NOW THAT THERE is some daylight around Baltimore by 7 o'clock in the morning, I find myself thinking about the family breakfasts I witnessed 40-some years ago.
That first meal of the day, dispatched with speed and efficiency, was nevertheless an exercise in complicated dietary and culinary requirements twisted around the finicky personalities of the diners.
While we were usually 12 around the table, the breakfast trade involved a regular added starter, our next door neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, who lived alone and had a key to the house. She and my grandmother bonded on their notion of early, pitch-black rising hours. Both vigorous tee-totalers, they also put back many a cup of coffee while others remained comatose in the comfy Land of Nod upstairs.
By the time I appeared at the table - often as some distant tomato canning factory was blasting - our morning paper was full of wrinkles and torn apart. And while I never touched coffee until I left for college, I found it comforting to awake to the smell of the best beans of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Co. percolating.
My grandmother and her sister required that all be sent out into their day with a decent breakfast. Those who awoke in foul moods or said they didn't like breakfast were only more of a challenge. No one left the place without something.
For example, there was a wide choice available of breakfast preserves. Aunt Cora had her pineapple. There was always strawberry, but raspberry if you required it. And if the thought of fruit and sugar didn't whet the appetite, there was always apple butter, apple sauce or cream cheese. The really finicky ones got a private supply of cinnamon and sugar, on toast with butter.
My grandfather would not start the day without his stewed prunes, which no one else at the table would even look at. Aunt Cora required fresh orange juice - temple oranges preferred - or grapefruit.
While other 1950s families had the mainstream frozen orange juice, we often drank apricot nectar and liked it.
My mother, never at her best before 10:30 a.m. or so, came up with some difficult breakfast enthusiasms. She was the type of person who gloried in the odd choice, the underdog, whatever was not in the mainstream. She would have gagged on Battle Creek-style cold cereal, but kept a private supply of Cream of Wheat on the pantry shelf reserved as her private domain.
Her idea of a fine morning repast was grilled lamb kidneys or, better yet, kidney stew served with grits, heavy on the butter, please.
Just to add to trouble to the breakfast formula, however, she would specify the kidneys from a certain butcher, but not necessarily from the convenient Lexington Market. No, she might trade at the Belair Market or the Northeast Market, just to preserve her reputation for meal-time contrariness.
I cannot misrepresent this scene. There were many boxes of Rice Crispies, Wheaties and Pop Tarts over the years. But Aunt Cora was a genius with a box of slow-cooking Quaker oats. She could also get a wonderful crust to form on scrapple, the breakfast meat that won the popularity contest over lamb kidneys.
And yet, there were miserable mornings when just nothing would tempt the palate. On these days, Cora would produce an egg cup and treat her charge to that extra dollop of attention, always the best ingredient of any meal. The ploy usually worked wonders.
I often wondered why the women who did all this work catered to all their breakfast prima donnas. I suggest an answer my grandmother, Lily Rose, might have offered.
"To keep peace," I can imagine her saying, then dropping the subject cold and moving right on to the next task.