THE FEATURE- The first meal of the day

Ignore it at your peril

By Jim Duncan

Aurora Greenway, the romantic heroine of multiple Larry McMurtry novels (Shirley MacLaine in the movies) calls breakfast “the most romantic of all dates, because it is the only meal people can share without implications.”

La Mie’s elegant pastries.

La Mie’s elegant pastries.

Like most of the third millennium diet, however, the first meal of the day has been degraded by the fast food lifestyle. Breakfast is a staple now at burger, chicken and even taco franchises, where most Americans eat most of their meals. Coffee and bagel chains also offer high calorie pastries while doughnut chains beckon with even fattier foods.

Yet we ignore breakfast at our own peril. Researchers believe it is an antidote to a poisonous legion of modern maladies, from depression to obesity, but only when treated with due respect. So, with everything from high romance to the nation’s health at stake, Relish toured Des Moines looking for the state-of-the-art first meals of the day.

Harvard researcher J. Michael Murphy found that children who regularly eat breakfast are less hyperactive, anxious and depressed. Since more than 10 percent of the population experiences some form of clinical depression and another 39 percent suffers from obesity, could breakfast be the champion for the nation’s health? Hy-Vee dietician Jenny Norgaard thinks so.

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Especially if you’re trying to lose weight. The name we’ve given to our first meal of the day explains exactly what it does. It breaks the fast. When our bodies are not fed for an extended period of time, they start to run in slow motion. The only way to jump start our system is to feed it. When we are trying to lose weight, we decrease the calories into our bodies and increase the amount of calories our body burns. The earlier in the day the body gets jumpstarted, the more calories it burns,” she cautions.

Norgaard also explained why breakfast should include fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

“When you eat carbohydrates, protein and fat together, the body stays energized much longer than if you just drink a glass of juice. Our bodies love carbohydrates. They are easy to digest and give quick energy. Proteins take a little longer to digest. Fats take the longest to digest, so they provide energy when the others are done,” she said, adding that her personal preference for breakfast includes fat-free yogurt, a banana or other fruit, and whole grain cereal with skim milk.

Currently fashionable theories tout caffeine as an anti-depressant. Studies also show drinking coffee reduces the risk of suicide. Norgaard cautioned, though, that caffeine works only in moderation.

“For most healthy adults, moderate amounts of caffeine, about two cups per day, does not cause health problems. It’s not something that you want to consume in excess,” she said.

A poached duck egg with pork belly gel and brioche from Alba.

A poached duck egg with pork belly gel and brioche from Alba.

Breakfast has always been the most democratic of American meals. For most of us, choices are few: milk and cereal; bacon and eggs; hash browns or grits, fruit and toast; coffee and sugar. The no-frills, blue plate diners made famous by mid-20th century writers like Raymond Chandler and O Henry have probably been hurt more by fast food options than other genres. Des Moines still has a few. The venerable Home Plate (previously Four Seasons, now in two locations) has been busy at 6 a.m. for decades. Six Cozy Cafes and the Waveland Café also open at 6 a.m., Waveland West at 8 a.m., and Papa Kerns opens at 7 a.m. seven days a week.

Drake Diner, Crouse Café and Ankeny Diner open for breakfast at 6 a.m. The former was Des Moines’ first retro café, designed to resemble iconic Fog City in San Francisco. It is always busy but particularly on Sundays after church. I asked Larry Cook about the connection between breakfast and church-goers.

“I think there’s a mental connection between breakfast and Christian work ethics. Early to bed, early to rise makes you hungry more than it makes you wise. Or maybe it’s our personal reward, for living a good life. I don’t drink or smoke or gamble, so I indulge in going out to breakfast a few times a week,” he confessed.

A breakfast burrito at G. Mig’s in Valley Junction.

A breakfast burrito at G. Mig’s in Valley Junction.

Joe Logsdon at La Mie manages to keep breakfast both simple and elegant. He offers authentic, laminated French pastries six days a week. His croissants, brioches and scones are the best in town. He uses a European butter that has a fat content higher than some butter makers think is possible. That gives his croissants more fluff and lighter texture. In French baking, fluff is a thing of substance. La Mie’s scones are moist, an oxymoron to some minds, a divine thing to others. “The trick with scones is to under-work the dough. Never use a mixer. Always mix by hand. Too much mixing develops too much gluten and moisture evaporates,” Logsdon said.

For the most part, fancier breakfasts appear in Des Moines only on weekends. Then they usually call themselves “brunch,” because the word “breakfast” should not put on airs. Brunch was the brainchild of London writer Guy Beringer in 1896. In its Cantonese translation, however, it dates to the tea houses of the Silk Route. In Des Moines, Kwong Tung and Chopsticks offer dim sum menus on Sundays, but no carts. Find exotics like taro dumplings, chicken’s feet and lotus leaf rice along with more familiar dumplings, noodles and seafood dishes.

Waffles, like these from Americana, dress up weekend brunches.

Waffles, like these from Americana, dress up weekend brunches.

Elsewhere brunch has become a fine dining ritual of weekend lifestyle. Americana, The Café, Centro, Django, Iowa Machine Shed, half a dozen Chinese buffets, Tally’s, Jethro’s, Louie’s Wine Dive, The Cub Club and Star Bar all have developed cult followings for their brunch services. Café di Scala’s Beatle’s Brunches has a cult following, too, but it’s hard to say whether it was developed by the café or the Liverpool kids. On weekends, Chef’s Kitchen also opens early for the first meal of the day, but they call it breakfast.

South of the 30th parallel, chile is as important to breakfast as eggs, starch or coffee. That influence has migrated north. Des Moines was culturally blessed with two waves of Mexican immigration. The first, mostly from northern Mexico, in the early 20th century, was inspired by railroad jobs. The second, mostly from Michoacan and Jalisco, began in the late 20th century after an upheaval in agriculture and meat processing.

We visited Los Laureles, the first of the second generation of Mexican restaurants in town to meet Pep Perez, whose parents opened one of the first Mexican restaurant in Des Moines, Rito’s, in the 1940s.

“Mom and Dad closed their restaurant in 1956 and opened the Woodland Grocery store. They figured they could feed more people that way,” Pep laughed.

Today a score of Mexican restaurants in town offer huge menus, almost always including a few egg dishes with multiple choices of chile salsas, both hot and cold. Mexican chorizo has become one the most popular sausages in Des Moines.

Southeast Asians brought us another ethnic opportunity for breakfast. Pho, the beef-and-noodle soup of Vietnam, is eaten there as a first meal but usually later in the day here. Pho 888, Aroy Dee, Saigon, A Dong, Fawn’s, Rolling Wok, TNT, Café Li Ly and Café Fuzion all offer bone stock pho.

A traditional American breakfast from Mullet’s.

A traditional American breakfast from Mullet’s.

Business travelers are on the clock, so buffet-style services that are popular at hotels take anxiety out of eating. The buffets shouldn’t scare away locals looking for something special though. While many hotels have shifted their breakfast service to a guests-only buffet, some have not. Rock River Grill and Tavern in the downtown Marriott offers both buffet and menu service from breakfast. The BOS restaurant in the Renaissance Savery and Cityscape in the Holiday Inn – Mercy Campus have both been magnificently remodeled recently and offer handsome breakfast menus to match their ambiances. Palmer’s offers a swift, full breakfast service on weekdays and all but their Kaleidoscope and Urbandale stores also serve breakfast on Saturdays.

When Des Moines was home to many more ’round-the-clock factories, bars opened early to serve the night shift. To draw a bigger demographic, many served breakfast. To make a customer’s check book look more respectable, some had deceptive names. Highland Park Country Club (HPCC) and Kelly’s Little Nipper are two of the last of that generation. At 8 a.m., folks still file into HPCC for bacon, eggs and hash browns, some add a beer and chicken gizzards. Saturday and Sunday breakfasts draw overflow crowds, with a steak and egg special that includes potatoes, toast and coffee.

Mullet’s is one of the new bars that honors the old tradition by opening daily for breakfast. Maverick’s, Saints in Beaverdale, G Mig’s and Mad Meatball’s also now offer short-order breakfasts but only on weekends. RELISH

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