A Sentimental Journey Through English Muffins
Two poached eggs on an English muffin, home fries on the side, extra crispy. A toasted corn-muffin cut four ways. A one-egg omelette. We would go to the Thruway Diner on Sunday mornings so my father could sleep in after working late nights at the bar. We sat at the same table each time; my grandparents, my mother and I. My grandfather would feed me packets of jam and butter before the waitress arrived. We were served by the same woman each time, and though I can’t remember her name, it was probably something like “Josephine.”
Josephine had copper-red hair that was spiked in the front and she would take our orders—which were highly specific and calculated—with patience. Our nitpicking was something I admired then, but now recognize as a sign of the neuroses I have inherited. Once I could hold a knife, I would order my eggs on an English muffin and cut through its burnt surface while sitting on my knees for leverage, watching my mother across the table tuck into the same order. Love is an English muffin—sturdy, supportive, and unchanging. It provides nourishment in a pinch and it always delivers on what it promises. It is not proud, it does not boast and it is always present during breakfast.
When I was very young, I became intent upon cooking in our narrow kitchen, where the open oven could touch the other side of the room. I forced my way into the pantry, and with my mother supervising I decided to bake an English muffin pizza for our neighbor, Diane. She worked at my school during the daytime and would open my cartons of chocolate milk each day at lunch, so I wanted to repay her. The recipe was a household delicacy: one English muffin, split down the middle, drowned in tomato sauce, then sprinkled with mozzarella. The cheese would bubble up and burst, and though it was just a tiny muffin, the whole kitchen would fill with the scent of tomato and cheese. I watched and waited for the muffin to bake, and in ten minutes or so, I set in down on a piece of aluminum foil. Mom let me go downstairs alone to see Diane, who was surprised by my arrival. She had long, straight hair and she wore glasses, and she was the first adult whom I considered a friend. Diane welcomed me into her apartment, which looked just like ours but rotated on its side.
I’m not sure if English muffins taste objectively good—they’re actually rather bland—but what I do know is that they feel like home. My mom sometimes talks about her step-grandmother, Nana. I remember her as an old woman with a big heart and a thin frame, but my mother recalls how everything she cooked seemed to taste better. Nana was from Barbados, but she didn’t cook any Caribbean delicacies. According to my mother, she made the best Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, straight from the can, with one ice cube placed in the middle of the bowl to cool it down. It wasn’t that the canned soup tasted any better at Nana’s place, but it tasted of feeling special, and being loved.
Last year, I lived in England for six months. When I arrived, I was fresh-faced and zealous, barely 18, but in the small bedroom of my new flat, I collapsed onto the floor and tried not to cry. Back in New York, my mom and her brother were recovering from a kidney transplant with an unresolved outcome and London was so windy and far away. As loud gusts screeched through cracks in my windowpane, I pulled myself off the floor and decided to go to the kitchen, where my meager supplies sat on the counter: zucchini, apples, cheddar cheese and crumpets. I made dinner with one crumpet, two slices of cheese, and a paper towel as a plate. The crumpet was too soft, but the cheese was good and the familiar taste made me feel at home in an unfamiliar place. “What do they call English Muffins in England?” I googled. “Muffins,” Google said. Figures.
Throughout my time in England, I ate a lot of muffins. Pistachio, English, Warburtons Crumpets—you name a muffin, I ate it. I cooked eggs almost every day because they were cheap and easy to cook, and in Europe, I could store them in the cupboard. Two eggs on a muffin, overeasy, with a cup of tea on the side.
Now that I’ve been away from my family, I value them much more. I am more aware of my own mortality and of theirs, and I make an effort to see them or tell them how much I love them. On a six-hour bus ride in Spain, I composed a teary email to my grandmother at 4 a.m. New York time and in five minutes, there was a response:
“OMG! I'm crying. This is the sweetest note I have ever received. I will save this message forever. Sent from my iPhone.”
This month, I went to visit my grandma in her apartment and after she lamented about being unprepared for my visit, we went out to a late breakfast at the Blue Bay Diner. She ordered a grilled cheese. I ordered two poached eggs on an English muffin and she kept forgetting the stories that I told her. These days, it seems harder for her to remember things, and though she asked me the same questions a couple of times during our meal, I still answered them the same. My mom worries about my grandma, but I ensure her that she will be fine: When I ordered my eggs with a side of potatoes, she made sure to ask the waiter to cook them extra crispy.