Thursday, February 26, 2009

Breakfast and the Power of Beginnings

A new moon appeared this week. The Jewish calendar calls this day Rosh Chodesh, "the beginning of the month." My thoughts turn female.

The moon's mystic qualities are overtly feminine. Cyclical and gestational, the moon waxes and wanes to be reborn each month. In most times and cultures, women have been associated with the moon through ceremony and ritual. In Judaism, Rosh Chodesh is recognized as a women’s holiday dating back to late antiquity.

The new moon also holds the secret of beginnings—how beginnings contain (yet purposely conceal) the entirety of what lies ahead. Beginnings are microcosms: the seed to a tree, the ember to a fire. In a microcosm, we see the meaning of essence, that the nature of the whole is contained in its parts, infinitesimal in size. Like love.

The Jewish calendar is lunar, assigning unique spiritual qualities to the different moons of the year. Each Rosh Chodesh is a microcosm containing the essence of the month to come. The days emerge from it as a child from a womb. For this reason some are careful about the day, knowing it is a tenuous time, fraught with potentiality. The things we begin on Rosh Chodesh can grow into fixed patterns affecting our lives and psyches for the duration of the moon cycle. Like the moon, they grow in strength and potency until they peak. As the moon wanes, they slowly fade until they are gone. With the next new moon comes renewal—a clean slate and the chance to start again.

The moon, women, and beginnings share a commonality to most men: their ways are concealed, inscrutable, shrouded in secrecy.

On the subject of women and beginnings, my thoughts turn to morning, to breakfast—another beginning, another microcosm. Breakfast can be seen as the womb from which our day emerges. Our thoughts at the time, along with the food we eat and the energy it provides, establish the rhythm and pattern of the day to come.

It is important to start the day off right. It is important to have a good breakfast.

Merri and I eat the same breakfast every day: boiled whole oats with diced Granny Smith apple and cinnamon. Coffee. Later, a handful of almonds on the way out the door. These things are the raw materials of my day.

I wake each day to the voice of children. Akiva, the baby, stirs in his crib. Six-year old Zev tugs my foot.

“I’m hungry,” he says.

My mind snaps alert. A thought rises, fades. A significant part of the day’s pattern is immediately established—I will be surrounded by children in need. I teach in two schools each day.

I fix Zev’s breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs (sometimes waffles). A bowl of fruit, usually frozen grapes. A glass of almond milk. Vitamins: a chewable multi, a probiotic, three capsules of fish oil.

Zev sits to eat. I begin preparing my own breakfast. In doing this, another quality of my day is brought into being. As a parent and teacher, each day depends on how delicately I balance the act of placing others’ needs before my own.

Oats simmer over a medium flame on the stove. Bending over a dish, I slice through the apples. Purposeful, deliberate and slow, my knife is a morning prayer. It seeks to penetrate. Soon the apple collapses into a hundred tiny green cubes. When the oats are done cooking, I turn off the flame, stir in the apple and cinnamon.

The pot sits on the stove, delphic steam still rising from within. Looking inside, I hope to see something I can read, some insight into the day ahead amongst the oats and apples. I imagine seeing slight shadows inside the pot coalesce and shift together into imagery I should recognize. The random scattering of apples is not random at all. I know somewhere inside the pot is the pattern to my life, the secret to my days. I see nothing. The heavy padding of feet comes down the hall. Four-year old Sivan enters the kitchen, rubbing her eyes.

"Abba, I have to pee," she says.

Oat reverts to oat, apple subsides to apple. The pot sits on the stove, the air fragrant with the scent of cinnamon.

"Good morning," I say.

Merri arrives in the kitchen carrying the baby and places him in the high chair. Sivan is finished with her breakfast of yogurt mixed dry cereal and now plays in the living room. The baby sits quiet, content. This moment is ours. She gets the bowls. I get the mugs. We eat. She takes oatmeal, coffee with a bit of milk and agave nectar. I take plain oatmeal, black coffee. Our conversation sifts through the lingering emotions and detritus of yesterday. Together, we move forward.

In this way the last and most important pattern is brought into being. My wife and I meet for our meals together during stolen moments at the poles of the day, always by early morning or late at night. Except weekends, rarely do we meet in between. Our breakfast is like the early morning moon, still visible in the pre-dawn sky. She disappears during the day. We reconvene at night.

A Perfect Pot of Porridge

This recipe takes cues from both Cook's Illustrated, who suggest using longer-cooking steel-cut oats and Peter Berley, who suggests soaking the oats overnight in a souring agent, such as yogurt, to promote lactic-acid formation. This ultimately makes the oats easier to digest. The final dish is delicious and creamy with a slight tang: perfect. Steel cut oats take longer to cook than rolled oats, but much of the cooking time requires minimal attention.

1 cup steel cut oats
3 1/2 cups spring water
1/4 cup plain full-fat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh sliced apples, yogurt, or nuts for topping

In heavy saucepan, combine the oats, water, and yogurt. Cover the pan and soak overnight, 8 to 10 hours. This is called FoodVibing the oats.

In the morning, put the saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a lively simmer. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the salt and stir lightly with a wooden spoon. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until oats have absorbed most of the water and the porrdige is thick and creamy, 5-7 minutes.

Let the oatmeal stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Serve topped with fresh apple slices, yogurt, or crushed nuts.


Mark said...

"She disappears during the day. We reconvene at night."

I love this personification of the moon in your wife. I also am returning to oatmeal after an absence. This post is lining up quite nicely with my breakfasting cycle.

Seth said...

This is a very tender, well-written post. And oatmeal is a must, I think, for any reasonable person living today.

Steve said...

There are so many positive reasons to make oatmeat your morning breakfast routine.

Steve said...

oatmeat? wtf?

I meant oatmeal.

oatmeat sounds scary.

Suzanne said...

I love breakfast. I love brunch even more. I had friends over for brunch a few weeks ago. We had baked French toast, cheddar and dill scones, homemade peach jam, fresh fruit, coffee and mimosas.

I'm not surprised that even breakfast is a kind of ritual in your family. Well done.

In most gender-based languages the moon is feminine and the sun is masculine. In German, however, it's the other way round. Isn't that odd?

Stephanie said...

I really enjoyed this post, Steve. I'm not much of a breakfast eater myself, but I do love how you have tied in the mystique of women, their cycles, and cozy mornings together. I strangely relate to that connection. I think everyone has a morning routine (and if they don't they should). It is the nicest way to begin a day, even if it means just taking some time out to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation with your loved one(s).

Rachel Molly said...

I am reading "Nourishing Traditions" where the author, Sally Fallon, also discusses the benefits of soaking grains (i.e.. oats, in this case) overnight. There's a whole bunch there on lactic-acid fermentation, too.