Mark stands at the counter, carefully prying English muffins apart, loading up the toaster. He peels plastic sleeves from slices of processed cheese, splitting each square into triangles, and stacks them, at peel-able angles, on a plate.
The plate is Fiori ware, cream colored, thick, with raised bunches of grapes circling the rim. It is one of an eight-plate set we bought at Hartstone, and Hartstone, I hear is shuttered.
That makes me sad. When we moved here, it was the last standing pottery still using AJ Wahlco machinery–the last vestige of Mark’s first and well-loved career. (This gives me pause: if AJ’s hadn’t closed, a victim of the waning ceramics industry in the States, of manufacturers outsourcing and moving production to places where the labor work, gratefully, for pennies on our US wages, would we be living here? Would Mark have been content, or would the law school urge still have driven him? Like naggling a cold sore, it’s an unproductive but weirdly enjoyable thinking path; we’ll never know, of course, and all the riches of the last 15 years are still secure.)
I am cracking eggs, admiring the fragile brown shells that almost shatter when I tap them on the thick lip of the ceramic bowl. These eggs, free range, are so different from the ones we used to buy at Quality Markets or Tops, delighting in the sale prices–look: 39 cents a dozen!
Then I read about the beak-chopping, scant-movement conditions of industrial egg farms. Then I shared an office with Senti, whose life journey has taken her many miles further than mine has taken me, from a childhood in the Naga province of India, to marriage to a US Marine from Ohio, to the beautiful little farm where she and her family raise chickens and harvest honey and eat salads still warm from the sun that shines on her garden. In India, Senti majored in English literature, and she met tall, handsome Gary; here, she shared an office with another tall, outspoken, female English faculty, and shared, too, the joys of free range eggs.
I spill these eggs into the bowl; their yolks are deeply colored, Crayola orange. As the toaster pa-chumps its golden brown harvest of muffins, I use the little whisk-y tool my mother-in-law, Pat, gave me.
It was a sale item for her ladies’ church group; a lot of my favorite kitchen utensils–this whisk-er, sturdy little paring knives with blades that never seem to blunt–arrived in my utensil drawers from sales like that.
I whip quickly; the eggs grow into a lemon-y froth, and I pour them into the big no-stick frying pan. They sizzle in a bath of olive oil and butter. In the middle of the pan, the froth immediately gels. I lift that with the spatula and tilt the pan so liquid egg runs below it.
We are making breakfast sandwiches, making what McDonald’s calls Egg McMuffins. These are a family favorite, and as we assemble, working smoothly together, I try to remember when we as a family first decided these were great—and to recreate them at home.
I can’t recall.
I do remember one Father’s Day–it may (in fact, I think it was) have been the Father’s Day we gave Mark this very jumbo-sized frying pan, for this very purpose: sizzling up tasty, filling Sunday breakfasts–looking in my wallet, finding a ten dollar bill, and running to McDonald’s for a sack of English muffins. I got a variety–Canadian bacon, sausage,– and brought them home to the old farmhouse we were renting that year.
The farmhouse had actually been an inn in the 1820’s; it welcomed and sheltered us while we pondered whether to buy and where to perch; that morning, we sat at the table in the big old dining room and devoured the entire sack of sandwiches, Mark, Jim, and I, and wished we had more.
Who knows–it may have been that day, too, that one of us said, “You know, I bet we could make these,” kicking up experiments that led us to a beloved breakfast staple.
The eggs are almost done, still a little bit liquid just on top, and I turn off the heat and let them settle. The last of the muffins pops out of the toaster; Mark grabs it, tosses it, blows on his hand where he touched the sizzling metal, and slaps it onto the counter, quickly spreading butter, which melts into a golden brown glaze.
I line up six torn sheets of aluminum foil and open a muffin onto each. Today’s foil is pristine, new from the box. I save lightly used foil, though,–I’ve always done so– and Mark, when we first married, found that strange and endearing.
He’d call me “Jean”, after my frugal, Scottish mother, when he came into the kitchen and found me gently wiping off a sheet of used foil. I’d let it dry and fold it up for a second life covering a casserole or wrapping around a soaked paper towel to transport a bouquet.
“Save that foil, Jean!” he’d tease.
I set the ingredients out on the counter; we work together, assembling: triangles of cheese on top and bottom muffin halves; eggs on the bottom; on the top, Canadian bacon.
(Canadian bacon! I can still remember the first time I tasted it, as a very young child, and my surprise at its absolute goodness. And my surprise at what my mother said: “You look like you just heard the angels sing.” It was an unusual remark for her to make, unusual in its depth of noticing; it tickled me. That insured that Canadian bacon went on my childhood list of Wonderful Things to Eat–along with pancakes, corn on the cob, brownies with white icing.)
We flip the muffin halves together, use the foil to wrap them tight, and place them on a sturdy cookie sheet, which I slide into the oven. Mark goes upstairs to see if young James considers home-made Egg McMuffins a good reason to roll out of bed at 9:00 AM on a Sunday.
I take my coffee outside to the little table in the carport, sit and sip while the sandwiches coalesce in the 350 degree oven.
A memory niggles…one weekend, after the move to Ohio, we went back to New York to visit Mark’s parents, and we slapped together a huge batch of these babies on Sunday morning. The family gathered. I can’t remember the occasion–was it Easter? a birthday?–but I remember the laughter, the pile of silver wrapped sandwiches diminishing, and our nephew Jeremy, a true enjoyer of life, saying, “A little bit nicer than what you get at McDonald’s, eh?”
It doesn’t take long for the cheese to melt, the flavors to blend, the sandwiches to warm enticingly. Mark takes out the old, careworn black oven mitt, and slides the cookie sheet onto the range top. We grab plates, pour juice, and sit down for a Sunday morning breakfast together.
Jim narrates a couple of scenes from TV shows that the morning’s repast brings to his mind…a meal on “How I Met Your Mother,” an incident in the coffee shop on “Friends.” Mark talks about the contractors who will seal the driveway and about the unexpected, unwelcome dry rot damage he just discovered around the big kitchen window. I slide an article across the table about the World War I posters on display at the Ohio Statehouse, and we decide that we will go, that very afternoon.
Even as I savor the sandwich, I think about how quickly this breakfast will become a memory, and about how fixing this breakfast has evoked memories of so many people and places in so many different eras of my life–from very young child to silly young wife; from a cramped galley kitchen in Mayville, New York, to the expansive, old-fashioned kitchen in that old inn, to this well-loved space we inhabit today.
A mundane breakfast sandwich: a trove of vivid memories.
I understand, I think, why archaeologists, anthropologists, get excited over one tiny object, one slender shard. Look at the history entwined around a common, everyday item.
We used to do a self-awareness activity when training peer tutors. What three things would you include on a personal crest, we’d ask? Secretly, I always had trouble identifying symbols for my own imaginary shield.
But now, hey–I think it’s easy. Let’s use the humble Egg McMuffin. Maybe I’ll show it shooting out tenacious suckers that reach every facet of our lives, ensuring that we’re never unconnected to our past, to the people, however far-flung, whom we hold dear.
Yep: let’s put that on my family crest: breakfast sandwich rampant.