Every parent has a go-to breakfast. In our house, my wife typically makes the before-school morning meal. Most days, I was already at work while the kids were preparing for school. I fill in on occasion with daddy breakfasts.
Daddy breakfasts are usually reserved for special occasions or out-of-town sojourns with the guys. Typically, it’s the only time a guy prepares breakfast. Sometimes he repeats the breakfast that he makes when he’s away at the hunting camp. Other times it’s the standard fare he prepares at the fish camp. Less sporting fathers — I would be in this category — have a daddy breakfast that is the Saturday or Sunday morning “go-to.” Though I find myself in our new breakfast joint seven days a week these days.
The hunting camp breakfast almost always involves deer sausage. There is plenty of last year’s harvest still in the drop-box freezer in the corner of the cleaning shed, and — depending on how well the current season is going — space needs to be created to stow the new season’s haul of deer sausage. It doesn’t matter that massive amounts of deer sausage were consumed hours earlier while the dinner steaks were being grilled. Those were likely cocktail weenie deer sausages (dipped in mustard), this will be ground patty sausage to go with the eggs and canned biscuits. In the event that one of the hunters passed out before his steak came off of the grill, there might be steak and biscuits served that morning, too.
The fishing camp breakfast might include deer sausage, too. The extra freezer in the garage at home is also likely filled with last year’s deer sausage, and more room is always needed. “Why don’t you take all of that old deer sausage down to the fish camp and make some of those guys you go fishing with eat it,” is the common call heard from the other end of the house.
A fish camp breakfast has an entirely different feel from a deer camp breakfast. Maybe it’s the salt air, maybe it’s the warmer weather, I am not sure. I grew up spending summers at a fish camp and the refrigerator always held leftover seafood from the night before, but it never seemed to make its way into dishes the next morning. If I had a fish camp today, I would be making leftover shrimp and/or crabmeat omelets the next morning.
My grandfather was a sportsman. He loved to hunt and fish. He grew up on the banks of the Cumberland River just outside of Nashville. And though his career took him to Atlanta and finally New York, he never lost that strong desire to hunt and fish. He retired in Hattiesburg and spent all of his spare time in the woods or on the water.
He used to prepare salt mackerel in the mornings and serve it with eggs. I guess it was something from his childhood. Maybe that was my great-grandfather’s go-to daddy breakfast. All I know is that it stunk up the kitchen (and most every room in the camp) when it was cooking, and for hours after it was cooked. It wasn’t really an aroma one looked forward to in the morning. Unlike the smell of bacon cooking, it never drew anyone into the kitchen. Just the opposite. It sent us all outside.
I was young when my father passed away, and I don’t remember him ever cooking anything for breakfast. I asked my older brother and he doesn’t remember our dad ever cooking anything, either.
My brother is the out-of-town breakfast guy in his family. He and his wife are seasoned empty nesters, but when they are at their farm or fish camp, most beds and bunks are filled and he is the one manning the stoves in the morning (my sister-in-law does absolutely everything else, all day long, and into the night). His rule is that a hot breakfast will be on the table at 8:30 a.m. You don’t have to wake up and eat it, you are welcome to sleep in. But you’ll be eating a cold breakfast later, if at all.
My brother’s breakfasts usually include eggs, bacon, sausage, sweet rolls and biscuits. He is the one who turned me on to Hines Grocery sausage. It’s seriously the best breakfast sausage I have ever eaten, anywhere. Period. The Hines Grocery is just down the road from his duck camp and — instead of stocking the freezers with last season’s deer sausage — he stocks the freezer with Hines Grocery sausage (a much better choice, and possibly an indictment on his deer hunting prowess). The Hines Grocery is a small country store on U.S. 49 just north of Yazoo City. Their sausage is so good, we have it shipped down to Hattiesburg to serve in our breakfast joint.
I always looked forward to preparing daddy breakfasts. My wife handles the in-home breakfast duties 90 percent of the time, but that is what makes daddy breakfasts so special. They are rare.
My daughter always wants pancakes with chocolate chips for her daddy breakfast. She also liked patty sausage — though not deer sausage — as a kid. These days she typically sleeps through breakfast, but when I do cook pancakes, she eats them solo, no meat.
My son likes soft-boiled eggs. As kids, my brother and I called them “cup eggs.” Our mom would cook a three-minute egg (hard whites, soft yolk), crack them into an empty coffee cup or cereal bowl, scrape the whites off of the sides of the shell, and tear biscuits into mix in with the eggs. A little salt and pepper is all that is needed finish the meal off. When my son was small, I started crumbling bacon into the bowl with the eggs and biscuits.
When the boy was 10-years old, we spent six months travelling all over Europe. He and I would wake up early every morning and have breakfast together. Those are some of my fondest memories as a parent. There was all manner of strange and wonderful items available to us and we learned the breakfast eating habits of people in 72 cities, in 17 countries, on two continents. One thing that was always available were soft-boiled eggs and croissants. That was our standard breakfast whether we were on the roof of our Athens hotel overlooking the Temple of Zeus with the Parthenon in the distance, or in a small inn on a quiet street corner in a Medieval German village.
At my son’s 18th birthday, he asked if I would cook my breakfast potatoes this morning. He knows that the answer to that question is always, “yes.” Those potatoes and cup eggs are my go-to when cooking his daddy breakfast. To prepare the potatoes, I cook several batches of bacon in a large cast iron skillet. Then — while the burner is still on and the bacon grease is hot— I place frozen, cubed hash browns (I thaw them out a little in the microwave) in the hot bacon grease. Fine dining restaurants often cook potatoes in duck fat. I enjoy them just as much cooked in bacon grease. The key is to let them get crisp on the outside and not to overwork them in the skillet.
So, I’ll be making those potatoes this morning when he wakes up. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I ever make them for him, but he’s going off to college in a few weeks. He’ll make it back home for holidays and summer breaks. He promises that we will always eat breakfast together, but there is still an air of finality to these days and it’s hard to shake the dark, ominous feeling that things are about to be drastically different in the days to come.
Today I will enjoy this daddy breakfast, and all of the daddy breakfasts that are yet to come. I will count my blessings, I will continue to milk every minute and I will pray that time stops rushing by so quickly.
In the meantime, let’s eat.
ROBERT ST. JOHN is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.