My friend Seth made me breakfast at his house the other day. Coffee, eggs, and toast. Coffee always makes me a little jittery, especially the thick, dark kind of smooth espresso Seth made. It’s a good jittery, though—a sort of unstable energy that keeps me going all day. It’s like nuclear power in my blood. Most mornings I spend breakfast-time leaning against the kitchen sink eating a bowl of cold cereal. Bored, tired, half asleep. But breakfast is different. Real breakfast isn’t soggy flakes eaten over a dim countertop. It’s a warm kitchen, the smell of eggs and coffee, classical music on National Public Radio, and good company.
A meal is an excuse to spend time with someone. I love to get together with friends and family over food because a person is often so much more relaxed if their taste sense is stimulated, provided the taste is a good one. But regardless, food is an instant conversation-starter. When it’s good, the guest can ask, “How did you learn how to make this?” Even if it’s bad, the cook has the opportunity to apologize, and the guest has the opportunity to deflect with a comment like, “Oh, it’s not so terrible. There was one time I was with so-and-so and we were making such-and-such. Now that was bad news.”
My childhood saw its fair share of meals when dinner was long over, but Dan and I still sat at the table, staring at each other over Sloppy Joes. I’ve never been impressed by certain types of food—tomatoes, mushrooms, soggy breads—so it’s not a stretch that as a child, I was less than thrilled by what had been set before me. The Joes sat on our plates, barely touched. I guess my brother wasn’t much for soggy bread either, and the longer we sat there the mushier the buns got.
“You can sit at the table until you finish,” Mom called from the other room. It wasn’t an offer so much as a command. She and Dad had finished eating over half an hour before, leaving Dan and I alone. A face-off that only resulted in us poking at our food and horsing around—things Mom and Dad did not allow while they were at the table.
I picked at the top bun, eating sesame seeds and small bits of bread.
Dan finally grabbed his sandwich and took a big bite, eyes closed. “Come on, David. Eat your dinner,” he said through the food, a greasy orange stain trailing up his cheek from his lips.
“I am!” I said, indignant.
“No, you’re not,” he said. “You’re picking at it.”
“You’re not the boss of me,” I replied.
“Okay,” Dan said and took another bite. “But Mom’s going to be mad when she gets back in here and you haven’t eaten anything.”
“So,” I muttered. He was right, but I wouldn’t admit that until experience confirmed his snide wisdom. Mom and Dad were in their room getting ready for the evening service at church, and they had been yelling at us for the whole meal to eat up so we wouldn’t be late. To me, it was a game: push Mom and Dad far enough so they would end up making something I liked for dinner, like macaroni and cheese.
“Are you two finished yet?” Dad asked walking into the kitchen behind me.
Dan was mere bites from being done. “David’s not.”
“I don’t like Sloppy Joes,” was my defense.
“I don’t care,” Dad said and continued on his way downstairs to get some socks.
I looked out the sliding glass door by the table. Our dog Crissy lay on the steps, back against the glass. I knew she wouldn’t eat my dinner. She wouldn’t eat the pancakes Dad made, and since I liked those, I couldn’t imagine her eating something I didn’t like.
Not until my brother had finished his Joe and left the room did I finally make a point to finish my own dinner. Misery loves company, but what happens when the camaraderie ends? You’ve got to go it alone, hunker down the sandwich between gulps of room-temperature milk. To this day I don’t like eating alone. It becomes a job, a chore, something I’m required to do to keep from passing out while I’m doing something I actually enjoy. I still don’t like Sloppy Joes, probably never will. It’s like eating a pre-chewed hamburger; I’ll do my own chewing, thank you very much.
Dinner is best when there are jokes cracked and milk gushes from someone’s nose—like when my friend flubbed the name once and called them Messy Bobs. Or quiet morning conversations over simple breakfast creations. I think that’s why some people hold hands when they pray over a meal. Touch is the greatest reminder that there is someone next to you. To accompany you, to bear with you as you both embark on something that may or may not be a fortunate endeavor. Unconditionally. No matter how sloppy things get.