Fish, Coffee, and the Cultural Semiotics of Breakfast

In my other life, I write about outdoor sports—climbing, rafting, skiing. As a result, I was recently in a big, bland, utterly corporate resort on the North Shore of Oahu. The food is rarely better than passable on the North Shore—it’s a surfer’s paradise, not an eater’s—and it’s nearly always awful in resorts of that stripe. But I still managed my requisite, once-per-trip, eye-opening food discovery. Significant numbers of Japanese tourists apparently stay at this resort, although I didn’t see any, and the hotel management therefore puts out a breakfast buffet catered to their tastes: miso soup, smoked salmon, seaweed salad, tofu, and pickled ginger.

None of this stuff was of the highest provenance, but I tried it anyway, and I’m reminded of the experience now by a blog entry by Alan Sytsma at Gourmet. Sytsma sings the virtues of pickled herring for breakfast, and seems a man reborn by the find. I know how he feels: I felt so warmed and fulfilled by my miso and tofu and salmon and seaweed that I came home raving about it. I also came home certain that L, my wife, would be an instant adopter: She loves eating that way, associates it with her yoga practice in some vague, unanalyzed way, and gets a little worn down by my relentless California-French-Italian routine. I was right, too. The first morning I was back, after a quick run to the grocery store, I had us both at the breakfast table in the soft San Francisco sunshine, gently slurping and feeling virtuous. The salmon, in particular, felt like such an intelligent way to begin a day: clean, simple protein. L, I could tell, was sold. She’d never eat a scone again.

The next morning went the same way: A new habit, born! A new lease on life! Vastly reduced chances of heart disease!

But on the third morning, I faced up to a difficult truth: Miso and salmon, not to mention seaweed salad, make abysmal pairings with coffee, and I love my morning coffee more than any of this stuff. On the fourth morning, I’d faced yet another painful reality: Toast with jam, not to mention the sensational bran muffins at my neighborhood bakery, make magnificent pairings with coffee. And just like that, it was over between me and the fish-for-breakfast. Ditto for L, who gravitates toward croissants—that near-miracle pairing invented for the purpose by the people who know how, the French. She didn’t quit doing yoga or anything, but the Japanese-hotel breakfast vanished with hardly a memory.

Not that there’s anything wrong with fish for breakfast—as Sytsma points out, the Scandinavians are big on it, and they also report high life-satisfaction levels—but food, as we all know, is deeply about habit, context, and culture, and breakfast perhaps most of all, because not many of us want to rewrite the rules of comfort while still in our bunny slippers. So here’s what I’ve got to say to Alan Sytsma: I know where you’re coming from, buddy, and I share the enthusiasm. But let’s talk about it over a salmon-and-miso dinner with a bottle of Gewürztraminer from Washington state. Maybe we’ll even have an espresso afterward.

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