Some say the fatal political error of the Carter administration was selling the Sequoia and not reserving enough lunch tables at Dominique's. I say it was not eating breakfast out enough.
Properly understood, breakfast -- that most American and most Southern of institutions -- is the hub of all politics. Anybody with red clay in his past knows that South Georgia was run out of the Best Western Motel coffee shop in Americus and that Atlanta operates on the sufference of the unofficial black breakfast club at Paschal's Restaurant.
Even if you're not from Georgia, you must know that one of the hardest things to come by in Washington is a good, decent -- which is to say, Southern -- breakfast: moist eggs, crumbly sausage patties or meaty bacon, warm biscuits and, of course, grits (I know this is a point of controversy).
The juice can be bitter and the coffee egregious. That's Southern, too. (I don't mean to be chauvinistic about this. It's like beer: you don't have to love the Japanese or Germans to say they make great beer. It's just that for whatever reason -- maybe to ward off pelegra, I don't know -- Southerners came up with the right kind of American breakfast. No croissants in Plains, you know.)
It is rumored that Washington once had its share of good breakfast places, the kind where you can sit down with the newspaper at a table served by a second-generation hard-core waitress or at a counter manned by a guy who got his tattoos during a lull in the action at Guadalcanal. Either way it looks, smells, feels and tastes the same: one of those universals that can be made right anywhere, yet usually isn't.
I have scoured Washington for a good breakfast. Alas, the good eats in the a.m. seem to have gone the way of in-town rental apartments and Duke Zeibert's. What's left are Egg McMuffins or high-priced hotel eggs served with parsley on the side. Even a nice, scudsy place (a good breakfast place is congenitally scudsy) such as Tony's Georgetown Carry-Out and Lucheonette on M Street sells the right food (minus the grits) but ruins it all by using Styrofoam plates and plastic cups.
About the grits. In these the waning gasps of the brief Carter era of American history, let me set one thing straight: Northerners have never yet understood grits. They complain that grits don't have any taste. Well, that's because they're not supposed to! You give them a bit of taste by loading them up generously with butter, salt and pepper (cholesterol and hypertension, respectively), but taste is not what grits are all about. (I have actually seen a Yankee eat grits dry! ) They're about bulk, solidity, viscosity -- a glue that holds the rest of breakfast together and makes it, like mud thrown on a wall, stick.
Grits, their corn-based simplicity notwithstanding, are in fact one of those dishes for which connoisseurs travel some miles. The principal failing of bad grits is that they're overcooked and dry. You can get a sample of this at Sholl's New Cafeteria, which in every other way tries to serve a good Southern breakfast. You can prefer grits runny or slightly thickened with a shiny surface, but you never want them dull and gummy. It takes years to become a good grits chef. And forget about instant grits: they are to the real thing as, say, one of those astronaut pills is to a fried chicken dinner.
Now a word about race. This food thing is all tangled up with race. Another way of putting it is to say that if it is cooked by a black person, the food stands a statistically far better chance of being Southern, being done the traditional way, probably being bad for you, but above all being good. So the search for a good breakfast (like the search for good barbecue) logically takes one into black Washington. This is why it is almost impossible to get into the Florida Avenue Grill morning, noon and night. Black folk, trained on poverty and weaned on inflation, harken to their roots and eat the way the Lord meant for us to. All I can say is, white Washington's high rents (guys with tattoos on their arms can't afford space on K Street) are black Washington's gain and downtown's loss.
So without a soft biscuit or shiny grits anywhere in sight, Jimmy Carter's boys went to work too early, ate Bay crabs and learned to love Germaine's. They forgot their own slogan ("Grits 'n' Fritz"). They forgot their roots. If Jackie Kennedy could single-handedly create the French restaurant industry as we know it today in Washington, why couldn't Jimmy give us breakfast? His became the let-them-eat-yogurt epoch of political aloofness. Marie Antoinette found out to her sorrow what happens when you cut people off from their natural eating habits -- and so did Jimmy. Will someone please pass the tacos?