Breakfast à Paris

Although the sun had long since fallen over the Seine, flowing by across the street, the crowd at Paris’s Shakespeare and Company last night was very excited to talk about breakfast. They had gathered to hear Seb Emina, author of the new Breakfast Bible, in conversation with David Lebovitz, cookbook author and Paris food-blogger extraordinaire.

So many people showed up for this event that by the time I arrived, minutes before the talk was due to begin, the staff were turning away newcomers at the door. I only managed to get inside by swearing that a friend was saving a seat for me. Attending one of their nighttime events is definitely the way to experience Shakespeare and Company. I’ve heard that during the day it can be hard to navigate the great numbers of people who come to the venerable bookstore to take photos. I get it: I also geek out on literary history and see the beauty in rooms full of books, but I’d rather spend my bookstore browsing hours in slightly more solitary conditions. For a public reading, on the other hand, the bigger and more excitable the crowd the better.

And excited they were to talk about breakfast. Which might seem surprising, breakfast being after all a terribly ordinary subject. No one, it seems, is more surprised by the interest this topic has generated than the author himself. The book had its launch as a blog, the London Review of Breakfasts, dedicated to parsing the finer points of the British fry-ups served at various London eateries. Full confession, after eighteen years of living with a Brit I still cannot fathom the fry-up. There are so many reasons: the brown sauce, the baked beans, the tomatoes and mushrooms fried in bacon grease. But luckily for Emina, who posts under the nom-de-breakfast Malcolm Eggs, there are many people out there who do share his passion and soon the blog took off in a most surprising manner. Readers wrote in asking whether they could post their own reviews under clever bylines: Dee Caff, Joyce Carol Oats, Pam au Chocolate, Salmon de Beauvoir, Grease Witherspoon (Emina’s favorite, he claims. With a British accent this sounds more like “Grease With-a-spoon”).

It seems that the quotidian nature of breakfast authorizes everyone to have an opinion on the matter. You don’t have to be an expert (or should I say, eggspert) to have your say. At the same time, the very ordinariness of breakfast has contributed, in Emina’s opinion, to a woeful neglect of the subject. There simply aren’t enough histories, recipe books, or meditations on this meal (his book offers all three).

As silly as Emina’s reading was, amplified for me by his deadpan delivery, he actually raised interesting questions.

First, why is less cultural cache attached to breakfast than to other meals? Why is it silly to talk about breakfast? Why is breakfast a less creditable meal than dinner? The most obvious answer is the matter of degree. Breakfast is typically the smallest daily meal – although not necessarily, as in the example of the British fry-up. We are biased to give less importance to smaller things, but I’m not certain this bias bears scrutiny. Size and significance need not be corollaries.

Another reason why breakfast is discounted is that it’s characterized by repetition. Many people, as Emina pointed out, eat the same food for breakfast day after day. The vocabulary of breakfast is smaller than that of dinner, it is a less rich area for discussion. However, the fact that breakfast is so patterned, and that the pattern diverges so significantly among places, is an excellent reason to give this meal more consideration.

Last night’s audience was eager to discuss the differences between French and Anglo-American approaches to breakfast, and the significance of these differences to the larger question of French vs. Anglo culture. The first question that the English-speaking audience wanted answered was what do the French eat for breakfast? The typical formule petit-dèjeuner offered at most Parisian cafés consists of a café crèmecroissant, and jus d’orange, which will set you back around 7€. In the two months we’ve been living in Paris I have yet to order breakfast at any café because if I’m going to spend $10.00 on breakfast, I want it to include eggs. Here is the crux of the Franco-Anglo breakfast divide. The French eat eggs for lunch and dinner, we eat eggs for breakfast.

The feelings generated by this difference run strong. During Q&A, one French woman in the audience expressed her disgust at the concept of the British fry-up. Her undisguised sense of cultural superiority and willingness to express outright revulsion toward the author’s chief pleasure were a sight to behold. How could you kiss someone after eating that meal, she asked. I think Emina was actually taken aback. (His lovely girlfriend was in the audience and seemed to approve of his breakfast passions, so presumably he hasn’t found this to be a problem.) As for herself, the French woman explained, she always has a café breakfast of baguette and coffee. French people, she insisted, never eat a croissant more than once a week since they don’t want to get fat.

Since moving to Paris, we’ve also eaten baguette for breakfast most mornings, although at home rather than at cafés. The reason is that, like most French families, we almost always have baguette left over from the evening before, and since it doesn’t keep well there is a strong incentive to eat it before midday when it will have hardened to a rock. I don’t have a morning sweet tooth, so I prefer a little cheese with my baguette. This morning I had some aged comté we bought at the marché Bastille on Sunday. My son prefers plain butter on his baguette, and he’s always happy to have a few slices of saucisse sèche on the side. My daughter likes a thick coating of honey on hers, and since she’s as skinny as spaghetti she’s welcome to it. My husband, a good Brit, enjoys marmalade on his baguette. We toast our baguette, which may be non-Français of us. Yet a French friend, during a recent visit to her house, showed me a box of pre-packaged “toast” her family eats for breakfast most mornings. I’ve never seen a product like it in North America. The closest thing I know of is melba toast, which I thought was reserved for teething babies and old folks.

If my baguette-eating habits conform well to the French norms, I have to admit a wide divergence from the rule of one-croissant-per-week. That may be why I, unlike many French women, cannot fit into a pair of size-zero jeans. I often have a croissant for mid-morning snack (snacking is another no-no in French culture). There was much discussion of the croissant last night. Emina includes a croissant recipe in The Breakfast Bible, and he discussed the huge amount of butter he expended trying to get it right. The difficulty of this endeavour explains why, in Lebovitz’s opinion, croissants are better made by machine than man. Apparently he receives a great number of emails from blog readers asking for the recipe French families use to make their morning croissants; I think he enjoys bursting their bubble with the information that no one in her right mind makes her own croissants. Of course, all this discussion is like a flag to the bull for me. I will have to try to make my own croissants at some point. (Lebovitz also made the important point that French boulangeries often sell two types of croissant, the croissant au beurre, made with butter, and a second slightly less expensive variety made with margarine. Spend the extra 10 centimes and buy the butter.)

Last night’s conversation about French vs. Anglo-American breakfasts may have been slipped into the territory of cultural stereotypes at times, but I am persuaded by Emina’s argument that the patterned quality of breakfast, its repetitive nature, makes it an especially compelling window onto the differences among food cultures. Middle Eastern shakshuka, Greek haloumi, Japanese natto, New York bagels, all deeply place-bound breakfast foods, entered into the conversation last night. At the end of the evening Emina told me he had just sold the Estonian translation rights for The Breakfast Bible, and agreed that a popular local recipe could be added to the book, since otherwise the Estonians wouldn’t take it seriously. I hope the book is translated into many more languages and many more recipes are added along the way until eventually a new and expanded edition can be released in English.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

6 thoughts

  1. During the summer of 1966 I spent with that magnificent French grande dame and patriot, Madame Elizabet Bon Ton,she discovered the joy of toasted baquette with American peanut butter, and sent me back to the American Army PX for repeated peanut butter refills. We would toast the slices of baquette on her little old fashioned side toaster (no pop up toasters yet to be had), and she would burn her fingers in her hurry to remove the toast so she could slaver on the peanut butter in time for it to melt thoroughly into the air pockets left on the surface of the toast. No sign of cultural superiority, just lip smacking appreciation of a true breakfast treat.

  2. Brilliant write-up, am really glad you enjoyed the talk. Afterwards realised we hardly touched on the might breakfast cereal, which is of course eaten by a huge percentage of everyone.

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