Some people are outdoors enthusiasts, some are hunters, others are fishermen. There are golfers, and skiers, and bird watchers. Some people are leg men, while others go for different parts of the anatomy. Those are all well and fine and I can identify with several of them. But, to my core, I am a breakfast guy.
I have always been a breakfast guy. It’s not that I don’t like lunch and supper. I do. I also like snacks in between lunch and supper. But none of them is breakfast.
Breakfast is how we start the day. Sometimes it’s the make-or-break factor in whether we have a good, or bad, day. Long distance runners will tell you, “It’s all about how you finish.” A breakfast lover will tell you, “It’s all about how you start.”
My mom told me, “It’s the most important meal of the day.” I believed her. I still do.
I have a long and storied history with my favorite meal of the day. As a young kid I was a cereal hound. I never minded going to the grocery store with my mom, because I could spend an hour on the cereal aisle. I also loved oatmeal at an early age, and even ate it as an afternoon snack throughout elementary school.
I have written often over the past 20 years about my grandmother (we called her Muz) and her pancakes. For the first 10 years of my life, she and my grandfather lived in New York. When they would come to visit, she made pancakes every day. I have always said, pancakes are love. It’s true. Think about it. When have you ever eaten pancakes (outside of a restaurant) when they weren’t prepared by someone who loves you, and someone you love just as much? My grandparents moved to Hattiesburg in 1970, and I ate Muz’s pancakes for breakfast for the next decade.
My family never ate out for breakfast very often. That is probably another factor in why I romanticize breakfast. We always ate breakfast when we were on vacation. We didn’t travel often, but I can remember memorable breakfasts in the Smoky Mountains and on the Florida Panhandle.
In college I mostly ate things like cold cereal, Pop Tarts, and fast food before class. Though a few of my college stops (I had several) were in towns that still had boarding houses. I loved going to the boarding houses when all of the old men were eating breakfast. I would sit and listen— rarely engaging— to the guys who would argue over politics and sports while solving all of the world’s problems. I have very fond memories of those days.
Even during the hard-partying days of my late teens and early twenties— when I sometimes didn’t go to bed until 9 a.m.— I was a breakfast guy. Granted, there was no “breaking the fast” situation involved in those breakfasts. I was eating breakfast at 3 a.m. in a Waffle House or late-night diner before I finally crashed. But it was still breakfast, and I didn’t miss it. During that dark, heavy drinking, hard-living period in my life, I still woke up late in the morning and ate breakfast. In those days, the local Popeye’s chicken offered spicy chicken and biscuits for breakfast, and I kept them in business for a few years. During that period, I stopped eating traditional breakfast items in the morning, and would also get to the nearest Wards hamburger restaurant, who will still serve their customers a cheeseburger early in the morning.
I got clean and sober in 1983, and breakfasts were back on. I am a morning person. It’s my favorite part of the day. I always try to go to work early before anyone arrives. It’s the only part of the day that is truly mine. In the decade after we opened our first restaurant, breakfasts were cooked in the restaurant kitchen, or picked up in a drive-through on the way in. Ten years in, the place was running smoothly enough to dine out in the morning. There are several restaurants during that period that knew me, and knew my breakfast order every morning.
It was during that time that my children were born. I did my best to eat at home with them when the schedule allowed. My daughter— the oldest— isn’t really a breakfast person. But my son came into this world with the same passion for the morning meal as his old man. We have eaten early morning breakfasts all over the world while the girls slept. Ask that boy today about the favorite breakfast of his life, and he will tell you, “Soft-boiled eggs and croissants on the roof of the Royal Olympic Hotel in Athens, Greece across the street from the Temple of Zeus and just down the hill— but within view— of the Parthenon.” It’s probably my favorite, too.
Once both of my kids were in school, I started eating breakfast in local, independent cafes and bakeries all over town. A little more than 10 years ago, a French pastry chef moved to town and opened a small bakery across the street from my office. It was my go-to for a decade. The pastries were as good as the company of the people who were regulars. Sadly, he passed away last year.
In 2007 I started developing a breakfast concept. I set out with the goal of opening a no-frills community café that would serve real breakfast. All I needed was the right location. I waited and waited. Retail spaces opened, and new buildings were built, but nothing ever seemed like the right fit for what I had in my head. That is, until, two years ago, when I was approached by a developer who gave me first shot at a space across from the university and a few blocks away from the two largest medical facilities in the region. It made sense instantly.
So, I am now the proud owner a breakfast joint. I love it. I wanted to open the most “Hattiesburg” restaurant in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I wanted to open a place where the entire community could be together and share a meal— a place for young, old, rich, poor, black, white, working men with their names stitched to their shirts, and sorority girls with Greek letters on the front of their pullovers.
I am here every morning I am in town. I sit at my seat on the counter and look out to the dining room and take a little pride in the fact that the entire community is sharing a meal together in one place. A breakfast meal. A few weeks after opening, I was working the window and took a break for a minute and turned around and surveyed the dining room. They were all there— young, old, rich, poor, all races, nurses, professors, college students, and tradesmen. It was one of the proudest moments in my almost 40-year restaurant career.
My son is now a senior in high school. In his mind he has already graduated, even though the ceremony is a few months away. He joins me at the counter a few mornings a week before school, and we share breakfast as we always have. He leaves for college in a few months. I wonder if he’ll still be a breakfast guy? The odds are high.
Muz’s Pancakes –
The World’s Best
1 cup All Purpose Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/2 tsp Salt
1 Tbl Sugar
1 cup Buttermilk
1 /2 cup Melted Butter, divided
Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Gently add liquid ingredients including 1/4 cup of butter, and stir until just incorporated. Do not overwork the batter or the pancakes will be tough. The batter is thick, if you like it can be thinned with a small amount of water or a little more buttermilk.
Cook pancakes on a lightly greased griddle. Pancakes should be turned only once. They are ready to be turned when bubbles form in the middle and the edges appear cooked.
Once pancakes are turned, use a pastry brush to spread the additional 1 /4 cup of melted butter on top of the pancakes while the other side is cooking. This will keep you from having to spread cold butter on them, which will tear them. The pancakes will already be buttered once they reach the table.
(Hint: I always sprinkle a little salt on my pancakes before I add the syrup. Just a little. You’ll be amazed and what a difference it makes to the flavor profile)
Top with pure maple syrup.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.