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Breakfasts I Remember
Charles N. Barnard

Breakfast in bed — the phrase evokes a variety of images, an assortment of feelings. Were you given breakfast in bed when you had the mumps? Do you remember a honeymoon breakfast served on a hotel tray with flowers and champagne? Or perhaps one particularly hung-over breakfast — just one more coffee and I'll try to get up.

Do we only have breakfast in bed under such extraordinary circumstances? Or is this intimate ritual right only for certain extraordinary people? (Roman emperors, I recall, are often pictured eating in their beds. Certain lady novelists, too.) Magazines which glorify the house beautiful display white wicker bed trays set with elegant china and a single yellow rose in a crystal bud vase — but is this reality? For you? For me?

It may come as a surprise in this hectic, Egg McMuffin world, but the custom of taking the day's first meal in surroundings of privacy, if not elegance, is probably being enjoyed by more people than ever before. Comforts which were once reserved for the emperors and novelists are now increasingly available to you and me. And what is responsible for this? Travel, mostly. Traditions of service once enjoyed only by those on a Grand Tour are now the easy temptation of anyone who wants to dial Room Service.

There are two common misapprehensions about breakfast-in-bed which should be corrected. First, it is not literally necessary for one to sit in bed, propped with pillows and draped with damask, in order to enjoy the essence of the experience. At a hotel, breakfast-in-the-room is the usual variant — and will likely be more comfortable than in bed, especially for those of us who feel we must be ill if we are not on our feet.

Second, to be memorable, breakfast-in-private need not be an elegant function served by waiters wearing white gloves. I recall the ten-room Marine Hotel in Falmouth, England, a rambling stone structure which had stood by the harbor for several centuries before I was a guest. It was a cold week in April; wind gusts rattled the old windows. I was waiting for a young sailor to come home from a single-handed race around the world.

Each morning during this vigil, there was a knock at my door and there stood Nigel, the young chef, holding a pot of India tea, a cup and saucer and two slices of homemade white bread, toasted brown. I shall always remember the smell of the warm bread, the hot, eye-opening tang of Darjeeling and dawn's light reaching into the small, cold room from the rim of the empty sea.

An occasional advantage of breakfast in the room can be a view, a perspective, a sense of where one is — for example, at the Royal Champagne, a 17th-century French coaching inn near Epernay, where rooms with flowered wallpaper look out on the Marne valley and vineyards from horizon to horizon.

I remember a breakfast for two on our small terrace. In the surroundings, it was a temptation to begin with champagne. (Dom Perignon, the monk who put the bubbles into bubbly, had lived just down the road at Hautvilliers.) We feared "woozing" the rest of the day, however, so settled for strong French breakfast coffee and a heaping panier of fresh-baked croissants and brioches. They came with honey and jams in small covered pots, butter in fluted curls — and a panorama of grape vines heavy with ripe fruit. In the distance, small clusters of harvesters in French blue work clothes were making their way along a hillside. Certainly, I had never tasted such croissants before, never such coffee, and never would I forget the delicious intimacy of that breakfast.

I think the appreciation of breakfast as the day's most mood-setting meal is something which travelers only acquire in time. You must endure a certain number of hectic coffee shops before you learn that five minutes spent trying to catch an indifferent waiter's eye can cause a sense of exasperation which lasts longer than five minutes. Nevertheless, the notion that breakfast will be a quicker, no-nonsense affair if it is taken in public dies hard with many travelers. The rise-and-shine Puritan-ethic still rules the beginning of the day.

I once heard of a New York City caterer who specialized in serving some very non-Puritanical brunches and breakfasts-in-bed. He specialized in baroque menus: steak tartare, seafood crepes, strawberries under Grand Marnier, that sort of thing. I've never had a breakfast like that. Corned beef quiche, eggs Florentine and blueberry soup may all be culinary triumphs, but for me, the first meal of the day does not have to be a gourmet event to be memorable. Sometimes it is the unexpected that I remember best.

All who flew in airplanes before the coming of jets can recall long, throbbing propeller trips on which thawed food and too much drink seemed the only diversions from boredom. I made a 13-hour non-stop flight from New York to Rome with some fellow journalists in 1959. We were, as I recall, the only passengers in first-class that night and, after the manner of our calling, we stayed up late to socialize with Alitalia's best Chianti and various members of the cabin crew. Eventually, each of us "retired" to a curled-up position under a blanket.

Dawn came sooner than was decent, a crimson smear airbrushed on a gray horizon. In our groggy despair, we expected no more than instant coffee, canned juice and yesterday's rolls. We had not counted on Tazio, however, an irrepressible young chief steward from Naples who wore a too-small cap tilted forward on his head and sang bits of Italian arias in the galley. By the time he had served us green grapes, melon and prosciutto, optional Bloody Marys and a cheese omelette with strong coffee and fresh-made toast, a grim dawn had turned into a surprisingly fine day.

Nostalgia can add a special ingredient to breakfast when one returns to a certain place after a long absence. My first trip to Hawaii was gratis, via a troopship in the 1940's; our "rations and quarters" were not far from Waikiki. The beach was strung with barbed wire in those days and breakfasts were served in mess kits.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was operated by the military and became our resort. It provided USO shows, a beer garden under the palms, swimming, Ping Pong, hula lessons, a snack bar — but no room service.

The rates are higher these days, but I always enjoy going back to my old "pink palace." Breakfast served on a balcony of the tower annex is a very special perch for me now. While I'm spreading thick coconut syrup on waffles and drinking Kona coffee again, I can look down at the original hotel next door and remember where everything was then. The sound of the surf on the beach is the same, the morning sun slants at the same angle, the saw-tooth outline of Diamond Head hasn't changed, and the first, tart, prickly bite of fresh pineapple always transports me backward in time about 50 years.

I think some of the "boys" on the hotel staff have been around as long as I. Sometimes a room service waiter will look at me with what seems recognition. Nonsense, of course. What he recognizes is simply another old soldier who has come back for breakfast without his mess kit.

Illness may strike any time when we travel; it can be the test not only of a hotel's room service but of its compassion. (I know one young woman who, afflicted in Beirut, took to bed, refusing all nourishment. The manager of her hotel, a kindly man, was so concerned for his American guest's comfort that he sent a violinist to her room to play soothing melodies.)

The bacteria of the Nile caught up with me a few years ago when I was staying at a Cairo hotel which had had only two assassinations and one bombing in the lobby to mar an otherwise first-class reputation. When my intestinal distress became acute, I decided on room service for breakfast so I might doctor myself with oatmeal porridge and still not be too far from the bathroom. An Egyptian medic had provided me with an array of prescription remedies which Hammed, my regular room service waiter, seemed to regard as a sure sign that I was going to die. He shook his head.

"Sir is very sick?" he said, putting down the breakfast tray.

"Only temporary, Hammed," I said, sitting up in the bed and hoping I was right. "Just leave the oatmeal and the newspaper."

Hammed fussed with the tray, drew the room drapes, but kept the English-language paper tucked under his arm. When I asked him for it again, the young man looked at me apprehensively and said, "You should not read this paper today, sir. You are not well and some very bad things are printed about the United States."

There is one thing about breakfast in the room that I have never really learned to handle gracefully. Not having been brought up with servants in the house, I never learned the proper manner of ignoring them as they go about their duties. When a waiter or a chambermaid comes into my room, I always feel like quickly putting my stray shoes away in the closet and saying a cheery Good Morning. This is an instinct which no doubt marks me as an unworldly American. Further, when room service waiters, in brass-button uniforms, come trundling in with their table-on-wheels and all the other paraphernalia, I'm very uncomfortable if they catch me in nothing but my socks and shorts. Since I don't usually pack a bathrobe (and few hotels outside of the Orient provide them these days), I have sometimes cowered in the bathroom until I thought breakfast was all set up in the other room and the help had left.

This happened to me once at the Ritz in Lisbon — where one can hide in an all-marble bathroom which is a mini-suite right out of the Thirties. In time, I emerged with a towel tied around my middle, only to discover two waiters in white gloves standing silently at attention over my juice and eggs.

I have been repeatedly assured not to worry about such things. The manager of the Waldorf Towers once told me, "I have seen kings and queens in their underwear. It's part of the job. A room service waiter may see anything in the line of duty, yet he sees nothing."

Perhaps. I know I shouldn't feel that I must dress for breakfast simply because I'm self-conscious in front of servants, yet isn't privacy one of the reasons for eating in your room? It's a paradox, but I'm getting over it.

Ultimately, of course, the really great breakfasts which one remembers are not those served in airplanes or at small French inns, but in hotels which do the extraordinary every day as a matter of course.

The Hotel Bel-Air in West Los Angeles is a landscaped 10-acre complex of garden suites which was once a millionaire's stable, converted to a hotel in the 1940's. The buildings ramble around in semi-tropical gardens overlooking a swan lake. There is no lobby; guests enter the living room where there will likely be a fire in the fireplace.

My stopover at the Bel-Air was at the beginning of a long Pacific jaunt, a last, peaceful pause before weeks of work and travel. It was nearly 2 a.m. when we arrived; a full pewter moon stared through tall palms. We felt like honeymooners arriving at a hideaway. We were full of anticipation. We slept late that first morning — and then ordered breakfast.

A rear door led from our room to a sunny, leafy enclosure within a wall topped with terra cotta tiles. There was a round table, chairs, a chaise, potted plants in bloom, the sound of sprinklers hissing and clicking, the smell of moist earth.

Three waiters brought breakfast. Clearly, there was no place to have it served but in our secret garden. The waiters anticipated our choice and smiled. A crisp yellow cloth snapped over the table like a popping spinnaker. Tall glasses of orange juice stood brimming gold in silver bowls of crushed ice. Tented yellow napkins stood at attention. Eggs arrived on cue in Sterno ovens, along with just-baked pastries.

Was there music, too? Did we kiss? Did birds sing? I don't remember. There is only so much pleasure the mind can contain at one time. I know we sat in the warm sun and talked about where we were going and what we would see. We pawed cool butter onto hot muffins and stimulated conversation with two pots of generously dark coffee. Finally, the telephone called and the spell was broken; someone had found us and our day began. But not before a private memory had been created that nothing could ever take away.

The sun doesn't always shine on breakfast. I remember one 4 a.m. at the Mandarin in Hong Kong, the sky over Kowloon still dark, only an occasional Star Ferry crossing the sleeping harbor at that hour, empty decks ablaze with yellow light. I had a date this day to see a certain racehorse exercised at the track at 5 a.m. I cursed the hour and called room service.

"Breakfast," I groaned, my eye running down the menu, not looking for anything unusual — until I saw 'baked apple' and remembered the ones which used to come from an old iron stove in New England when I was a boy.

"Do you have baked apple this morning?" I asked tentatively, knowing it might not be. It wasn't even morning, after all, just the bottomless pit between night and dawn. I should be lucky to get orange juice and thankful for tea and toast.

"Baked apple, yes sir," said the unflappable Chinese voice. Then a pause. "We have baked apple two ways, sir. Cold with sugar glaze or hot with vanilla ice cream. . . "

The day had not begun so badly after all.

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