by Cora Womble-Miesner
Breakfast tastes better when it’s free. Maybe that changes as you get older but I haven’t found out yet. I’m still waiting. All I know is I was born with a nose for free food and it’s still attached to my face. When I was 20, and thought I might be grown up, I found myself on a road trip across the continental U.S. with a man who would soon-after become my ex-boyfriend. We travelled infinite roads on finite budgets. Nonetheless, we found ourselves nourished wherever we went, as long as we could sneak into a continental breakfast.
The problem was: I was having fun and he wasn’t. Every night he fell asleep tired of the highways, the uncertainty, the dinners cooked by flashlight on a propane stove. I was enamored with all the things that exhausted him. We would camp on the side of the road, behind abandoned barns, in public parks — anywhere to avoid losing money while we slept. And when we woke, the morning stretching out new and open like an unwrinkled sheet of tin-foil, we would dismantle our tent and seek out the nearest motel. We’d walk, still pajama-clad and bleary-eyed, through the lobby. The key was to move with unhurried purpose. The dining hall was never hard to find: follow the muffled voices, the clink of forks, the gurgle of coffee being poured into styrofoam cups. The front desk clerk seemed either unphased or unaware that we were interlopers. Breakfast awaited.
While I’ve come to associate the continental breakfast with the quintessential American road trip experience, the term actually originates in England, where breakfasts are expansive and include things like beans on toast and sausages living under assumed names. In 1896, a monthly health magazine, The Sanitarian, noted that “returned travellers began to bring back tales of the refined Continental breakfast of coffee and a roll.” A simple breakfast fare had emerged, imitating the customs of “the Continent” (meaning Europe), where one could expect to start the day with a pastry, an espresso, and perhaps a piece of fruit. “European travel,” the article lamented, “has had a depleting effect on that fine old institution—breakfast.” The U.S. hospitality industry jumped on the concept, as it provided an inexpensive way to feed guests without requiring much in the way of manpower. A simple way to please people —offer them something free.
Motel provisions, I found, were remarkably consistent from coast to coast. We made our way across the vast expanse of states: the Beehive State, the Buckeye State, the Bay State, but each breakfast mirrored the last. The same waxy oxblood apples, the same uniform bread slices arranged in the same overlapping patterns, the same plastic tongs used to grab the same mini-muffins. And I felt the same sense of childlike wonder as soon as I set foot inside each building. Behind every numbered door was a sense of unknown, as if each one led to a life I had not yet lived. At the sight of the pristine, uniformly arranged breakfast counter, the thrill of mild delinquency paired with the anticipation of a full stomach flushed my face. I smiled at each stranger piling toast and danishes onto their plate. I bobbed my head at them as if to say, here we are, all enjoying this simple pleasure. I prodded my boyfriend and whispered excitedly, look, they have a waffle maker.
I woke every morning with the same sense of giddiness, once I could remember where — and sometimes who — I was. The sunlight through the tent was green. Birds hollered at one another outside. Semi-trucks on the highway rumbled along. It seemed unreal that another night had passed in a clandestine campsite without being ousted by cops or locals. It seemed unreal that each time we strolled into a motel, straight through the lobby to the continental breakfast, no one ever stopped us. Hardly anyone even noticed us.
I unwrapped individual pats of butter in shiny foil. I stood patiently by the toaster, waiting for a chewy bagel to brown. I poured milk from a carafe over name brand cereals that I didn’t eat as a kid. Sometimes it came in individual mini boxes, sometimes in a dispenser that dropped it handful by handful at the twist of a knob. Depending on my mood, I filled a translucent blue plastic cup with watery orange juice, or apple, or cranberry—the three options seemingly available at motel breakfasts nationwide. I hadn’t yet come to the age where I would take pleasure in a cup of coffee. I was 20 and I felt both inwardly and outwardly so much like an overgrown child that I could still hear my mother telling me it would stunt my growth.
I had to learn restraint. The virtue of the continental breakfast is its variety, which could both exhilarate and overwhelm. Whole wheat, white bread, English muffin, bagel. Tiny packets of Smuckers jelly, one for every berry; single-serving cream cheeses, single-serving peanut butters. An array of pastries that looked appealing en masse, but crumbled dry and unsatisfactory in my mouth. Waffles and juices and cereal that turned the milk sugary and pastel-colored. A bowl of fruit, mostly untouched, as if it were merely a display: underripe bananas, pale oranges, shiny apples. No rush to consume it all, I reminded myself. In a few days, another state over, I’d find myself once more at a continental breakfast nearly identical to this one.
Quality was secondary. The delight was that it cost us nothing. What better way to start a day when I did not know where I might end up by nightfall. At my table, I would discreetly construct a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, wrap it in a paper towel, and tuck it in my pocket. Later, when the haze of morning had been burned off by the gleam of day, and we were cruising along some nameless highway, halfway to nowhere, I would unwrap my treasure, the white paper napkin browning and reddening from the guts squirting out around the edge. My free breakfast stretched into a free lunch. I would chew slowly and stare out at infinite farmland, or at the mossy, magnolia lined highways of the south, or the wooded toll roads of New England. Me and the boyfriend would switch off driving. Every day seemed to remind him that he wanted to be home. Every day reminded me that the world is vast, and I was lost within it, and I didn’t want to be found yet.
***Cora Womble-Miesner was born and raised in San Diego and graduated from NYU. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and the San Diego Decameron Project.