What's Good?

Spoiler alert: not one of Oprah's "favorite things"

“What’s good here?” It's one of those movie cliches spoken to a waitress or regular customer in a diner. It could mean "good morning," maybe "how you doin'?" It could be a genuine inquiry: "what do you recommend I order?" The response from the waitress could be the menu item she likes to eat or the ones she knows many of her customers like; it could be what she's been told to push — those cinnamon rolls that were baked yesterday, you know, they're not gonna last.

"What's good?" could be "the special." "The special" sounds good; it sounds, well, special. It sounds like something that the cook whipped up with special ingredients, under special circumstances, with special care. Of course, it's just as likely, as with those cinnamon rolls, that it's "special" because it's really got to go quickly — and so it's highlighted on the menu, written in a fancy font on the chalkboard out front, pushed when prompted by the waitress. "What's good?" "Try the special."

I should know better. I have read Kitchen Confidential after all. And yet I'll often fall for it; I'll order the special — an act of solidarity with the cook who was just so goddamn tired of brushing the cinnamon sugar onto the dough each and every morning that they thought — and hey, maybe they weren't wrong — that ham and spinach and mustard might be a neat variation on the classic cinnamon roll. "Special," you know?

I ordered the special at the Big Bottom Market on Saturday. And yeah, I regretted it. I should have known better.

As part of this new endeavor here at Second Breakfast, I am going to write up mini-reviews of breakfast joints in my neighborhood and in the little towns we visit in our RV. It's less about recommending places for readers to visit — as the saying goes "your mileage might vary" and you might not be looking for breakfast in Oakland or Monterey or Death Valley — and more about exploring what breakfast looks like in shops and cafes and restaurants around California. (Travel for us — thanks to the RV and to the dog — will be mostly restricted to California.) What do the business of breakfast, the cultural practices, the technologies, the foods, "the future" look like? Why? "What's good?"

According to Oprah, at least, the biscuits at Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, California are good. Indeed, she once selected them as one of her "favorite things," something that must've been an incredible boon to a tiny cafe in a tiny town — population 4700 — on Highway 116 in Sonoma County.

We'd eaten at the cafe on our first camping trip in the area back in November, and frankly I was pretty underwhelmed. I'd ordered a BLT on a biscuit, and while the quick-bread was light and flaky, it was completely devoid of salt. I typically find restaurant fare to be over-salted, if anything, and so I thought that perhaps we'd just visited on one of those days when, in the process of throwing together the flour and baking powder and baking soda, the cook had overlooked that other key white ingredient. It happens to the best of us.

I reckoned we'd give the place another shot. Kin stuck with his same order: biscuits and gravy. Me, I ordered "the special" — two specials, to be exact: one savory biscuit and one sweet. The former — jalapeño, bacon, cheddar — was incredibly salty, as over- seasoned so as my first biscuit was under-. And that wasn't the only unfortunate difference in the whole biscuit experience. While the first time I ate there, my biscuit was light and fluffy, now there were none of those buttery layers of lamination. These "special" biscuits seemed to have been baked in a muffin tin, and as such the dough was solid and heavy. That can happen with the addition of ingredients like cheese or bacon that add more moisture and fat to a recipe — I get it; I've worked hard to learn how to make a good biscuit and have fucked up said good biscuit by adding cheese and bacon and, in my case, scallion. But the sweet biscuit I ordered — banana chocolate, for the record — also suffered from this issue: "stodgy" in GGBO-speak, I believe. It had neither the consistency of a biscuit nor a muffin and was therefore a letdown on both accounts.

The banana chocolate biscuit “special” at Big Bottom Market

These biscuits — one of Oprah's "favorite things” — are in fact quite bad. And one can surely ask, why would we ever trust Oprah? What does Oprah know about biscuits? If nothing else, her track record, particularly when it comes to "wellness" is spotty at best — she gave us Dr. Oz, after all.

How or why do we trust the reviews and recommendations of anyone, really, when it comes to what we put in and do with our bodies? "What's good?" we ask the waitress — she should know, right?

"What's good?" I'm going to ask in this newsletter each Friday, not because I have "taste" you should trust either. Rather, I'm going to point to some of the stories that caught my eye about health and food and fitness and technology during the week so as to underscore all the advice and research and promoted content and storytelling we're expected to wade through to figure out "what's good" for our health and wellbeing.

Elsewhere in breakfast:

Other foods served:

The Week in Fitness/Health/Technology:

  • Walking. It's good for you, and The New York Times is on it
  • How does our civic infrastructure impede well-being? Case in point: the lack of public restrooms in the US
  • No really. Although we tend to think about fitness in terms of individualism — this is America — there is much to be said about how public infrastructure and institutions shape our health. As such, this article is the one that resonated with me the most this week, even though — and this is very education-journalist-inside-baseball, I realize — it's written by Matt Richtel and opens with a “if you think ed-tech is bad…” salvo: "The Income Gap Is Becoming a Physical-Activity Divide." I see this in Oakland; it's why I volunteer with RBO. Kin and I are listening to a brilliant podcast called Tales of the Town, and one episode deals with Oakland’s sports legacy. It’s not just Warriors and As and Raiders; it’s the local public school system and how environmental racism and gentrification are putting the community’s access to sports at risk
  • Or perhaps, as I got a tattoo on Wednesday, this is the most pertinent article I read this week: "Tattoos Do Odd Things to the Immune System"

A reminder: this newsletter remains in its "soft launch" stage — free and open for everyone. Sign up! Eat! Enjoy! Send me feedback! And look for my first recipe — a feature that'll eventually go behind the paywall — to be published on Wednesday.

Yours in struggle,

Disclosure: I am experimenting with affiliate links in Second Breakfast. Gotta make a living somehow, although it’s not clear that affiliate links are the best way to do that.