Some of my Charles Village neighbors take their breakfasts outdoors at the bus stop. This week, I noted a morning repast of yogurt in a plastic cup and a Pop-Tart extracted from a backpack.
No thanks. You just flunked my Baltimore breakfast test. My teachers were my grandmother and her sister, siblings who lived under the same roof until the days they died. Never separated, they also shared a trait. They were morning people happy to be up and busy at the hour when the steam whistles were calling cannery workers to their jobs on Boston Street.
Hot breakfasts were a staple of my childhood. No one was better prepared to cater to the whims of that household of 12 than my great-aunt, Cora O'Hare, a loving, optimistic soul who could handle multiple orders for scrapple, French toast, oatmeal, kidney stew and stewed prunes. And that was on a weekday, before school.
She could stretch a bowl of homemade pancake batter (always called flannel cakes) so that it fed 12 on Sundays and another five or six on Mondays. You want pineapple preserves for your toast? Cora found a jar in the refrigerator. Apple butter was in the pantry, maybe some leftover applesauce too. Waffle iron? No problem.
My mother could be quite a breakfast prima donna. She would sail into the kitchen and turn up her nose at a pot of oatmeal. She preferred cream of wheat, and that is what she was served. She was not, however, a morning person and did little to hide that.
The 12 who lived in the house, as well as the neighbor who often dropped by, arrived at the breakfast table when it pleased them. Cora and her sister, Lily Rose, cooked to order; bread, roll and toast shades were all over the map. We did not know what French-press coffee was. Coffee came in a red bag from the Gorsuch Avenue A&P. It was served strong.
On many a damp November Saturday midmorning, my mother bundled up her children and walked us eastward along 29th Street to Greenmount Avenue, where we boarded the No. 8 streetcar bound for downtown. We rode past blocks of urban sights Mom identified with the skill of a tour guide: the ship's anchor outside St. Ann's Church, the blackened stone walls of Green Mount Cemetery, the Department of Public Welfare building and the Maryland Penitentiary, so frightening because of its gas chamber.
She never described our outing as grocery shopping. We were going marketing. Specifically, we were looking for the specialty products of old Baltimore that the A&P didn't offer. Our destination was the boisterous Bel Air Market, the public food hall where you found pickled pigs' feet and other delights.
Within that archaic market — there was still a wooden cigar-store Indian — my mother bought a sack of buckwheat flour and a pound of Wetzelberger's sage-laced sausage, two items that sank like lead weights in her ever-expanding shopping bag. Optional, but often included, were scrapple, bacon and kidneys, the last to be made into the milky, gamey stew that caused some to salivate and others to gag.
We had two distinctly separate styles of pancake: flannel (or wheat) and the dark one, buckwheat. Both kinds were served Sundays.
I know people who regard homemade buckwheat cakes with deep reverence. They should; they aren't easy to make. My grandmother made her buckwheat batter the night before because the yeast required time to activate. She gave a stir or two to that thick, grayish-brown liquid that smelled like beer. If the stuff passed inspection, she placed a linen tea towel over the bowl, had a swig of Pepsi-Cola and retired for the evening. She was up again at 5 a.m.
Lily Rose preserved an iron griddle that was positively scary. Its pitted surface looked unsanitary. Maybe it was the years of grease that made her buckwheat and flannel cakes taste so good. That buckwheat batter hit the griddle and immediately formed flat puddles peppered with little air pockets.
Rarely did we eat together as a family unit. Sunday morning was no exception. Lily Rose sat in the kitchen, and as one, two or five returned home from church, she lit the gas under the griddle and put on another breakfast. There was no consensus on pancake accompaniments either. We had corn syrup, molasses, maple syrup and a watery syrup Lily concocted to take on Mrs. Butterworth's. The two sisters seemed to enjoy their talents as short-order cooks. They tolerated everything but complaints.