Bacon, Eggs and a Toast
50 years of bliss -- or just 20 minutes?
I’m old enough that the words “open bar” shouldn’t sing that siren song. I should be smart enough not to strap on three-inch heels, but I’m not. And I shouldn’t have danced that crazy tango with my sister, but, well, I did. I teetered at the podium, a tousled, tipsy toastmistress.
For a woman who hadn’t delivered an important address since her high school valedelictory, I was damned confident. I beheld my audience, a beaming roomful of pilgrims who’d gathered at the Ottawa Westin on September 23, 2000, to celebrate fifty years of perfect romantic married love: half-century of wedded -- no other word for it -- bliss. My parents’ golden anniversary.
I’m not waxing poetic, gilding the lily, or slopping the truffle oil. Despite a breadbasket brimming with health problems, frequent relocations, and four children whose combined escapades present the best possible case for free universal vasectomy, my parents’ marriage has that fairytale ending: they live happily ever after. A cousin held her girlfriend’s hand and sighed. “Gee, it’s tough being around Auntie and Uncle, knowing that no matter how hard you try, your relationship is never going to be as good as theirs.” Another cousin looked grim despite our frequent meetings at the bar. It’s hard not to be wistful at the shores of the sea of love when your marital lifeboat is about to ram the iceberg and sink without a trace. And I’d held the hair of an old family friend as she knelt on the marble floor of the ladies' room barfing beaujolais, and wondering, “Why can’t I feel married the way they feel married?” My parents’ passionate paradigm intimidates us lesser lovers, who can’t see the billets-doux for the bills.
By the time I tinkled my glass with a fork still sticky with raspberry coulis, the room was mellow. The trio was on a between-set break, and all eyes were fixed on the septuagenarian lovers -- not, thank God, on the splat of sauce that accessorized the bodice of the frivolous purple frock I’d snatched from the sale rack at Banana Republic. They’re a handsome couple: a tall blonde in a Marlene Dietrich-style black evening suit and a fuchsia silk blouse and scarf she’d picked up at Holt Renfrew the same weekend I bought my second fridge. (The blouse rang up at six bucks more than the Kenmore, and it didn’t feature an icemaker.) If Harrison Ford is lucky, he’ll resemble Daddy when he’s seventy-three. But no matter how often Harrison struts the red carpet, he’ll never wear a tux with the insouciance of Ian McArthur.
A series of preprandial Glenfiddiches guaranteed I wouldn’t remember much of the speech I’d composed on my pillow the night before while digesting the feast my mother had provided for the welcome of the Oldest Child, and metabolizing Daddy’s killer Old Fashioneds. I’m sure I was fulsome, sentimental and over-the-top -- no snide daughterly jabs or Viagra jokes. I recounted their first date, engineered by my Aunt Char who thought her brother might take a shine to her leggy classmate. (That game at Mimico High was also the last time either of my parents has willingly sat through four quarters of basketball.) The courtship followed, featuring shameless necking in the stands of Varsity Stadium.
I wended my way down Lover’s Lane, hitting all the romantic highlights: the wedding (my only quip: I noted that it was dry, to the general hilarity and disbelief of the audience), the honeymoon in Montreal, the move to Trois-Rivieres, the eager embrace of all the things that French-speaking people do better than we do. Summer holidays in the Pontiac station wagon, the trips to Europe, the time my nine-year-old-daughter caught them in flagrante delicto . . .
I was rolling, peeps, more flowery than the chintz curtains in the guest bedroom or the Ontario ice wine in my glass. Like the silly endearments lovers whisper, nothing I said could sound sappy, because it was all true. I quoted The Rubaiyat, which my father had memorized to recite to his bride. I hit Sonnet Twenty-Nine, the mere mention of which makes their eyes well. I didn’t neglect to recite the wedding vows, explaining how my parents understand and honor them at a level most of us never approach. Daddy brushed away a tear with the knuckle of his right forefinger, and his wasn’t the only leaky eye in the room. It was time to ask the company to stand, and raise a glass. “To Marilyn and Ian, a couple that can swap spit with the big time: Antony and Cleopatra, Fred and Ginger, Pepe and Petunia . . .”
“Bacon and eggs!”
No one has better timing than my mother. To her, Romeo and Juliet were just a couple of rich teenagers who’d have eventually moved on to Tomasso, Ricardo or Lola. Bacon and eggs, now -- they’ll sizzle until the end of time.
Unlike many of my girlfriends, I abandoned the struggle early and acknowledged that eternal truth: my mother is always right. Sure, we have differences about minor matters like religion, politics and football (Mummy loves it), but she is infallible on everything worth knowing, like why bacon and eggs belong in the pantheon of passion. I could wake up every morning with a plate of bacon and eggs. And toast.
Let me explain what I’m describing here. “Bacon and eggs” means eggs sunny side up, fried in bacon fat. Scrambled eggs, poached eggs, eggs fried in butter -- even the delightfully smutty-sounding eggs over easy -- are pretenders on the plate. Bacon means streaky bacon, although we could work up a threesome if good back bacon is present, eager and willing. But lean Canadian bacon doesn’t sweat the sizzling puddle of hot grease required for cooking the eggs, so my guy on the side is American. The toast? A long thick slice of day old artisan boule makes the best toast on earth, but in a pinch I’ve substituted English Muffins, Wonder Bread and a two week old, soft-as-the-day-I-bought-it hamburger bun (after checking for blue fuzz). Rye bread, crumpets, bagels seven-grain loaf from the bread machine -- choose your carb -- anything that slides into the toaster slot. But know this: toast is essential. The saddest thing about the Atkins Diet is its cruel eagerness to let bacon and eggs lie naked and slippery on the plate. They need their crusty chaise longue.
My parents eat B and E for lunch, their reward for the Puritan yogurt and shredded wheat with which they break their fast. I yearn for a bacon and eggs dinner at least once a week, but I’ve never broken sentimental tradition and given in to mere ease, economy and pleasure. I know, I know -- the matins of lapsed Episcopalians who observe the secular Sunday ritual of the New York Times must play out in a few hundred thousand kitchens every Sunday. But I won’t bother with self-examination, the meaning of ritual or spiritual sublimation. Week after week, year after year, I count on Sunday-morning bacon and eggs as the most reliably happy twenty minutes of the previous seven days. And much of the charm is that it’s the only day I luxuriate in breakfast. Winnie the Pooh had it right:
'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?'
'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?'
'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?' said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. 'It's the same thing,' he said. (A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner)And it is exciting to wake up on a Sunday and know you have eight ounces of bacon and an egg or two -- and seven pounds of newsprint lolling on the driveway. The stagger downstairs to turn on the coffee is less tortuous on Sunday. Still, retrieving the paper requires clothing, so I beat a retreat to the bathroom for a quick encounter with the toothbrush, soap and water, and whatever emollient has most recently suckered me into believing that it reduces the visible signs of aging. Besides, clothing isn’t optional when dealing with splattering bacon grease. (Gentlemen, don’t preen at the stove in your sixteen-year-old son’s drawstring pajama pants: graying chest hair is a brush fire waiting to happen. Ladies, the weekly cleaning bill for a splattered Victoria’s Secret teddy, prorated over twelve months, could better be spent on pedicures, a Le Creuset casserole or an orgy with a garden catalogue.) Sure, sweats are adequate, but admit it: you aren’t about to fish out a pair of pantyhose, tell him which tie to wear, then whistle up the kids for church. Would it kill you to pull on a pair of jeans and a shirt?
Start with the bacon. A perfect world would provide a cast-iron skillet with a diameter that accommodates six strips of bacon, but even my twelve-inch Lodge flunks the test; half the strips are forced into nervous smiles, and their apprehension prevents them from cooking evenly. My alternative lets the bacon stretch out straight, and requires less attention. It also ensures that splattering is contained to my self-cleaning oven, and I don’t have to spend five minutes with a scrubbie and a bottle of 409, swabbing the walls, the stovetop and the back of the coffee grinder.
Pull out your most disreputable sheet pan and deal those strips of bacon like the flop in a hand of Texas Hold ’Em. Put it in a cold oven, crank the heat up to 450, then fan the Sunday paper out on the table. Wait for the beep, which indicates the oven is up to temperature. This is very suspect science, but zero to 450 takes seventeen minutes in my gas oven: I have time to wish to that I could write like Maureen Dowd and memorize the salient portions of Sunday Styles before I tear myself away from the Vows story and heed the chime of the oven. I might have to turn a slice or three, but the bacon is usually flat, crispy and two minutes from incineration: -porky perfection. I drain it on three layers of paper towel -- on those rare Sundays it isn’t upstairs with the Windex it the bathroom -- otherwise, the business section does the job.
The kitchen’s heating up. Pour the fat from the sheet pan into an eight-inch cast iron skillet, and fire up the flame -- make that fat sizzle! You have time to pull out a plate: a dinner plate. For years I squeezed and shimmied this feast onto a salad plate, a Calvinist crime; this spread needs to loll and languish, and the dishwasher doesn’t care what size the mattress is. Check for soft butter, and a spreader. Slice the bread, pop it into the toaster, and nudge the fridge door open with the left knee. Fumble for an egg.
A kind foodie friend from cyberspace once shipped me two dozen eggs warm from her henhouse. In the hissing fat, the yolks stood up stiff, hard and perky as a starlet’s silicone, and they ran the orange of a Cadbury Crème Egg. The flavor was so intense and eggy that I moaned at the breakfast table. But I can’t hold to that ovoid standard every week. The egg from the Styrofoam carton is probably a week from its sell-by date, but the titty analogy wouldn’t be stretched to mention the considerable charms of a natural breast bestowed with the character that a few years rack up. Dude. It’s still sexy.
Pick up a tablespoon and dip it into the fat. Baste the egg, with special attention to the white, so you firm what my brother called the “egg snot.” Ten passes with the spoon will firm the albumen and veil the yolk, as tenderly as tulle over the face of a dewy bride.
God, the toast! It’s easy to forget when you’re trying to coax perfection from an egg sunny side up. Although cooking the egg is a matter of seconds, you must remember the raft, the couch, the mattress. Pull the toast from its slot, butter it, and spread it like a book on the plate. Plunk the egg on one page, the bacon on the other. Dust the egg with salt -- I love the crunch of fleur de sel -- and rub out three grinds of your Peugeot’s coarsest.
Dip the knife into the yolk and watch it spurt, half onto the plate, half lapping the bread. Cut a cube of toast, dip it into the golden mess on the plate, and spear an inch of bacon. Close your eyes and savor the crisp and the soft, the salt and the suave.
It’s not transubstantiation, conversion or orgasm: it’s yin and yang on your tongue. It’s holding hands across the real estate section, it’s kissing while you do the dishes. It’s hearing him whistle I’m in the Mood for Love through the window of your Florentine hotel room when he returns from the farmacia with your corn plasters in his pocket. It’s sustaining, it’s easy, it’s slippery and luscious and crunchy, as ageless and reliable as lazy love on a Sunday morning.
Long ago I bowed to the likelihood that few will ever know more than a few moments of the sweet shared bliss that my parents seem to conjure every moment of the day. But a newspaper, a lover, and a plate of bacon and eggs? I might settle for that. It’s certainly worth a toast.
August 18, 2005