I left Oxford, Mississippi, much later than I’d planned. There was nothing to blame except the boozy hubris of the evening before. But I couldn’t afford another night here; I only had a few days before I needed to complete my move to New York City from New Orleans. My car packed with all the belongings I’d decided to keep, I drove through northern Mississippi and Alabama. After 300 miles, I was tired and still bleeding a bit from an embarrassing altercation with a glass window the night before (see: hubris).
Around 10 p.m., I stopped at a Day’s Inn outside of Chattanooga. The front desk clerk promised clean sheets, cable, a manageable bill, and a free continental breakfast if I made it to the lobby before 9 a.m. Ready to pass out while watching a Katherine Heigl flick on TBS, I offered her my debit card. For the road-weary, a continental breakfast is a small but effective lure. And this trip finally allowed me to overcome a years-long beef with it.
Everyone knows the continental breakfast. It is a subgenre of a meal kept around for its speed, low-quality, and unfulfilling nature. Today, it’s essentially a hotel trick. For most, it’s tied closely to a disappointing morning. No one speaks of it with love or care or compassion. This meal is their masked attempt at shoving you out of your rooms and out of our lives.
I say “our” because I worked at a hotel off of I-81 in southern Pennsylvania for a summer as a front desk clerk. Folks would flood in for college graduations, events at the local army barracks, ballet performances, and car shows. It’s also a favorite pit stop for truckers. During the summer months, we tended to be booked, and so my second-greatest fear as an employee of the Marriott Fairfield Inn & Suites would emerge: working in the morning. I was a growing teen and needed those eight hours of sleep after I stayed up doing nothing until 4:00 a.m. But that fear was also tied to and eclipsed by another: the sheer terror of getting assigned to the continental breakfast setup, a truly excruciating ordeal.
You might think it easy, but car enthusiasts, army colonels, truckers, and ballet parents all have something in common—they wake up early, are ornery, and aren’t going to skip out on a free meal. This means you better have those Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches, cups of yogurt, and cartons of milk out in the glass mini fridge at 5 a.m. You’ve got to make your two bread options look halfway appetizing and toss some biscuits and English muffins into those clear plastic drawers or else someone’s going to complain about its unruly nature. This isn’t a mess hall, as I was told more than once.
Then you have to help manage it. There’s nothing more irritating than explaining how a newfangled toaster works over and over again to the hopelessly technologically challenged. And please imagine the clean up after you let a bunch of rubes work their way through a make-your-own waffle station. It’s horrifying. Hotel advertising will promise a perfect, golden waffle with whipped cream and sliced strawberries, but no hapless cook produces beauty with a gaggle of impatient hotel guests behind them. A slip of a hand and that batter is on the counter, the floor, sometimes the walls, and then it pools in unreachable locations, like under the juice machine. At the end of a shift, I felt like a crime scene cleanup crew assigned to scrub the Pillsbury Doughboy’s murder.
But as a consumer, I’ve gained a fresh joy for the continental breakfast. It’s a true diaspora of mediocre breakfast foods that creates an odd social environment in one corner of a hotel lobby. (After all, how often do truck drivers, army colonels, and bankers/ballet parents break bread together?) More than that, it’s an opportunity to see a person’s truest character. In Chattanooga, I watched helplessly as a man took the last two egg squares out of the chafing dish.
He looked me in the disgruntled face while he forked those limp sponges of egg, as if to say, I know you’d do the same thing in my position, dirtbag. I gave him a couple squinted eyes that clearly conveyed, I would if you were behind me, jerk.
I wasn’t too upset. I had a waffle, a bagel with cream cheese, and a hard-boiled egg. I ate some off-brand Cinnamon Toast Crunch with 2 percent milk and a bowl of mixed fruit that wasn’t mostly cantaloupe. I drank coffee and as much orange juice as I could stomach. The dreamy part of the continental breakfast is that, like the buffet, it’s the choose-your-own-adventure novel of meals. The only difference from the buffet is that you tacitly agreed to eat it by purchasing a room for the night, so it’s kind of like picking up one of those novels from the back of a stranger’s toilet.
Yes, I could’ve gone to the Waffle House, but I would’ve had to pay. Plus, continental breakfast affords a very specific type of people-watching. While I eat I often wonder about my fellow diners. Sometimes a narrative starts to build: They’re driving to a tiny town outside of Akron to his mom’s place—only nine hours to go. It’s been a couple years. She works as a greeter at the Walmart now to keep herself busy. There are rose bushes in front of her house that he’s going to have to clip even though he doesn’t have an eye for landscaping. She’s going to get mad at the work because he’ll make them look worse. He’ll apologize, and so she’ll probably make him and the kids some of that Chicken Parmesan he’s so partial to.
The options and opportunity are limitless—the hallmark of the meal. And that’s comforting because anyone staying in a highway hotel is going through some kind of change, even if it’s a brief road trip. I, for example, was moving 1,300 miles north. No matter your plans, it’s an interruption of the norm. Though the continental breakfast tends to be a disappointing meal, it’s also a heartening pat on the back as we travel, because it’s not going anywhere. A seemingly free meal is a win in a time of turbulence, and that’s the promise that keeps our nomadic hearts alive.