the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Today I Talk About Breakfast


One of the reasons I didn’t visit Sophia in New York is that her mother, who lives in LA, hasn’t been feeling too well.  Since she can’t speak English, she wanted one of us around in case of emergency.

This morning, I was woken up early by a phone call from Sophia.  Her mother was having a lot of pain in her back and wanted me to drive her to the emergency room.  I threw on my clothes and rushed over.

When I arrived, Fanya, her mother, was writhing in pain on the couch, but her step-father, Alex, was setting the table for breakfast. 

“Hospital?” I asked.

“Breakfast first.” he said in broken English.

I sat down, and Fanya joined us at the table.  Alex brought out plates of eggs, bread, cheese, meats, caviar, cream cheese, tomatoes, and mixed salad.  I thought this was a little odd, considering I flew over there in a rush, not even putting on any socks. 

Fanya immediately started yelling at him, not because he was wasting time, but because there wasn’t enough food on the table.  From what I understood, she was upset that he was being too “stingy,” so he went back to fridge and brought out some cabbage and fish.

Sophia’s parents aren’t rich people, but this is how Russians treat “guests.”  I talked about this yesterday when I had coffee with the lovely Kristen, who was visiting Los Angeles from the East Coast.   We discussed the different ways Americans “entertain at home” vs. the way of Europeans.  

I know for certain that Sophia’s parents would be insulted if someone served them cheese and crackers.  They always put out their best dishes, even for a stranger.   In my experience, I’ve noticed that the wealthier a couple is, the more likely it will be that they serve take-out chicken to a guest, particularly one deemed of “lower status.”

A meal is a special event for her parents.  I doubt they have ever gone into a Burger King.  Even Sophia never ate fast food until I corrupted her!  But she still does fast-food in her own style.  Sophia once called for the manager because the girl at the register wouldn’t allow her to get BBQ sauce put on her grilled chicken sandwich.

After the feast at Sophia’s parents’ apartment, I helped wash the dishes.  Fanya and Alex fought a little more (I know this because I recognized some of the same curse words that Sophia uses).  Then, after all this eating and fighting, Fanya suddenly decided that her back pain had mysteriously disappeared.  

Who knows?  Maybe, deep down, she just wanted a guest for breakfast…

So I said goodbye and went home.

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month:   Cheap Thrills


  1. Mo

    So, lemme get this straight- Sophia’s stepdad thinks you are more well-off than her mom does? Does it not bode well for you that they brought out the caviar straight off?

    This story was hilarious.

  2. tiff

    My Russian friend Alex, the first time he visited our house, brought a treasured possesion of his own as a gift. I was floored, becuase we’d only invited him over for barbecue and beers, and yet he felt it appropriate to gift us with a hand-cared and hand-painted set of russian decorative cutting boards. I hardly knew what to do, except take it with my thanks and feel very cheap and American.

  3. tiff

    “hand-cared” = “hand carved.”

    Stupid nonexistent typing skillz.

    Oh, did you also have vodka? :>

  4. anne

    Maybe she did, especially with Sophia away these days. You’re like family for her parents, aren’t you?
    (Could there be a hidden agenda…?)
    (And that breakfast sounds very very yummy.)

  5. Amy K

    Fanya had a hidden agenda, indeed, and I think it is so sweet. 🙂 One of my best friends is Russian, and I remember his graduation party was catered at a restaurant in Brooklyn – I will never forget the amount of food. It was like EACH table had their OWN buffet line! As for my family, our holidays are ridiculous. We are Armenian, so the amount of food is out of control.

  6. Alexandra

    I love this post!! I wish we as Americans were as hospitable and generous as Eastern Europeans. The way I’ve had Ukrainians and Bulgarians welcome me into their homes again and again and the effort they go to to prepare meals and treat guests is such a beautiful thing. When I lived in LA, my Ukrainian mother-in-law kept telling us via the phone from Ukraine that she was sending us a huge surprise. We thought she meant a blanket or something and then one morning at the crack of dawn we receievd a phone call! She was at LAX and here for one entire year! But I learned a lot from her about how I love to treat guests in my home now. & glad her back is better! Maybe the combo of breakfast and you helped her back feel better.

  7. the Yearning Heart

    I once had dinner and met the entire family of a guy I dated briefly; the guy had only said, “Stop by, meet my cousin; she’s visiting from Brooklyn.”
    I showed up at this house off of the Paseo and it turned out to be his parents’ place. Ari tricked me into meeting his whole family at a dinner in my honor at the house of his parents.
    I was nearly killed by a deadly combination of Midwestern graciousness and Eastern European generousity and cuisine.
    They put out a spread that would have choked my entire home town.
    I was obliged, of course, to taste everything. The sideboard and main table groaned under layers of foods, the names of which I couldn’t pronounce or remember by now. Many pickled things. Cabbage, and hummus, and something that looked like empanadas. I remember cholent (sp?) zucchini latkes, tzimmes (sp?), and strudel. They ate food, discussed food, offered me food, and asked me about what I liked to cook. I didn’t even know how to make mac-n-cheese from the box back then, and said so. This created a quiet murmur that was whispered from cousin to aunt, to grandmother to mother, and back again.
    I was very uncomfortable, at first because I had felt like I had been put on the spot. Then I became uncomfortable because I was not used to eating more than 4 oz. of carbs at a sitting, and this buffet was primarily starch. Feeling like an over-ballasted cargo tub, I sat and tried to wave off plate after plate of glistening noodles, fried patties, thick soups of beet and carrots. I had to try “only a spoonful, honey” of each dish or risk insulting generations of women.
    “Try this, Pepper,” said his mother. “It’s simply to die for.”
    For me, it nearly was. It was something called Châteaubriand Disraëli; a filet mignon stuffed with pate, mushrooms and chicken. I took a bite. “Delicious,” I smiled, unsteadily. I felt the familiar salivary pain I had been dreading, then I got immediately to my feet. The floor shifted to the northwest as I stumbled to the bathroom.
    “Are you all right?” Ari asked as I went by. I shook my head, feeling green.
    I made it to the bathroom, managing to close the door behind me. I lost my dinner, loudly. I stayed in there long past the time I could have come out, because I was now sick with embarrassment. When I did come out, I said I must be coming down with something, thanked the hostess, got my coat and left. Ari offered to drive me home, which I successfully refused.
    I was not asked back.

  8. Neil

    Yearning — what a story!

    Tiff — no vodka early in the morning. Maybe an hour later they would have taken it out. But they already know I am a bad drinkier, especially vodka. I sip it like apple juice. Yucch!

    Amy – Alex is Armenian, too, and his style is very similar. This type of feast mentality is pretty common all around the world — Greece, China, Italy — except here. (maybe it is still around in the South).

    Maybe it might have something to do with “eating out” not being a thing you do very often in some cultures.

    I know Sophia’s parents laugh at the fact that we “go out” for breakfast. Why would we spend ten bucks on SCRAMBLED EGGS? When you go to a Russian restaurant for dinner (at least for the older generation) it is usually for a special event and there is always MUSIC and dancing for the evening. We’ve brought them to some really fancy restaurants and they thought it was a total rip-off that there wasn’t any entertainment included. (and only one entree). The only other restaurants they like are Chinese restaurant, because they also serve the food banquet style, even if there isn’t any music…

    Of course, the next generation loves Pizza Hut like everyone else.  They eat it in Moscow now, too.

  9. Alison

    I visited the Soviet Union in 1987. Our group was lucky enough to visit one or two homes. The hospitality was amazing. We also ate some spectacular meals in restaurants there. I wish I’d kept a better journal.

    And yeah, I think Fanya wanted some company for breakfast. 🙂

  10. wordgirl

    Maybe all of her “aggravation” had settled into her back and she wasn’t able to rid herself of it until she argued with someone and let a few choice words fly. I know that yelling always helps me.

  11. Pearl

    There is a large Russian-Jewish contingency in my neck of the woods. As a result, there are MANY Russian restaurants and Russian groceries in the area, too. As a result, there is a lot of music, laughter, and Vodka to be had.
    In my experience, I’ve noted that the Russians love life, have a “fine taste” for it and like to share with others.

    You were definitely in good company, Neil. But I’m dissapointed in your hosts: No Blinis.

  12. Scarlet

    OW! MY BACK!

    Feel free to come over. I’ll make eggs.

    But really, that’s sweet of them.

  13. justrun

    That’s definitely true- I had a friend in highschool who had a live-in Russian grandmother and I figured out that I couldn’t even go pick my friend up without eating a meal, too. I can’t complain, it was fabulous.
    Good job taking care of mom… speaking of ploy, was this just to get some “awwww, Neil, you are so sweet to take care of Sophia’s mom” comments from female bloggers?

    I know, I know. But it’s your fault, you’ve taught us to expect that.

  14. kristen

    I liked this story a lot, especially on the heels of the conversation we were just having! I promise I won’t serve you crackers and cheese when you come for a visit, vodka however, will be included.

  15. Neil

    Just Run — normally, I do try to get that “awwww… you are amazing,” from women, but I didn’t think about it this time.

    But now that you mention it, it was pretty heroic the way I jumped out of bed and put my clothes on and sped to the rescue of a helpless woman, very much like a handsome doctor would do in a TV show like Grey’s Anatomy.

    And then I didn’t get home for several hours, because on the way home, I saw this little injured kitten lying on the side of the road. I gave it CPR, then rushed it to animal hospital wing of Cedars-Sinai, where I used my health insurance to get the best doctors to save the kitty’s life.

    But hell, it’s just what I do.

  16. nelumbo

    It sounds more like the cute vet on Grey’s Anatomy. btw, what was she thinking?!?

  17. justrun

    Wow, Neil, that’s amazing. You really are a hero.

  18. s@bd

    Obviously, I need to get to know the Russians in my life a little better.

  19. Margaret

    S was the fussing the entertainment?

  20. Non-Highlighted Heather

    I don’t like cabbage. It smells.

  21. Phantom Scribbler

    Thank god I read this before committing any major cultural missteps by inviting the Russian neighbors over for, you know, take-out pizza or something. Now I know: we invite them over, I cook.

    Many thanks.

  22. Neil

    Margaret — I think I was the entertainment.

  23. wendy

    Neil are you mocking all the poets girls love of animals???? there has definately been an animal vibe with us (we) chicks..I hope you are not mocking us…

  24. momentary academic

    Some people are just so wonderful with their house guests. Sophia’s parents sound like they are lovely.

  25. Neil

    Uh-oh, Wendy, I just read your post about animals.

    OK. Keep calm, Neil. What should you do? Delete that comment because people might think you are mocking them. Or keep it up, like a man, staring criticism in the face?

    No, Wendy, I wasn’t mocking female bloggers. But, yes, I WAS MOCKING little kittens. There! And I am leaving that comment up!

    I do not like cats too much. Dogs are much better pets. OK, I said it. I spoke my mind freely, even though I know that many will hate me.

  26. Neil

    I’m not sure “lovely” is the right word, especially since they were yelling at each other for half the meal, but they are very lov-ing and generous as hosts.

  27. Mist 1

    I rarely have food in my fridge. Call me next time you have to rush over there. I am always up for a meal.

  28. Dagny

    I dunno. Southerners are fantastic guests. The minute you walk in the door, they ply you with food and drink. Oh, and it is only normal to bring a gift for your host. If you do not bring one with you, then you send one along with your thank you note. Well, at least that’s how it is for folks of my parents’s generation. Of course, they expect the same from me.

  29. Jacynth

    I love being fed by caring families. My good friends growing up were Persian and Greek, so you can imagine that I ate well when i visited their homes. My mom wasn’t too shabby herself, she broke out the bacon as much as she could. It’s so interesting how food can bring people closer together.

  30. chiefbiscuit

    Thanks for commenting on my blog – I am re-paying the favour. Loved hearing about the breakfast – so hilarious and somehow endearing and the kind of thing that gives me faith again in this funny old world of ours – thanks Neil.

  31. jay

    Jeebus. The part that gets me is that obviously all of this food was already in their fridge, just waiting for a guest.

  32. lux lisbon

    I love cultures that are like that. I had a good friend from Cuba and when I would visit her, her grandmother (who lived with her) would make these huge meals. I would be half way done and she would pile more on my plate.

    It’s similar here in Sweden too but to a lesser degree.

  33. Matt

    Can’t say no to a free breakfast, if they ever want more entertainment, let me know!

    So the story goes, my Dad insisted on having a full breakfast before taking my Mum to the hospital to give birth to me, saying “If I’m going to be waiting around for hours, I’m not doing it on an empty stomach!”. Truly caring.

  34. cruisin-mom

    thanks Neil, now I understand why I’m the way I am…I’m Russian, I can’t help it.
    (I think Fanya simply missed you, and didn’t know how to simply say, “come for breakfast”.)

  35. Viscountess of Funk

    I turned of my Norton Utilities so I could leave this comment. Regarding blogging about lunch – it’s all in the way you say it. I mean, if Proust can go on and on about a friggin madeline and Henry James can talk for a whole chapter about the raise of one eyebrow, then by all means you should write about meals. And I love this post. Your Russian in-laws are a lot like my German grandmother. She would have never had us take her to the emergency room without first serving us some eggs sausage and sweet rolls. Go figure.

  36. Jody

    okay I know I left a comment – did it got to blogosphere hell?????

  37. Caryn

    I have a feeling a lot of people feign illness and pain just to get you to sit down with them for a meal.

  38. Neil

    Viscountess — thanks for turning off Norton just to comemnt. I’m waiting for WordPress to get back to me about the weird problem. I’m afraid of touching the code again and making my blog melt.

  39. 2nd Pearl Past the Post

    Glad her back was ok.

    I’ve had the same sort of food treatment at Sri Lankan and Chinese home — it’s so overwhelming. I feel so badly for making more work for them. And worse cuz if they come my way, hostess skills are rather a blank slate. Do we still own a tea pot. That could take the time. Milk or water and maybe crackers is likely to be it. And definitely no yelling or dancing.

  40. Therese

    I love this!

    My family is Egyptian and also have a different approach to food. You have to tell my mother while you’re still hungry, that you can’t possibly have another bite. Then you’ll only get two more servings.

    Food is in culture is in food.

  41. Neil

    So maybe after everyone made fun of Martha Stewart for so long, she had the right idea. Entertaining is important. The only difference is that Sophia’s parents aren’t into the visual aspect of dining. There are no flowers or fancy napkins. The flowers would just waste space needed for the food. The bottles of soda usually go on the floor because there is no room for it. I think Martha Stewart-types get more caught up in the looks than having enough food.

  42. ms. sizzle

    hey you got free breakfast! that’s a perk.

  43. echo

    i love the way a lot of different cultures take hospitality so seriously. my husband is turkish, and in turkey saying a person is a bad host is the worst insult possible.

    when we leave turkey my in-laws insist on loading our suitcases with jam, beans, cheese, olive oil and nuts. usually, our flights are really early in the morning, so all the family members ‘help’ by trying to stuff more and more food into our luggage. this summer, as we are going out the door, really late, my mother-in-law comes out of the kitchen with plates of watermelon for all of us to eat before we leave for the airport to catch our international flight that we might miss.

  44. Jody

    Well I see you didn’t find my original post so here it is again. My mom’s idea of breakfast is to ring me and say: “Would you stop my Burger King and pick me up a bacon, egg and cheese croissant and join me and get something for yourself too.” When I walk in the door with her request – she reimburses me for “her” portion of the meal since I went out of my way. So much for inviting me for breakfast. (Oh I in the meantime stop at the local deli and pick up for myself a fresh bagel, lox, tomato and cream cheese sandwich – ummmmmmmm!)

  45. Think Frustrated

    I am the type of person who would rather go out to breakfast than anything, so having a big formal breakfast is such a nice thing, in my opinion. I regard breakfast so highly, in fact, that if a restaurant serves “breakfast all day,” I’ll always order an omlette and some hash browns.

  46. Cover Your Mouth

    Blog crush of the day? I’m blushing.

  47. Tatyana

    I see- I have to give the field to your in-laws – how can I compete with my modest offering of French toast for breakfast?

    However, I can fully sympathise with your MIL: my back hurts all the time, and the stress being the widely accepted reason, i can see how yelling/venting at someone over food would ease the pain!

  48. sbukophile

    Neil, your comments about kittens, and hating cats… well, I don’t know if I can ready your blog anymore… I JUST posted photos of my new kittens today on my blog!

    I had a roommate who was Ukranian, and when her family would come visit it was daunting with all the food and people and drama–but fun!

  49. Wendy

    I loved this. I remember my Russian great-grandmother putting out the good everything for company. This brought back such nice memories! Thanks Neil.

  50. maplestory mesos

    everything for company. This brought back such nice memories! Thanks Neil.

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