Wild Cravings: The Mystery Breakfast

If I had a time machine, I’d use it to go back to a breakfast: stacks of buttered pancakes taller than my fist, sausage and bacon, eggs, french fries, onion rings, mayo and ketchup mixed on paper plates for dipping. Everything’s greasy and cheap and perfect. It’s salty, too, and so is the air, sand and ocean mere steps away from where we feast. There’s so much food. The onion rings seem especially like an extravagance, not a breakfast food by any means, but my mother has encouraged us to order it all, everything, no rules. We’re all sun-drained and hungry.

I rarely have broad, achievable food cravings. I crave wildly. It’s never today I feel like pizza. It’s more like today I feel like that pizza I had in Trondheim, Norway called kebabpizza, topped with thin gyro meat, mushrooms, onions, whole deli peppers, lettuce, and garlicky white sauce. Even just writing that out, it’s hard to now think of anything else.

My memories of specific meals are soaked in nostalgia, seared in my brain. I don’t always get the peripheral details right, the where, the why, the who. I remember the taste. I remember whether the bacon was crispy or chewy (I controversially prefer the latter), how the rivulets of butter dripped down the pancakes stacks and pooled. When I think of events and experiences from my past, I think of the food. I always wish I could go back to specific meals, in specific times and places, with specific people.

These are my wild cravings. The ones that can never really be satisfied or, at least, not easily so.

The Chaotic Beachside Breakfast, as I’ve come to call it, is a wild craving. And, okay, it isn’t so chaotic. There’s nothing inherently anarchic about ordering onion rings for breakfast. The spread sounds like a pretty normal brunch order. But I was young, and brunch wasn’t a concept for me yet, and I was used to being told not to put too much on my plate. Having this monster breakfast in front of me while I could hear waves slap the beach felt like the most extravagant thing in the whole world. If I had a time machine, I’d go back.

The problem: I don’t know where or when I ate this breakfast.

When I first sit down to write this essay, I know this much: I was in California. I was on the beach. My mother and sister were there. And someone else. I can’t remember yet if it was my father, a picky eater who probably wouldn’t have eaten much other than the pancakes and would have preferred them to be studded with chocolate chips. Or maybe it was my cousin, who was then like a second sister. I’m pretty sure it was more of a snack shack than a restaurant. I recall a letterboard menu — maybe. Cokes with crushed ice. A boardwalk or a pier.

I narrow it down to Santa Monica or San Diego or Oceanside. Maybe Venice Beach. Yes, I know these are all very disparate places, but at the time of the memory, I was just a girl from Virginia, and the nuances of the California coast eluded me, so I’ve smashed places and my memories of them into a mess of a map.

Anytime I visited California as a kid, it was for the same thing: the National Alopecia Areata Foundation’s annual conference. It was our family’s summer trip every year, the one time when my sister could be surrounded by other kids without hair. We went to so many, they’ve started to blur. I know one was in San Francisco, but that’s too far north. I think one was in Los Angeles? One in San Diego? I take my investigation online, searching for a consolidated timeline of all of NAAF’s conferences and their locations, but it proves difficult.

I begin to fear I’ve made the breakfast up entirely. Or memory-mixed to the point of this being an impossible quest. Does it really matter where or when I had this breakfast? What am I looking for?

My hunger for answers becomes as urgent as my hunger for a perfect replication of the breakfast. I try a new strategy: I call my sister. She remembers the breakfast. She confirms it was in California. She’s hazy on the specifics, too. But she’s certain our cousin was there, not my father, which narrows it down a bit. Our cousin only came with us to NAAF one year, my mother taking the three of us on an extended road trip around Southern California in the week following the conference.

Just text her, my sister tells me over FaceTime from her car. She thinks my cousin will remember the parts I cannot.

I write and rewrite a text to my cousin while making red sauce for meatball subs I’ll eat later with my girlfriend, who I’ve jokingly told I’m doing detective work. The text I finally send: this is soooo random, but I have this memory of eating a massive breakfast at like a beachside shack place with pancakes and onion rings and other things lol. Do you remember if that was the you came with us to California?

She says yes right away. She remembers the breakfast, and she’s pretty sure we also had chocolate-covered frozen bananas after, though she isn’t sure if it was at the same place or another nearby. That rings a bell. Like me, she remembers the food, but unlike me, she remembers much more. She says the first place names that come to mind are Newport Beach and Balboa Island. She thinks she might have a postcard somewhere with more clues, and I remember how my mother bought postcards for each of us at every place we stopped and encouraged us to write journal entries about the trip on them. My cousin says she’ll look for the postcard. Now we’re co-detectives on the case.

My sister wants updates on the investigation, and I text her what we know. I should make a group chat so we can better pool our resources and memories, but I don’t.

I still don’t know exactly what it is I’m hoping to find. There’s a good chance the place we ate at doesn’t even exist anymore. Restaurants close all the time, especially beachside shacks, especially in the past year-and-a-half. I send her pictures of Ruby’s Diner on the Balboa Pier. It looks close but not quite right. I wonder if the place we went to would even have a website, if it still exists at all. There’s a good chance it was cash only, nondescript.

The case goes cold. Finding the exact place won’t make the memory any more or less real. Maybe not knowing is better, the chase better than the catch.

There’s a reason I couldn’t initially recall if my cousin was there. Even though as soon as my sister says it, there she is in the scenes replaying in my mind, sitting across from me with a pancake stack of her own.

My sister and I talk every day, but we don’t really talk to my cousin anymore. For reasons that don’t feel like our own so much as ones we’ve inherited. And if that sounds like an abstraction, I’m sorry I can’t provide something more satisfying. I don’t really want to say more, can’t fit it here. And I have a feeling every installment of this Wild Cravings series might leave you hungry.

It makes me sad we don’t really talk in the present, my text about a massive breakfast at a beachside shack the first in our iMessage thread, which means it has been at least a year since my last, probably much longer. I don’t even want to do the math for when the three of us were together in person last. That kind of detective work is too bleak. It makes me even sadder to think the distance between us is starting to affect the memories, warping the years when we were sister-close, erasing details that matter. I want to preserve those years exactly as they were. If I had a time machine, I’d go back. I’d eat a big breakfast by the beach with my sister and my cousin. And this time, I wouldn’t forget any of it.


Wild Cravings is a biweekly series by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about food and memory.


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Kayla

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 324 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. I don’t think I have ever read an article from you that didn’t leave me thinking about my own life.

    I was so wondering about your relationship with your cousin earlier in the article and of course you brought it back up.

    It’s nice that you talk to your sister every day. I wish I had that kind of bond with my sister.

    I love onion rings though so many places get it wrong.

    There is a restaurant that I went to with my family (there was like 10 of us) in Florida about a decade ago that I think about often. It was one of the very few restaurants that we ate it that I don’t think was a chain.

  2. I have a similar thing about books.
    I remember two books in particular in my parents house, one about a Spanish girl who visits her friend, whose brother got lost in the river Guadalquivir as an infant which had her mother fall into a deep depression until he later reemerges as a gypsy boy on their estancia although nobody recognizes it is him and another book about old Jewish fairytales with a drawing in it that was so scary that I dared to look at it only maybe twice a year.
    I would love to know the titles of these books or find a copy so that I could read them again. Since I am not on speaking terms with my parents and probably never again will be, chances to get hold of these books are slim.
    I already searched the internet for them but never found a clue.

  3. Ohh I love this.

    I have a memory of some kind of cheese I ate once, with an almost, I don’t know, medicinal taste to it? Something almost like the smell of camphor but not that. It sounds so weird but I can taste it in my mind still and I have never been able to find it again.

  4. “we don’t really talk to my cousin anymore. For reasons that don’t feel like our own so much as ones we’ve inherited.”

    this was an incredibly relatable way to describe this. i loved this whole piece but this is exactly how my family works, too.

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