My sister Elisabeth was wearing a tee shirt imprinted with the phrase "Breakfast of Champions." It was a cute thing, appliquéd with cartoons of classic early morning fare given human qualities: a smiling glass of orange juice; a beaming platter of bacon, eggs and potatoes; a dancing pitcher of milk; happy toast; and a big beautiful bowl of Wheaties. Her fashion statement was a hit with our fellow restaurant guests as they tripped sleepily in for that most important meal of the day. Some stopped by our table and grinned, politely coveting this funky thrift shop find that looked so good on my college-student sibling.
Me, the tee shirt really bothered. If I had to look at its bright, cheerful artwork for much longer, in fact, I was going to get aggressive. Because in front of me that morning -- the same as the past 14 mornings -- was my traditional breakfast. Elisabeth and I were nearing the end of a two-week tour of southern Japan, and our breakfasts, today and every day, had been authentic, very rural Asian fare, resembling nothing like Elisabeth's perky chest-portrait.
Instead of ham 'n' eggs, I'd been eating salty slabs of grilled salmon, pickled eggplant, preserved plum and gummy boiled seaweed, pink-dyed pressed fish cakes, steaming hot miso soup, and rice which I rolled into bundles with dried nori and soy sauce. While Elisabeth's shirt winked at me with a cavorting cup of rich black coffee, I was sipping my umpteenth vessel of leaf-littered harsh green tea, and wetting my lips with calpis, a thin, tangy, yogurt flavored soft drink.
Admittedly, the first time we'd had such a breakfast, it had been great fun. Unidentifiable mountain vegetables steeped in vinegar were an intriguing way to start my day. Yet after realizing that this menu was to be repeated pretty closely at every lunch and dinner, too, the thrill had evaporated. After too long, I was full to the brim of salt, sour, sticky and unsubstantial (no matter how much tamago I crammed down -- that fluffy layering of sweetened egg omelet -- I was still starved too long before lunch rolled around).
Suddenly that morning, with that tee shirt mocking me, I wondered if I might actually be capable of pushing my own darling sister in front the Shinkansen, that 220 mph bullet train that connects Japan's rural areas with pulsating Tokyo and Osaka. Pretty much all it would take would be for someone to promise me a Pop Tart.
I didn't do it. Elisabeth is just fine. And now, as I gaze in dewy-eyed adoration at the breakfast in front of me, those morning meals of cold rice noodles sprinkled with katsuobushi (flakes of dried bonito tuna) and natto (pungent fermented soy beans) seem like a far-away, unsettling dream. Because I've arrived home, scampered directly from the airport, and am happily buried in breakfast at Grandma's Kitchen, a tiny hole-in-the-wall oasis to home cooking in Mesa. I'd come across the place late last year while visiting a Peruvian restaurant, had always meant to stop in, and am instantly thrilled I finally did.
With my belly full of fresh-from-scratch cinnamon rolls, crispy-edged corn beef hash with eggs over easy, and sips of jolting hot black coffee, it's difficult to believe that a mere 20 hours before, my body had almost twitched hoping for such good old-fashioned grease and caffeine. No matter that it's past the noon hour now in the good Old U.S. of A. -- Grandma's serves breakfast all day, and no one looks twice at me as I settle back in the country-kitchen-decor surroundings and ordered up a gluttonous platter of two pie-plate-size pancakes, a trio of deeply pork-rich sausage links, soft poached eggs, and rivers of sugary syrup and butter.
The only cross-wise look I get is from my dining companion, wondering if he's along because I want him there, or if I'm using him as an extra body at my table so I won't look so piggish ordering up extra quiche (made fresh daily, with lovely creations like spinach Lorraine, broccoli and chicken, or my favorite, green chile). It's true he gets only a few bites of the moist egg tart, capped with a chewy crust of golden cheese and brimming with chunks of bacon and chopped pepper. I'd had little fresh fruit during my Asian adventure (white peaches, even the variety sold at train station kiosks, were an incredible $10 a pound). So what a beautiful sight Grandma's "side" of fruit alongside the quiche is then, a virtual farmer's market of fresh banana, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, strawberries and kiwi.
In Japan, breakfast often came with a beverage called Pocari Sweat. This is a gluey, salty-sweet drink with a composition that's described as "close to human body fluid," and is just as tasty as it sounds. I'm much, much happier right now, nursing a fine mug of Grandma's hot cocoa, capped with clouds of whipped cream. The sugar buzz just about shocks me when I pair the chocolate drink with Grandma's fresh-baked muffins, softball sized and studded with peach, blueberry, lemon poppy seed or the chef's newest fruit, blackberry.
I adore Japanese food, really I do, but I feel I'd be just as happy to never again see such a salty sunrise of fermented fish. Instead, I'm suddenly smitten with that most American of breakfast foods, biscuits and gravy. Four of Grandma's fluffy bread cubes are drenched in creamy thick glorious goo, spiked with bits of crumbled sausage that laps the edges of scrambled eggs, crisp bacon and cubed grilled potatoes. This is cozy, set among dozens of pictures of Grandma's family and customers, a baby-blue-topped counter, and white tile-topped tables adorned with ceramic figurines of toast, eggs and measuring cups. The only thing I need now for the perfect welcome home is a nap.
A few days later, my body rested and my appetite still raging, I trek over to Harlow's Café. Harlow's isn't new -- it's been around since 1976, and under the direction of the same family since 1980. I actually hadn't been inside the compact coffee shop on the edge of ASU in probably five years, a sad oversight. But as I'd stared at my sister's breakfast tee shirt when we sat on that tatami-mat floor in our Japanese restaurant, I found myself thinking back to the homemade muffins I'd enjoyed there once -- giant gems of blueberry, banana nut, or peach cream. I craved Harlow's chipped beef on toast, its French toast sprinkled with powdered sugar, its Belgian sandwich of three strips of bacon or sausage links and an egg on a pillowy Belgian waffle.
I pretty much decided I was willing to knock over old ladies and kick crippled children to get my guts stuffed with Harlow's old time steak and eggs, the 8-ounce New York strip paired with eggs, hand-cut hashed browns, biscuits, toast or muffin. I positively had to have a "Tom Mix" plate, loaded with corned beef hash and all the trimmings, or a glorious eggs Benedict bringing English muffins groaning with Canadian bacon, eggs poached to a runny yolk and Harlow's hollandaise recipe made tangy with lots of lemon.
What pleasure to find that everything is as good as I remembered, served fresh and fast, with endless refills of strong java (I'm still dazed over finding out that when I managed to track down coffee at my Japanese breakfasts, it commanded $4.50 for a single tea cup). My companion, who's never been deprived of his morning omelet, is pleased as can be with his simple Spanish model, capped virtually naked in fresh salsa. Me, I'm gorging on the most un-Asian thing I can find: huevos rancheros swimming in thick green chile beef, puddled with soupy refried beans under lots of Cheddar, hash browns, and flour tortillas for scooping every last morsel. Yes, he's laughing at my ravenous feasting, reminding me that breakfast here, too, is an all-day affair, and I can order more food at another time.
I'll wait until Elisabeth returns home to sweep the rest of the menu, I tell him, but that's a lie. She'll be continuing her journey through Japan until the end of summer, and it takes me only a day to return for another monstrous morning meal of eggs Maximillian, a flour tortilla topped with hash browns, diced green chile, chopped onions, three whipped and pan-fried eggs, sour cream and salsa. I tell myself I'm saluting her as I work though a fried egg and ham sandwich, slathered with mayonnaise.
My mom is fretting about Elisabeth, wandering the big city streets of Tokyo all on her own. She's fine, I assure her. She'll be completely safe, in one of the friendliest countries in the world. As long as she doesn't wear that Champions shirt in front of any pancake-starved Americans like me.
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