My grandfather was the first person up every morning. I was the second.
By the time I walked into the front room of his cabin he’d already have a cigarette in the ashtray, a shot of whiskey on the windowsill and a cup of coffee in his hand. In later years, he’d have a boot on top of the stove to warm it up.
I never saw my grandfather cook anything but breakfast. I never saw him in front of a grill, make a sandwich or open an oven door other than on Thanksgiving when he pulled the turkey out for my grandmother.
At the cabin he was a short-order cook extraordinaire frying potatoes, toasting bread over an open flame and cooking eggs by the dozen without ever breaking a yolk—and in cast iron skillets no less.
Every night my grandmother would boil a large pot of potatoes for him. The next morning he'd peel them with his pocket knife, a chore I sometimes helped with. Then he'd cut them and put them on the stove. They'd cook slowly while he got everything else going.
Breakfast would start with the first person at around eight o'clock and end sometime after ten o'clock when the last person finally got out of bed. In the meantime, he’d have refilled the plaid coffee thermos a few times and the table would fill up and empty in shifts.
He’d feed as many as 20 people in a single morning. Each person putting in a custom order that could include pancakes, or hot cakes as my grandfather called them, eggs cooked in all kinds of ways, bacon, sausage and more.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” he’d say over and over. And while that sentiment isn’t novel, it was gospel for him.
It was also practical for the cabin because as a property that had only a small log cabin on it when my grandfather and three brothers purchased it in the mid-1950s, it was always in need of work. The road was a perpetual maintenance project. Trees were always in need of being chopped down for firewood. And between the cabin buildings, the garages and various tractors and trucks something always needed to be fixed.
And then there were the fun jobs like when the entire family, from my youngest cousin to my oldest great uncle, gathered at the creek to build a dam to create a swimming hole. Some of my fondest memories are of me standing in the ice-cold water watching these men laugh, drink beer from peanut butter jars, and stack rock after rock across the creek. Those long days were fueled by a big breakfast.