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Most important meal of the day

A few days ago, I met up with an old friend in the long, between-classes line in Von der Heyden Pavilion. It was lunchtime, and I was deciding between a wrap and a cookie. (The bagels, the best on campus, were long sold out.) As a rule, I’m not only a picky eater, but I’m also fairly conventional—trying new things is for the bold and the brave—and as the cashier swiped my DukeCard for another turkey pesto wrap, my friend asked me what kinds of food I actually enjoyed.

“Breakfast, mostly,” I said, before explaining that if I could, I would eat breakfast foods for every meal. We made plans for brunch for the next weekend.  

Growing up, every Saturday that I can remember, my family went to the local greasy spoon, where we all ordered pretty much the same thing for almost 20 years. A waitress would mosey over to our table and confirm that we wanted the usual before writing it up, dutifully, behind the counter.

A few minutes later, four plates arrived, heaping with classic breakfast food. In front of me, the waitress placed an order of two scrambled eggs, three strips of bacon, four pieces of rye toast with butter and too many homefries, crispy and seasoned with homemade paprika. (In local parlance: “Two scrambled with bacon and rye with butter.”) Later, I would add a cup of coffee, or remove the bacon, or switch the rye toast with wheat, but with the exception of a rebellious pancake period—let’s not talk about it—my order hasn’t strayed too far. We were regulars. We stuck with what we knew.

The first time I saw Duke, therefore, my parents and I woke up early, before the morning tour, and found a place to eat. We sat outside at Mad Hatter’s. And while the eggs tasted different than they did at Seymour’s and we munched on biscuits instead of toast, it still felt like the right start to a fateful day.

Moving onto East Campus two years later probably should have challenged my weekend breakfast tradition. I had feared that no one else would share my family’s habit—and maybe they didn’t—but, as it turned out, brunch proved to be the vital start of any Saturday or Sunday. The Marketplace stood, in all its gluttonous glory, just a lazy walk across the quad. Other freshmen staggered into brunch, and almost immediately, in our plates of hit-or-miss eggs and bowls of sugary cereal, we found a sense of camaraderie. The only hurdle was organization: settling on a specific time to leave, rounding up hall mates before noon, securing one of the big, round tables, with excess room for seconds.  

Not long after the Marketplace’s initial thrill—or, at least, one year later, when freshmen became upperclassmen—the freshman cafeteria grew stale. So I familiarized myself with new greaseries and coffee shops: Alpine for its convenience and the Refectory for its quaintness, Elmo’s for the scene and NOSH for the outdoor seating, Foster’s for the rustic charm and Guglhupf for the patio. Then, in downtown Durham: the Piedmont for the class, Toast for the hipness, Rue Cler for the bread. I heard about juniors on Central and seniors off campus making their own brunches and inviting long-lost friends to mingle with new roomies. I can only imagine that they drank cheap mimosas with mugs of lukewarm coffee.

Soon, it became even more apparent that these weekend breakfasts and brunches were about more than just the food, scrumptious as it was. I can swear by my usual at Seymour’s, or the NOSH rocket breakfast or a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, but for the most part, an omelette is an omelette; all pancakes taste alike. (Homefries are a delicacy, but don’t get me started.) Anyone can throw a piece of bread in the toaster, and a machine will brew the same cup of coffee that tasted so perfect at a diner. After all, breakfast foods appeal to me because they’re so plain and simple and still so filling. There’s not much room for improvement.

And while breakfast foods are the same, everywhere, breakfasts aren’t the same, anywhere. There are always new topics to discuss, something that happened last night or something that might happen that day. There are new groups of pals and new places to try, new academic grievances and new reasons for celebration, new relationship problems and new opportunities for life outside of Duke. Breakfast and brunch with your closest buddies are old traditions, yet they never grow old.

So on Sunday, I met my old friend for brunch at Elmo’s for what might be one of the last meals we have together at Duke. We had eggs and biscuits and coffee, and we finished around 1 p.m. We still had the whole day in front of us.

Ben Cohen is a Trinity senior. He is co-editor of Towerview magazine and former sports editor of The Chronicle.

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