I write this sitting at my kitchen table, with a cup of coffee in front of me and a crumb-specked plate at my side. I’ve just finished breakfast: my favourite avocado and poached egg on toast, with basil and lemon juice and a tiny bit of chilli. My brother has had a spinach and banana Nutribullet juice, two boiled eggs and an apple. When my mum comes down she’ll have Greek yoghurt with raspberries and blueberries, flaxseed and some granola. My dad favours Crunchy Nut cornflakes and my sister loves a stack of American-style pancakes. Between the five of us we will have used almost every pot, pan and plate in the house – just on this one meal.
For it seems that breakfast brings out all of our inner brat. We all know the old adage that one should start the day eating like a king – but that is now an excuse to behave as regally as possible. Thanks to the likes of Ella Woodward and Calgary Avansino, we think it’s perfectly normal to demand rice milk or gluten-free waffles or exotic fruit.
And don’t even get me started on coffee. Thanks to Starbucks et al we are no longer content with instant, or even the once glamorous cafetiere. Some will only drink percolator coffee, others turn their nose up at anything but Nespresso. Hot milk or cold? Or – my personal, intensely spoilt, favourite – mostly hot with a dash of cold at the end? Frothed or flat? Sugar or agave syrup? The list goes on and on.
Which is all well and good when you’re at home, but quite a different matter when you’re a guest. While people are perfectly happy to eat whatever is plonked in front of them at lunch or supper, breakfast seems to let loose a cavalcade of ‘personality’: unwelcome at any time but really repugnant first thing in the morning.
Freud talked about the narcissism of small differences; the smugness that comes over us when we feel that we are particularly special. Preferring jumbo-rolled oats to pinhead in your porridge differentiates you from the herd, marks you out as interesting. But there’s nothing interesting to a hostess about coming downstairs to find that eggs have been poached, boiled, scrambled and baked, dirtying the entire kitchen in the process– and draining all the heat from the Aga – simply because everyone insisted on having their particular way. Instead of charming quirks, the demands come across as precious and self-indulgent. Never mind the environmental repercussions of imported goji berries, watermelon water and papaya.
As usual, the blame must fall on the overabundant culture that we live in, where (in London at least) anything is available at any time. We are slaves to choice. Many a time have I found my hackles rising when I haven’t been able to buy pomegranate seeds or gooseberry fool – and I grew up on a rural farm, where the most exotic herb up until my teens was parsley.
Being able to get whatever we want, whenever we want is turning us into monsters. We need to pare life back drastically, make it simple again. Cereal or toast should be as far as our early morning decisions have to go. Recently, staying at a holiday cottage, I was overwhelmed by relief when the cupboard was stocked only with Weetabix. In my mania for ever more complicated, individual combinations – containing the right protein / carb ratio and at least two portions of fruit and veg – I had forgotten the simple joy of those lozenges, the way they scrape the top of the mouth to begin with and then dissolve into malty, milky goodness. They sing of the school run, of finishing off homework hastily and running a comb through straggly hair, of car doors clunking and gym kit forgotten. Of a time when there was more important stuff to be getting on with than an hour hovering over a magimix. When breakfast was something to be got out of the way so the real fun of the day could begin.