By Caleb Barber, co-author of In Late Winter We Ate Pears: A Year of Hunger and Love
Options and choices play a very big role in all our lives. Perhaps this is more true today, when we have so many options available to us (at the mall or the supermarket, for instance, or on TV). For me the delicate part of the challenge has been to assemble as many good options as possible, and then choose, rather than settling for one good option among many bad or mediocre ones. Or, even worse, settling for the best of only bad options. This issue could easily result in many avenues of investigation, discussion and argument, covering topics ranging from one’s career to what we contribute to the waste stream each day. But for this moment, I am going to examine my immediate choices, the ones looking me in the face right now, this morning.
It is my Saturday morning and I am composing my breakfast. Deirdre is still fast asleep, and I am going to leave her to it, as it is the most productive activity she can engage in at the moment, given the intensity of her last 2 weeks. They were my 2 weeks, too, but I am up, and I am antsy and a little hungry. So I take a moment to assess my supplies for breakfast.
I fry some bacon, enough for Deirdre to have some too, once she’s up. I perform one of my favorite activities: carefully preparing half a grapefruit, cutting around each section and then the perimeter. I fry one egg in the bacon fat, with salt and pepper. I put a small slice of apple cake—a happy discovery in the fridge—on the edge of the plate. And I have brewed another espresso, and sugared it a little. Everything is ready and perfect…
Oh, no, I have done wrong by the egg! As soon as it hits the pan, I know the fat is too hot, because it’s spitting badly. I turn off the heat immediately, and then scoop out the egg, somewhat crispy and blistered, after barely a minute. At least the yolk is still runny. But I stand there at the counter, looking at it on the plate, bright white with it’s golden brown edges, and I know that most of the white is simply too overcooked. It takes at least 30 seconds for me to accept this conclusion. An ‘overcooked’ fried egg I can take, as long as it still falls within what I have slowly come to recognize as the spectrum of acceptability in fried egg aesthetics. I used to think a perfectly fried egg never had any crustiness whatsoever, but was tender throughout with a very runny yolk, whether sunny-side up or over-easy. This is not one of those eggs; this really is overdone, and there’s no escaping this demoralizing truth. But that yolk is still so runny, and it’s leaking across the plate. There must be a way. I must salvage this breakfast! Too much has been invested to walk away now!
(Here, in this composition, is that cinematic moment when we see a closeup of the battered warrior, or the boxer, or the bully’s victim, face down on the dirt, or the mat, or the floor, already beaten, crumbling at the threshold of defeat, and we see the bitter, self-loathing acceptance of the overwhelming power of their enemy in the exhausted and foggy eyes. We see them stop cold in the face of fate. And we see something change inside them. (You can use any and as many analogies as you want, and mix them as you wish.) In this moment of surrender we are witness to a subtle shift of the continents within the heart; the stirring of a slumbering beast; the birth of a revolution. We see, inside those eyes, the turning over of the final, relentless, flush-filling card; the re-loading of the empty gun; the last tumbler clicking softly, slowly, gently into alignment. An alignment of the planets. Impossibility reveals the merest mote of the possible, a flower of the only hope, a flicker of the flame among the smouldering coals. And we see them push themselves up again…Can you see it?! Where’s the phone? Get me the coast! No, wait, get me Rio, I want to talk to Jonathan Nossiter! (the never-say-die director of Mondovino, and author of newly released Liquid Memory, what I might call a dissertation on choices).)
Given my options, these are the choices I make: I taste a small bit of the white, then cut off most of it—the worst of it—and put it in the compost. I look at the plate some more, and I notice that the egg is now the same size as my slice of apple cake. I put the egg on top of the apple cake, and slide the cake into the puddle of yolk. I add the bacon to the plate, and the half of brilliantly red grapefruit. Ruby-red, snowy-white, golden-yellow and meaty-pink. These are the colors of my pennant of salvation, of redemption, of irresistible destiny. I eat it standing at the counter, while the egg still has some heat in it, down the coffee, and put everything in the washer. Deal done. And good options salvaged out of a small maw of momentary crisis. My choice was not to give up.
And now that Deirdre is up, we can discuss our options for lunch.