Life for Beginners Stories by Kenny Mah

Bread and butter

by Kenny Mah

Mom was always frugal. When we were kids, all we had to survive on was Dad’s salary as a primary school teacher. Civil servants didn’t earn much in those days (I’m not entirely sure that they earn all that much these days either) and since Mom was a housewife with no income of her own, she was very careful in managing the household budget. She would snip away a little here, trim away some unnecessary fat there; all to ensure we got by.

I remember waking up before dawn. I would make my own bed before leaving my room to go and brush my teeth and shower. I would put on my school uniform. Make a perfect Windsor’s knot of my prefect’s tie in our ignoble school colours of purple and green. Comb pomade through my hair, flatten it. Everything went like clockwork. What I dreaded was coming down to breakfast. Breakfast was one of the casualties of Mom’s domestic austerity drive, you see.

Years later, when we had more money, Mom would buy frozen frankfurters and boil them. Once they were cooked, she would slice them into halves, lengthwise. One frank would fit perfectly on a slice of bread if halved. I would ask for two whole franks, but Mom would say that I was greedy.

Later I could have cereal, Kellogg’s cornflakes and later still Frosties (remember Tony the Tiger and his “They’re Grrrrreat!” catchphrase?). The only thing was that fresh milk would be too expensive so Mom would make some warm milk solution by mixing condensed milk with hot water.

I would protest as the warm milk mixture made the cornflakes soggy. I thought a good compromise was making this diluted condensed milk the night before and keeping it chilled in the fridge but Mom said children shouldn’t drink anything cold in the morning — it would give me a cold and rheumatism when I was old.

I suspected she was too lazy to make this but I didn’t say so. When you are young, you have no idea how much work it takes to run a household, and being a child, one is self-centred by default, and so sees everyone else as selfish when one doesn’t get one’s way.

But all these were luxuries compared to what I had to eat for breakfast when I first started going to school. Just two slices of white bread, buttered on one side and sprinkled with some granulated sugar. That was it. Yellow butter, white sugar, white bread. That was it.

Doesn’t sound so bad but try having it five days a week, every day of the year except during school holidays. (For some reason I have no recollection of what we ate as a family during the non-schooling days. Was my entire childhood and my parents’ years of parenting run by the academic calendar?) And then repeat the next year. I was never so sick of any single food or meal.

Fast forward a decade or two, and my sister’s kids are going to school now. They weren’t going to suffer the same fate. Instead their mother would ply them with all sorts of goodies from bakery-bought sausage buns to hot fish-ball noodle soup from the hawker stall to slices of walnut cake or red-bean paste buns made by their grandmother the day before.

Yes, their grandmother — my Mom. Apparently retirement suits her plenty well. All her freed-up time from taking care of two school-going kids (and one school-teaching husband, now a fellow retiree) was now redirected to baking. She never baked when I was growing up. Never.

To say that I’m feeling rather sour about this is an understatement. And my nephew and nieces — the ungrateful lot — would dare make requests (“We want cheese buns today, not sausage buns”) and actually refuse to consume certain breakfast foods (“No plain cornflakes, please”). The cheek.

They’ve never had only bread-and-butter for breakfast, the lucky fellows. But I’m making this sound like some sort of punishment. It wasn’t. These days, I tire of nasi lemak and char kway teow or a full English breakfast of eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, the whole lot. They are made upon order and served any way I like it. But it’s not the same as a homemade meal. It’s not made with love.

What I really crave is just a simple slice of bread-and-butter with some sugar sprinkled over it. The way Mom used to make it, crumbs stuck on the thinly spread butter and all. It’s made with love. Nothing could taste better.


Picture by Pascal Thauvin.

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