Pancake envy

shabnam minwalla | Updated on October 24, 2014 Published on October 24, 2014

Quite a pile: Nobody does waffles and pancakes and brightly-lit diners like the Americans

When Bertie Wooster tackles “toothsome eggs and bacon which Jeeves had given of his plenty” or Nero Wolfe starts his day with a strawberry omelette, I feel a stab of jealousy

In general, I’m content with my lot. There are, however, moments of grouchy dissatisfaction — often triggered when fictional characters around me are snarfing down a fabulous breakfast. A bacon and apricot omelette, perhaps. Or eggs à la Suisse served with oatmeal cakes and croissants slathered in blackberry jam. Or even James Bond’s speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minute, and served with wholewheat toast, a selection of preserves and a “pat of deep yellow Jersey butter”.

There’s no getting away from it. When Blomkvist tucks into bacon pancakes with lingonberries in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Bridget Jones cheers herself up with an elegant cappuccino and chocolate croissant, I feel an unseemly twinge of envy. Just as when Bertie Wooster tackles “the toothsome eggs and bacon which Jeeves had given of his plenty” or Nero Wolfe starts his day with a strawberry omelette, I feel a stab of hungry jealousy. This explodes into a full-grown attack of the meany-greenies when the Hobbits eat their second breakfast, or I stumble upon passages like this one in The Golden Gate that describes a glorious Sunday potluck in San Francisco:

And ask Sue too “Six kinds of cereal,

Waffles and syrup, sausage, jam,

Scrambled eggs, French toast — an imperial

Repast next morning — bacon, ham,

Hot coffee, quiche, cream cheese and bagels,

Brie, fruit, banana bread — inveigles

The appetite of each potluck guest…

After all, I’m a breakfast person. The kind who wouldn’t dream of ordering lunch or dinner if there’s an ‘All Day Breakfast’ option on the menu. The sort who can imagine no greater felicity than a fancy hotel throwing in a free buffet breakfast — one of those spreads that feature 12 types of muffins, sinful hash browns and smiling men in white toques to cook up the perfect egg. And then a selection of five herb-infused sea salts with which to season those lovingly coddled or shirred eggs.

Which is why I feel so deprived when the characters in English novels step so casually into their local greasy spoon and order a full fry up. Or the hardboiled detective in my American whodunnit — after a night of hard driving and detecting — stops at a diner and wolfs down a stack of pancakes, scrambled eggs and endless cups of coffee, topping it with a wedge of cherry pie. All breakfast lovers will agree that a couple of near-death experiences and an encounter with a squinty stranger with a sharp butcher’s knife is a small price to pay for a meal such as this.

Clearly, nobody does waffles and pancakes and brightly-lit diners on a frosty morning like the Americans. Just as nobody does the heart-attack-on-a-plate like the English. The Full English Breakfast — featuring fried eggs, grilled tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bread, crispy bacons, squirty sausages, fried potatoes and a mug of super-strong Builder’s Tea — is the epitome of the early morning meal. It is the fuel on which countless paperback characters function. And is the reason why I would cheerfully spend all my vacations at an English Bed and Breakfast — waiting all night for next morning’s fry-up.

My favourite fictional breakfasts are, however, the ones consumed in books in which guests assemble in an English country house — setting the scene for a gruesome murder, or grand passion or gentle comedy. Not to mention morning meals featuring polite conversation and strange delights like kedgeree and bubble and squeak. Admittedly, kedgeree — a British version of good old khichdi made with flaked fish, boiled rice, hardboiled eggs, curry powder, cream and sultanas — may be a bit much for a constitution more accustomed to toast and muesli, while bubble and squeak— made by frying leftover vegetables from dinner — sounds way better than it tastes. But that doesn’t detract from the joys of the country house breakfast — served up in works like The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy:

When Dinny came down to breakfast on the Wednesday morning — the shoot being timed to start at 10 — three of the ladies and all the men except Hallorsen were already sitting or wandering to the side tables. She slipped into a chair next to Lord Saxenden, who rose slightly with the word:


“Dinny,” called Michael from a sideboard. “Coffee, cocoatina or ginger beer?”

“Coffee and a kipper, Michael.”

“There are no kippers.”

Lord Saxenden looked up. “No kippers,” he muttered and resumed his sausage.

“Haddock?” said Michael.

“No thank you.”

“Anything for you, Aunt Wilmet?”


“There is no kedgeree. Kidneys, bacon, scrambled egg, haddock, ham, cold partridge pie.”

“Well, Dinny?”

“Just some jam please, Michael.”

“Goose-gog, strawberry, black currant, marmalade.”

These are the kind of difficult choices that I would love to make. And it always saddens me that characters like Dinny and Elizabeth Bennett — otherwise so sensible and clever — would forego their eggs and bacon because of foolish matters of the heart.

Nero Wolfe’s Eggs a la Suisse

4 servings

2 tbsp butter, melted

1 cup Gruyere cheese

9 eggs

1/4 cup heavy cream

Red chilli flakes and salt to taste

1 Preheat the oven to 325°F/160°F.

2 Grease an 8”x8” baking dish with melted butter. Then scatter about 3/4 cup cheese over the butter and crack eggs into the dish carefully, keeping the yolks intact.

3 Season with red chilli flakes and salt.

4 Pour heavy cream over the eggs. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

5 Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the egg whites are set and the yolks are cooked to your liking.

(This is part of a monthly series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

(Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street)

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Published on October 24, 2014
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