Breakfast in America
Some of the best morning meals have international flavors
by PAUL O'HANLON
While your basic eggs-bacon-toast combo is easy enough to find from coast to coast, many cultures that have landed on these shores have inspired their own version of breakfast. You may have heard of some, like New York City's bagels (originally from Eastern Europe), but others - like scrapple in Philadelphia, an invention of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and Mexican-style breakfast tacos in San Antonio - may surprise your morning taste buds.
Each dish tells a story - or more than one, as the case goes for the creation of the bagel. One account says it was invented in 1683 as a tribute to the Polish king John III Sobieski, who saved Austria from the conquering Turks. Its shape, it's said, was made to resemble Sobieski's saddle stirrup. However, in The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread - a book as dense as the dough itself - author Maria Balinksa debunks this as a tall but nice tale. While other cultures do have a similar circular bread, bagels seem to have originated in Poland and were brought to New York toward the end of the 19th century, when more than 2 million European Jews were arriving on American shores.
More than a hundred years later, the bagel (or beygl, as it is in Yiddish) is about as iconic as the Empire State Building - and traditional methods of cooking still make a New York bagel the best. And there's no better place to get one than at H&H Bagels (www.hhbagels.net; 212-595-8000), the Upper West Side institution.
Opened in 1972, H&H boils first, then bakes, giving the bagels the perfect combination of chewy texture on the inside and golden crust on the outside. Today, H&H produces millions of bagels a year from its factory on 12th Avenue and 46th Street and will ship pretty much anywhere in the world. But for a real hot-from-the-oven New York original, hit the flagship spot on 2239 Broadway and 80th Street.
For fans of the bagel's similarly shaped yet sweeter counterpart - the doughnut - the French-style beignet of New Orleans may suit your breakfast palate. In fact, this square-shaped, fried piece of dough is such a recognizable part of the city's culinary fabric that, in 1986, Louisiana declared it the official state doughnut. According to chef and native David Guas, the dish goes as far back as the 18th century, when French settlers and colonists arrived. "The beignets, which is the French word for 'fritter,' were a gift they brought," he says.
There's no finer example than the hot, sugary ones from the venerable Café Du Monde (www.cafedumonde.com; 504-525-4544) in the French Quarter, which has been the city's preeminent coffee stand since 1862. Pair your beignet with a cup of traditional chicory coffee. (The use of chicory has some history of its own. Heavily influenced by the French, Acadians from Nova Scotia used this root to soften the bitter taste of dark-roasted coffee. It was also added as a way to stretch ground beans, an expensive commodity in the 19th century.)
BUT BREAKFAST ISN'T just about fried or baked dough. Likewise, it's not always about the main dish. In Philadelphia, the morning feast would not be complete without a side of savory scrapple. This waste-not, want-not dish was invented by descendants of German immigrants, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and dates back to the early 1800s. It's sometimes called "pan-haas" or "poor-do" since it was primarily made from leftover bits of pork mixed with cornmeal, buckwheat flour and spices.
"It's baked in a pan like polenta, sliced and fried until it's crispy on the outside and warm and buttery on the inside," says Philly food historian Carolyn Wyman. "It's a very regional thing, but it's not just at low-brow diners. It's also at the top places in town, like the Rittenhouse and the Four Seasons."
Wyman's favorite spot for scrapple is the Pennsylvania-Dutch owned Dutch Eating Place (215-922-0425) inside the famous Reading Terminal Market. She recommends pulling up a counter-side stool and ordering a giant plate of the famous blueberry pancakes with a side of the best hot and savory scrapple in town.
Another East Coast regional specialty can be found in Boston, where the city's Beantown nickname is a tribute to the sweet-and-saucy irresistible side dish, Boston baked beans. The ingredients are an international mix: beans from Native Americans, pork brought over by British colonist farmers, and molasses and brown sugar from islands in the Caribbean.
These days, Boston baked beans have become more the domain of home cooks than tradition-minded chefs, but you can get a stellar example of this Colonial-era treat during weekend brunch at The Fireplace Restaurant (www.fire.placerest.com; 617-975-1900) in nearby Brookline. Owner Jim Solomon grew up fascinated with his historical New England surroundings - a notion that would eventually shape his future as a local-food-loving chef.
"We celebrate the bounty of New England… and baked beans are what many think of when they think of New England," he says. Solomon's version - braised and slow-roasted pork shoulder mixed with, among other ingredients, navy beans, bacon, onions, brown sugar and molasses - is not only a hit with local fans: The Boston Globe declared them the city's No. 1 baked beans.
Beans of another variety - refried or charro (boiled pinto beans mixed with onion, tomatoes, bacon and garlic) - are the ingredients of choice in the Mexican-influenced breakfast tacos of San Antonio. For the finest variety, check out Taco Taco (www.tacotacosa.com; 210-822-9533), which has won impressive accolades from Bon Appétit (best breakfast tacos in America, 2007), the Food Network (best tacos in America, 2007) and Details (best breakfast in America, 2008).
"San Antonio has a large Hispanic population and they love their tacos," says owner Dimitri Velesiotis. "These days, Texans put anything between a tortilla and call it a taco - barbecue, fish, eggs, you name it. San Antonio is probably the most famous for serving breakfast tacos."
From 7am to 2pm, the popular eatery doles out everything from the simple bacon-and-egg taco to the Super Taco, stuffed with potatoes, country sausage and cheese. Sure, these fillings sound like staples of a hearty American breakfast, but the true inspiration for the tacos - and the boiled bagels, sugar-covered beignets, savory scrapple and saucy baked beans - comes from beyond these shores.
How to Eat a Beignet
You don't want to look like an amateur while eating this powdered sugar-covered treat. Chef and New Orleans native David Guas shows us how it's done:
- "Eat 'em while they're hot."
- "Don't ask for light sugar. The dough itself is pretty savory and not very sweet. A beignet needs the sugar to complete the flavor of the dish. Plus, if you ask for light sugar, the people at Café Du Monde will look at you like you're crazy," Guas says.
- "Don't wear dark clothes." Guas says. He learned this the hard way as a kid when his mischievous sister would blow powdered sugar all over his blue blazer after church at St. Louis Cathedral.
- Leave the sugar out of your coffee. "Even though I'm not a dunker, the combination of the sugar on the beignets and the bitterness of the chicory coffee works really well," Guas says.
- "As you're bringing the beignet up to your mouth, don't inhale - you'll be sorry. Powdered sugar will go up your nose and your mouth," Guas says.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY TOBATRON/FOLIOART