The Breakfast Issue

Breakfast for Dinner

Me and breakfast have a problem. I don’t like it. I don’t think about it. And, for the most part, I don’t eat it.

It’s not breakfast’s fault — it’s mine. My whole life, I have wanted to be the kind of person who wakes up and sits down to a big, nutritious spread. I believe that breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day. Honest, I do. Over the years, I’ve tried developing a habit for cold cereal and hot oatmeal, waffles fresh and frozen, overnight oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, eggs in every preparation…anything to get something down my gullet and kick-start my day. None of it takes.

I have an old friend who wishes all his food could be delivered in the form of a pill; life, he believes, would be immeasurably easier if all his nutritional needs were met in one, simple, decision-free gulp. I come from the opposite camp; my family likes to say that we plan our next meal while in the middle of the current one — a line I’ve since learned is applied by most New Orleanians to themselves. Only on those late mornings when I find myself, empty-stomached and coffee-jangled, leaning over the sink to devour, without so much as a hint of pleasure, a hard-boiled egg or plain piece of ham or leftover pizza crust to keep myself from passing out…only then do I think of my friend’s imaginary pill, and think he may be onto something.

There is, however, one exception, one time when I absolutely love breakfast, and that is when it’s for dinner. What could be better! More joyful? More deliciously transgressive! I bet you’re smiling just thinking about it.

Let’s start by acknowledging that we have always played fast and loose with meal definitions. You don’t have to look past the doughnut to see that dessert and breakfast, ostensibly meals that bookend the day, are, in actuality, secretly holding hands around the back. Is there any rational reason that a chocolate croissant is acceptable at 7:30 in the morning but an eclair must wait until after dinner? Or that ham, cheese and toast are a breakfast platter but, when assembled, they become a lunch sandwich? Let’s not even talk about syrup….

Still, there’s something special about Breakfast for Dinner. Its pleasures are universal, and examples of its infinite variety are entwined with all levels of New Orleans life. I’m thinking of fried chicken and cornbread waffles at the aptly named Ma Momma’s House of Cornbread, Chicken and Waffles in New Orleans East and the Pythian Market. Of the eggy pleasures of the Alligator “Cheesecake” — really much closer to a quiche — at Jacques-Imo’s. Of the grits soaking up gravy beneath veal grillades at Upperline. Of the oft-overlooked egg menu at Galatoire’s, from which a friend of mine likes to order eggs Benedict as his main course, with a petite filet mignon on the side. Of steamy bowls of pho, which is, of course, a breakfast dish for millions in Vietnam, even if, here, we’ve moved it to the dinner menu.

Then there is the category of late-night dining with the purpose of soaking up alcohol, a task for which breakfast foods are especially well-suited — or at least they always seem so at the time. I remember one evening, long past midnight, sitting at Camellia Grill and watching with admiration as a solo young man meticulously devoured an entire plate of eggs, bacon, toast and grits, washing it all down with an enormous glass of cold milk and finishing with a look of blissed-out satisfaction that sticks with me to this day. As for home, the first Carnival that my partner and I lived together in our own home, we invited people over for pancakes and bacon on Mardi Gras morning. It was sort of a disaster, trying to cook and serve while also getting costumed and out the door. These days, we’ve made that classic combo our Lundi Gras dinner tradition, now shared with two daughters and far more civilized. (The Bloody Mary also makes a perfect evening cocktail, but that’s a cause for another day.)

The great Jacques Pépin, who for decades taught a special seminar just on cooking eggs at the French Culinary Institute, recently told me that his almost magic ability to spin pristine French omelettes, perfect poached eggs, deep-fried eggs and countless other wonders from the simplest of ingredients sprang out of his childhood amidst rationing and meat shortages in wartime France, when you ate eggs, no matter the time of day, because that was the most available protein.

A similar economic necessity is at the heart of Nicole Mackie’s memories of eating grits for supper while growing up in the Seventh Ward and New Orleans East. “Grits were a cheap, filling dish. It was what we had to make,” says the co-owner of Ma Momma’s House of Cornbread, Chicken and Waffles. Later, she and her husband and co-owner, Earl, would end on dates at the Trolley Stop or Camellia Grill, where her regular. That combo had a special place on the menu when they opened Ma Momma’s on Crowder Boulevard, in 2013. (The Pythian Market branch opened in July.) The restaurant’s namesake is probably the most famous example of Breakfast for Dinner, but it’s a concept that’s strangely underrepresented in New Orleans. “We had tried chicken and waffles on trips to New York and Los Angeles,” says Mackie, “and we thought, ‘This is something New Orleans needs!’”

The chicken, crisp and juicy, is made from Earl’s secret family recipe; Mackie says she has access to it in case of emergency but has never peeked, which is surely one indicator of a good marriage. The restaurant offers conventional waffles, but they pale next to the ones made with cornbread batter — a simple innovation of Mackie’s grandmother, who got tired of making her cornbread in an oven, that utterly changes the game. “It’s the family masterpiece,” Mackie says.

If chicken and waffles has a lesser-known twin, it’s grillades and grits, a staple at Queen Breakfasts held in the wee hours after Mardi Gras krewe balls and, tellingly, also called Queen Suppers. That’s where JoAnn Clevenger first heard of them, and they’ve been a staple under the tenures of multiple chefs at her Upperline Restaurant. Clevenger grows downright giddy at the mention of Breakfast for Dinner: “You’ve got eggs, you’ve got toasts. You’ve got cereals and crepes…and, oh! Hash browns are something people forget about!” She too grew up in rural Louisiana, with the need to stretch meals with ingredients like grits — and with an eye to letting nothing go to waste. Leftovers in her house are destined to be eggified into omelettes and frittatas. French toast shows up on the dinner table, stuffed with spinach and mascarpone. She’ll even occasionally go with a full English breakfast: eggs, toast, bacon and andouille sausage — all more than she would ever eat in the morning. “I like to gussy things up just a little bit,” she says of her Breakfast for Dinner philosophy. “I want it to have a little more flavor, be a little more luxurious. That’s when it feels special.”

And that, really, is what we’re talking about. A feeling. You could debate existential questions of when a plate of meat really becomes dinner rather than breakfast, or whether a frittata even counts as breakfast. The truth is, you know Breakfast for Dinner when you feel it: that sudden moment of pure joy and freedom that comes when you throw away whatever plans you may have had, utter whatever version of “_____ it” suits your temperament, and reach for the eggs or pancake batter (or head toward Waffle House). It may be silly that something so small can impart such a thrill, but why fight it? Everybody in the family suddenly relaxes. The world feels a little easier. The dinner battle is won for another day. And nobody would dream of taking it as a pill.