Walter White's birthday breakfast

Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, and sometimes it’s a bit of roasted snake, killed an inch from Jaime Lannister’s ear as he slept—which would have been a shit way to die. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.

We gather together before the day officially begins, at different stages of functionality depending on the quality of our sleep and predisposition to be awake, and we eat a very defined set of foods. These have been declared “breakfast foods,” and there’s nothing else like them, a bunch of hot, greasy, and syrupy offerings that compel most likely every gluten-eating non-vegetarian to agree with Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson’s sentiment that we should all eat breakfast all the time.

But how did pancakes and eggs and butter, bacon, sausage, and juice get elected to breakfast? Is it because they’re easy to make, or because they taste so good that there’s no need to complain? Maybe it’s because they fill the house with breakfast smells, inviting everyone to the table to partake in lots of carbs, sugars, and protein, energy providers that will keep you going until lunch. Regardless, there is absolutely something wrong with a person who tries to mess around with the excessive, indulgent, and basic nature of them.

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For example, it’s nice that Skyler White took the trouble to make a charming birthday message with the bacon on her husband’s eggs, but she ruined it when she pretended that vegetarian bacon tastes like anything besides Band-Aids. At the mid-century mark, Walter should be watching his cholesterol like any normal guy, but this says more about her than him. She’s trying to do the right thing, superficially, but living in a state of denial where one can’t tell the difference between veggie bacon and the real thing. She’s playing down the grim reality in every area of her life, coping as best she can with her family’s financial crisis, a depressed husband, their rebellious teen, and the baby on the way. But she’s not acknowledging that the people around her might disagree with her solutions and, in the end, might not appreciate her effort—especially because she gives them very little say in the matter. Everyone ends up frustrated, each in their own way.

So, although breakfast foods are simple foods, breakfast itself can be complicated.

When you’ve got a story to tell, the morning meal is a quick, natural way to get across how characters interact while sitting together, often (but not always) across a table, and how they ultimately feel about each other. The purest example of this is the sequence in which the newlywed Charles Foster Kane, over time, grows distant from his wife at the breakfast table, in every sense.

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Like the rest of Citizen Kane, the sequence is so well acted, so well put together, so interesting, that a person (and a critic) tends to overlook the rigidity of the device: It starts as a gimmick, then becomes natural. Part of the magic of Kane is how easily it gets us to suspend our disbelief and follow the story wherever it goes, whatever narrative device or cinematographic posturing Orson Welles imposes on each scene.

Breakfast time certainly tempts a storyteller into using it as a device, though. Dad Kramer is new at being a single father in Kramer Vs. Kramer—he can’t make French toast, tries too hard to act happy for his son, and the little guy totally sees through it. Later, Dad Kramer, after much emotional wrangling with Mom Kramer, begins to develop rapport with his son—now the two of them can make French toast as a team. The breakfast teamwork displays the forging of a father-son relationship that’s richer than it was. Both the storytelling and the kitchen conveniently end up tidier as a result.

Seeking redemption? Breakfast is the moment to contemplate it, perhaps by arranging your own birthday bacon as a 52 by yourself on your plate of eggs two years after your wife tried to put you on the path to heart health with her vegetarian arrangement. Everybody knows that whatever lies ahead for Walter, it’s not going to be pretty, and might not exactly be redemption—in his case, whether there’s anything good that might be possible is ambiguous at best—but Mr. White is definitely thinking over where’s he been, where’s he going, and may even be contemplating whether he can salvage some part of his humanity as the day begins in a Denny’s.

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Of course, there’s not a movie more geared toward redeeming its main character than Rocky, which demonstrated the discipline required to even consider waking up to the world’s least appealing breakfast regimen. It’s important to remember Rocky’s breakfast unfolds as a single unbroken take with no edit for Stallone to hide behind, no double to stand in for him, no stunt cup of yolk goo that just looks like he’s drinking egg. Stallone stands there and chugs eggs. Rocky Balboa works hard for his redemption, starting at 4 a.m. in the cold with a belly full of eggs.

This idea of breakfast as part of a redemptive moment occurs again and again. It’s such a clear reference to a new day, a new opportunity to become more than what you were, or what others believe you to be, that a (possibly) unfairly stereotyped nerd could sign an earnest, heart-touching essay about the unfairness of a mean vice principal only seeing his detention students as he wants to see them—a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal—with the alias “The Breakfast Club.” It’s all about new possibility with those so-called breakfast clubbers.

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Often the redemption is heavy-handed, like in Bright Lights, Big City, when at the end of the famously second-person novel you trade your Ray Ban sunglasses for a loaf of bread. Your nose is bleeding as a result of the Bolivian marching powder you’ve had too much of, and this is presumably your lowest point, from which you can only proceed upward. That ray-of-hope morning bread is such an easy symbol, one suspects it’s in that moment that the author’s contemporaries at Spy magazine slammed the book shut and began a devastating Cliffs Notes parody, taking down a couple other ’80s coming-of-age novels along with it. Enjoyable though Bright Lights, Big City is—it’s fun, it’s evocative, it captures a specific place and time in New York, the second person works surprisingly well and propels the plot along, there’s a lot of good jokes and dialogue, there’s an attractive louche quality to your life—author Jay McInerney accidentally provides plenty of opportunities for those jokers at Spy, the publication that arguably codified modern snark, to witheringly create a Novel-O-Matic, mocking the novel’s aspirations to be taken as a Fitzgerald-like coming-of-age tale. I blame that easy breakfast at the end for inciting the satirists. It’s too obvious a metaphor, the bread reminding you of another loaf baked years earlier by your recently deceased mother that was “charred on the outside but warm and moist inside.” In his review of the movie, even Roger Ebert, who gave the adaptation three-and-a-half out of four stars, calls the protagonist’s metaphorical first-breakfast-of-the-rest-of-your-life ending “a little too contrived for my taste.”

Still, there’s such a thin line between a contrived breakfast moment over-stuffed with meaning, and a meaningful breakfast moment so simple that letting it play out in its most obvious way is wise and gratifying. Never known as a director to resist “a scene a little too contrived” now and then, Blake Edwards nonetheless does right by Truman Capote’s adult, urban symbol for beautiful longing and fabulous, ambitious dreaming. Under the opening credits, Edwards creates a breakfast sequence so melancholy and mesmerizing it establishes Breakfast At Tiffany’s as a classic before it hardly begins.

Simple foods. Complicated lives. The complications affect a person’s ability to focus on kitchen work: In addition to dreamers like Holly Golightly who long for a grander urban life than they can afford, and besides the meth-makers, coke-snorters, solo dads, and washed-up fighters, people are busy working overtime on plutonium-based inventions. They’re trying to focus on being ingenious while caring for dependents and animals—time-consuming activities that might explain why there happen to be so many inventions developed to automate and simplify the preparation of the morning meal.

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Making the multiple steps of familiar breakfast preparation a funny, unnecessarily overwrought endeavor is a tradition that goes back to the original complicated-machine maker, cartoonist Rube Goldberg himself. But it might be that the greatest Rube Goldberg-style breakfast machine (helped immeasurably by one of Danny Elfman’s greatest movie hits) belongs inexplicably to a simple man-child whose life appears to be colorfully complicated on purpose because it delights him—at least until his bike is stolen.

From Pee-wee to Charles Foster Kane, the way protagonists approach what the breakfast industry has taught us is the most important meal of the day turns out to be a good way to understand what we can expect from these people, and what kind of story we’re watching.

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Upcoming: Unexpected feasts, from Babette’s to “I can eat 50 eggs!”