It’s an ungodly hour for most people, but when I wake up at 5 a.m. I arise to a magical time of quiet stillness. It’s the time we get the worm. If I’m traveling and out of my hotel it’s the hour perfect strangers say hello and mean it; sleeping in means getting up at 6 a.m. We early birds are a definite minority.
Early birds often have what the Italians call prima colazione, first breakfast, in the wee hours just as the new day dawns. It’s usually simple while the seconda colazione, the second breakfast, is usually had around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. and is ever so slightly more substantial.
Our world is very different than the world of night owls who have restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops that cater to them. Night owls are cool; we early birds are weird. But, think about it, people who stay up to all hours are not so rare. We early risers are so few. How do I know? You can’t call anyone — ever — at 6 a.m., but many people will call at 10:30 p.m. without thinking that unduly late.
Go out at 5:30 a.m. There is no one about or only a few people. I said good morning to the man who walks his black dog. There was Al, who creaked his 95-year-old body to his back porch to let fly a loud hock across his lawn like an F-18 leaving a carrier. I never said good morning, because Al was hard of hearing, and I would have had to yell for him to hear me, waking up the neighbors.
“Good morning” is a wonderful thing to say to someone. “Sabah al-khayr,” I said to the Palestinian gardener who was up with me in Amman, Jordan, at 6 a.m., he to pray and me to watch. That’s early morning. It has a resonance of sincerity to it, a sincerity that is lacking in a “good evening.” In fact, people really don’t say “good evening.” They’re usually too tired or too drunk. But in the morning you’re never tired. You’re ready to take on the world, a feeling of empowerment that comes from the rising sun. That’s why being an early bird on the East Coast is so great.
I used to have company in the morning. All three of my kids when they were under age 5 would wake up with me at 5 a.m. Actually, they, or specifically the first one, Ali, created the 5 a.m. wake-up time in my life. I’d give them their bottle, or watch “Romper Room” with them because “Sesame Street” came on too late at 7 a.m. Early birds like me usually stay at home or maybe just take a little walk or run around the neighborhood. There’s nowhere for us to go.
The city that sleeps in
Nothing is open at 5:30 a.m., absolutely nothing. I was in New York on business one day before I became a cookbook author, staying on 42nd Street. Nothing in the hotel was open, so I figured that nearby Grand Central would have something. Nothing was open there either. I walked a few blocks. I said “good morning” to the sanitation workers. They said “good morning” back. The transit cop on the beat said good morning too. Later I realized he had a cup of coffee, and I wished I had asked him where he got it. This was years before the time of the ubiquitous Starbucks, which isn’t open at that hour anyway.
For me the day begins with a cup of strong black coffee that is hot as hell with no sugar. The now very popular caffé latte or cappuccino never appealed to me because all that milk strikes me as a child’s drink. A little later, I like to have my first breakfast. I prefer savory over sweet and my go-to food at that early hour is my Arab breakfast of warmed flatbread, a dollop of the strained yogurt called lubny with a well filled with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar, the thyme herb condiment with sesame seeds. I might also fry up some Syrian white cheese, or halloumi cheese, and maybe an egg too. When I lived in New York it would have been an onion, garlic, or poppy seed bagel and cream cheese. After breakfast I’m ready to call someone … but it’s still too early.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Fried Syrian white cheese with labna, olive oil and za’atar. Credit: Clifford A. Wright