Sunday, February 13, 2011

SOS In The Land Of Breakfast

There have got to be more places in Florida to buy a good breakfast than in any other state.  Of course, I have no statistical information to back up that claim, so I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.  My explanation for why there are so many places to eat breakfast in Florida is quite simple.  The only people who have time to go out in the morning and sit down and have a leisurely breakfast are retired senior citizens and tourists, and Florida has plenty of both.  The rest of us are working, or heading to work, and we just don’t want to get up early enough to make stopping at the local breakfast spot a reality.  The places I’m referring to don’t just serve breakfast in the morning, they serve it all day long.  And while they may also serve lunch and dinner, breakfast is their specialty, and the reason most people visit.  After all, you never know what hour of the day someone will develop an intense hunger for SOS.

SOS stands for “Stuff On a Shingle.”  Well, it doesn’t really.  I’ve politely substituted the original “S” word with the word “stuff.”  My mother reads my writing from time to time, and I’m sure she would not appreciate my use of the original “S” word.  So, in order to placate her, I’ll just use the word “stuff.”  Of course, I know what the real word is, and so does she, but some things are better left unsaid, or, in this case, unwritten.
My first introduction to SOS was during army basic training.  On one of those very early mornings in the company mess hall, partway up Fort Jackson’s Tank Hill, I remember going through the chow line and being served up, what appeared to me at the time, to be unrecognizable lumpy gravy slopped over toast.  The unfortunate soldier on KP duty, who was serving me the SOS, looked no happier than I looked being served it.  But looks can be deceiving, because after one bite, I fell in love, and have been in love with SOS ever since.

SOS is just another name for chipped beef on toast.  Like most prepared dishes, specific recipes differ depending on who is doing the cooking.  However, since so many people were first introduced to this culinary delight during the course of their military service, I think it is only appropriate that we look to the U.S. Army for guidance.  In the 1910 version of the Manual for Army Cooks, the ingredients for making creamy chipped beef were listed as being chipped beef, fat (butter preferred), flour, evaporated milk, parsley, pepper, and beef stock.  Those ingredients represented the “stuff” of SOS, and the toast represented the “shingle.”  Most modern chipped beef recipes eliminate both the beef broth and parsley, and substitute real milk for evaporated milk, but aside from those differences, the recipe has not really changed that much.
As noted earlier, I don’t make time for breakfast during the week, but I do get out occasionally on the weekends.  Breakfast places on Florida’s Gulf Coast, like around the rest of Florida, are plentiful, and they offer inexpensive menu items.  My problem with going out to eat breakfast is that eggs and breakfast seem to be synonymous in this country.  I don’t eat eggs, have never eaten eggs, and, in fact can’t stand the sight of them, especially if they're hard boiled or deviled.  Eggs, in my opinion, are simply not a desirable source of food.  Unfortunately, in most places, it’s hard to find a breakfast selection that doesn’t include a couple of eggs.  That's why I like the simplicity of SOS.  It’s just chipped beef on toast, and eggs have absolutely nothing to do with it in any way, shape, or form.

Luckily for me, there are a great number of breakfast places around which have SOS on the menu.  Making good SOS, like making a good grilled cheese sandwich, is difficult to screw up.  As a result, I am rarely disappointed.  The only place where I’ve had really bad SOS, was at an eatery in New Port Richey, Florida.  It was sweet, sickeningly sweet, and wasn’t worth finishing.  I’m quite sure that the cook had mistakenly added sugar instead of salt, because there is no other explanation.  No one, let alone a professional cook, would have intentionally desecrated SOS by adding sugar.  In any event, I’ve never been back there, and never will go back.

I’m always looking for new places serving SOS, and I get many referrals from people I know.  One such referral was to a place called The Broken Yolk Restaurant, in Holiday, Florida, which, I was told, had delicious SOS.  Now, given my aversion to eggs, I was immediately suspicious just based on the name alone.  I imagined a place filled with egg aficionados, trying to lure me inside with the promise of good chipped beef on toast so that they could convert me to their breakfast obsession of egg whites and yolks.  Despite my personal reservations about visiting the place, I reluctantly made my way to The Broken Yolk Restaurant, and I’m so glad I did.
The Broken Yolk, like so many of the breakfast restaurants in Florida, seems to be a social gathering spot for seniors.  It’s a place where the opportunity to meet and converse with friends is just as important as getting something to eat.  The restaurant is small, with no more than 15 tables, and it provides a cozy setting for a cup of morning coffee, a good breakfast, and friendly conversation.  Daily specials are written on whiteboards hanging on the walls, and a television mounted in a corner of the restaurant keeps everyone up to date with the latest news and weather.  On the day of my visit, however, I was not interested in conversation or watching the news.  I had come for one reason, and one reason only, SOS.

After quickly looking through the extensive menu, I selected the chipped beef on toast, and added a bowl of buttered grits and a cup of coffee to my order.  The service was both fast and friendly, and within just a couple of minutes, I was served my food.   My two pieces of toast were completely covered with piping hot, creamy gravy loaded with beef.  And, as a throwback to the old 1910 army recipe, it even had dried parsley sprinkled on top.  I knew, even before I tasted it, that I had hit the SOS jackpot, and it was sitting on a plate right in front of me.  It tasted even better than it looked, and my breakfast was enhanced by the bowl of grits, which were hot and buttery.

As reluctant as I was to come to The Broken Yolk in the first place, I was even more reluctant to leave.  I told the cashier on my way out that the chipped beef on toast was the “best I’ve ever eaten.”  And it truly was.  In a state where there are a thousand places to eat a good breakfast, I’ll definitely go back to enjoy the SOS at The Broken Yolk, because it’s just that good.

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