second breakfast is another French Quarter tradition known as Breakfast at Brennan’s. Begun more than 40 years ago at a restaurant owned by Irishman Owen Brennan and his family, the now-famous feast continues there under the direction of Brennan’s sons.

Meanwhile, 800 miles upriver in Louisville, Kentuckians delight in their elegant breakfasts on the day of the Kentucky Derby. Throughout the morning prior to the running of the annual race, they work their way through icy mint juleps, country ham, biscuits and gravy, grits and eggs, and other delicacies. Like the hunt breakfast that preceded it, the Derby breakfast recalls the lavish plantation hospitality of an earlier time.

Not all great Southern breakfasts are such elegant affairs. Consider, for example, a straightforward combination of country sausage, gravy, fried eggs, biscuits, fried apples and coffee. Their preparation is simple and the result is an abiding pleasure for all who eat--a table full of guests, a small circle of family and friends or the cook, dining in peaceful solitude.

In “The Farm Family,” Wilma Dykeman said it best. She wrote that by the time Papa had finished his song of praise for his family’s farm-fresh Southern breakfast, “Ivy and the other children were sorry for millionaires who had only money and could not enjoy the fruits of the earth at the peak of their season.”

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The following recipes were adapted from ones in “Mme. Begue’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Creole Cookery,” (J. S. W. Harmanson, 1937); “Southern Food” by John Egerton (Knopf, 1987), and from specialties at Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans.

SMOKED SAUSAGE AND SAWMILL GRAVY

12 ounces smoked sausage

Oil

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1/2 cup flour

3 cups milk

Salt, pepper

Shape sausage into patties 1/2 inch thick. Saute over medium heat until browned and cooked through. Remove from skillet and set aside.

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Drain off drippings and measure, adding enough oil to make 1/2 cup. Return to skillet and heat. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, 3 minutes or until browned.

Add milk and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until bubbly. Cook, stirring, 1 minute more. Crumble 1 or 2 cooked sausage patties into gravy. Makes 4 cups.

CAMP COFFEE

1/2 cup freshly ground coffee

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1 egg

Dash salt

Rinse large enamel coffee pot with boiling water. Add ground coffee. Break egg, crushing shell, and add egg and shell to pot.

Add 1/2 cup cold water, 6 cups boiling water and salt and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 3 minutes.

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Remove from heat and let steep 3 to 5 minutes. (Egg, shell and grounds will settle to bottom). Makes 6 to 8 servings.

ANGEL BISCUITS

5 1/2 cups flour

1/4 cup sugar

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1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup shortening

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1 package dry yeast

2 cups buttermilk

Night before serving, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Cut in shortening.

Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons warm water. Add to dry ingredients along with buttermilk. Stir into ball and knead until nearly smooth. Cover and chill overnight.

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Roll dough to 1/2-inch thickness on floured surface. Cut with (2-inch) biscuit cutter. Place biscuits close together on baking sheet. Cover loosely and allow to rise 1/2 hour. Bake at 400 degrees about 10 minutes until lightly browned. Makes about 60 biscuits.

FRIED APPLES

4 tart cooking apples, cored and sliced

3 tablespoons lemon juice

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1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter

Toss apples with lemon juice. Combine sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

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Cook 1/2 apples in large skillet with 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat about 5 minutes or until tender, turning frequently. Sprinkle with 1/2 sugar mixture last 30 seconds of cooking. Remove to serving platter and keep warm.

Repeat with remaining apples and butter. Sprinkle remaining sugar mixture over apples. Makes 8 servings.

POTATO OMELET

1/2 cup chopped onion

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1/4 cup shortening or lard

3 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

5 eggs, beaten

Salt, pepper

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Cook onion in shortening in 10-inch skillet until translucent. Add potatoes. Cook, covered, about 18 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally.

Pour in eggs and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook without stirring until mixture begins to set on bottom and around edges.

Lift egg mixture so uncooked portion flows underneath. Cook about 3 minutes more or until done but still moist. Makes 4 servings.

BROILED GRAPEFRUIT

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2 large grapefruit, halved

4 teaspoons honey

4 teaspoons butter

2 teaspoons sugar

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Dash ground cinnamon

Cut around sections of grapefruit. Spoon 1 teaspoon honey onto center of each half and top each with 1 teaspoon butter. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.

Broil 3 to 4 inches from heat about 2 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

EGGS CREOLE

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1/4 cup butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

2 cups cooked grits

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1/2 cup cooked and crumbled smoked sausage

1 green pepper, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

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2 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

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2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 (16-ounce) can tomatoes, cut up

1 tablespoon cornstarch

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1/4 cup cold water

5 eggs

1/4 cup milk

Flour

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Soft bread crumbs

Oil

Mix 2 tablespoons butter, salt, cheese and sausage into hot grits. Spoon evenly into 8-inch square baking dish. Cover and chill until firm.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet. Add green pepper, onion, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are nearly tender. Add bay leaf, paprika, thyme, Worcestershire and hot pepper sauce. Add undrained tomatoes. Simmer, covered, about 10 minutes.

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Stir cornstarch into cold water. Add to skillet and cook until thickened and bubbly. Cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Discard bay leaf.

Cut chilled grits into 4 squares. Combine 1 egg, beaten, and milk. Dredge grits with flour, dip into egg mixture and coat with bread crumbs. Fry in hot oil until browned on both sides. Drain on paper towels and keep warm.

Poach remaining 4 eggs. To serve, layer grits, eggs and sauce. Makes 4 servings.

PAIN PERDU

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2 cups milk

4 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup brandy

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12 (1-inch) slices French bread

1/4 cup oil

Powdered sugar

Combine milk, eggs, granulated sugar and brandy. Soak bread slices in mixture about 30 seconds on each side.

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Cook in hot oil over medium heat until brown on both sides. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Makes 4 servings.

BANANAS FOSTER

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

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4 small bananas, sliced lengthwise

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup light rum

1 tablespoon banana liqueur

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French vanilla ice cream

Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Add brown sugar and stir until dissolved. Add bananas and cook about 2 minutes on each side. Sprinkle with cinnamon.

Combine rum and liqueur and pour over bananas. Use match to flame liquid, basting bananas until flame burns out. Serve with ice cream. Makes 4 servings.

BAKED COUNTRY HAM

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1/2 (18-to 20-pound) dry-cured country ham

1 cup cider vinegar

2 cups apple juice

1 cup granulated sugar

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1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 cup soft bread crumbs

1 tablespoon black pepper

Place ham in large pan. Add vinegar and enough water to cover and soak several hours or overnight.

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Drain. Add enough fresh water to cover. Simmer, covered, 1 hour. Drain.

Return ham to pan and add apple juice, granulated sugar and enough water to cover. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 1/4 hours. Remove from heat and let ham stand in liquid until cool enough to handle.

Remove ham from liquid. Remove hard skin, visible fat and removable bones.

Combine brown sugar, bread crumbs and pepper, mixing well. Pat evenly over warm ham. Allow to cool completely. (Crust will form as ham cools). Cut into thin slices to serve. Makes 12 servings.

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SWEET AND SOUR ASPARAGUS

2/3 cup vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon celery seeds

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3 (3-inch) pieces stick cinnamon

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

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2 pounds steamed asparagus

Combine vinegar, sugar, celery seeds, cinnamon, cloves, water and salt. Boil gently, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Pour marinade over asparagus. Cover and chill 4 to 24 hours.

Drain. Pass asparagus and marinade separately. Makes 6 servings.

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MINT JULEPS

2 tablespoons Simple Syrup

4 fresh mint sprigs

Shaved ice

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2/3 cup bourbon

Powdered sugar

Mint leaves

Pour 1 tablespoon Simple Syrup into tall glass. Add 2 sprigs mint, crushed slightly. Add ice. Stir in 1/3 cup bourbon. Add more ice to fill glass. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and garnish with mint.

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Repeat with remaining ingredients. Makes 2 servings.

Simple Syrup

1 cup boiling water

1 cup sugar

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Stir boiling water into sugar until sugar dissolves. Simple syrup will keep almost indefinitely refrigerated in covered container.

CHEESE GRITS

1 cup quick cooking grits

4 cups boiling water

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1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup butter

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 eggs, beaten

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Place grits in large saucepan and stir in boiling water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat. Stir in cheese, butter and garlic until melted. Stir in eggs.

Spoon mixture into 11x7-inch baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees about 35 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

BROILED TOMATOES

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6 medium tomatoes

1/2 cup soft bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons snipped parsley

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2 teaspoons snipped chives

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon dried basil

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1/4 teaspoon dried dill

1/8 teaspoon dried thyme

1/8 teaspoon dried oregano

Dash salt

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3 tablespoons butter

Slice off tops of tomatoes. Place tomatoes in 8-inch square baking dish. Combine bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, chives, pepper, garlic powder, basil, dill, thyme, oregano and salt. Spoon mixture over tomatoes. Top each with 1 1/2 teaspoons butter. Bake at 350 degrees about 25 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

BEATEN BISCUITS

3 1/2 cups flour

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1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup lard or shortening

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3/4 to 1 cup half and half

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Cut in lard until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in half and half and mix until dough forms easy-to-handle ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and let dough rest several hours.

Place dough 1/2 at time in food processor and process 2 minutes. Knead briefly by hand. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut with 2-inch cutter.

Place biscuits on ungreased baking sheet. Pierce each with fork. Bake at 325 degrees about 30 minutes (biscuits will be pale). Makes 3 dozen biscuits.

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