The Breakfast Club

Every Saturday I go to JK’s Chili for goetta, eggs, fried cheesecake, lively conversation, and a good laugh. For my health? Not so much.

“Are you coming to breakfast?”

The question is solemn, as if in recognition of a special observance, which in a sense it is. It signals the imminence of another Saturday morning when a group of us—all in our 50s and 60s, all husbands and fathers, all refugees from more recherché social settings—gather at JK’s Chili in Madeira.

Photograph by Anna Knott

About 10 are “regulars,” although on any given week, between six and eight actually show up. Breakfast is at 8 a.m. sharp, but inevitably, someone couldn’t get out of bed, someone is out of town, someone had an early appointment. Barring such contingencies we make the effort. In a subtle way, skipping breakfast is frowned upon.

“We missed you at breakfast,” I hear reprovingly if I run into one of the others on a day when I played truant. Any excuse sounds lame.

Is ours a “breakfast club”? Not in any formal sense. There are no officers or protocols. No one is trying to advance an agenda or make connections. It was started three or four years ago by a couple of close friends, who then asked a few others if they’d like to join. Gradually, a hard core assembled. Guests are always welcome, and from time to time some of these guests are encouraged to attend regularly, but somehow or other, the hard core doesn’t change much. We enjoy one another’s company. Laughs abound. Usually we learn something. The only requirement is that you come in good humor.

JK’s Chili is the proverbial hole-in-the-wall—a small dinette next to a pizza parlor and a convenience store in a strip on a side road. Open only for breakfast and lunch, it might strike the casual observer as a specialist in the many possibilities that daytime meals can offer. The casual observer would be wrong. JK’s offers only the most basic fare—bacon and eggs and the like—and nothing healthy. No cereal, no fruit, no yogurt. Whole wheat bread, I suppose, is the exception that proves the rule. “Healthy and JK’s don’t go together,” Jim Kagrise, the new proprietor, said to me recently. “If someone wants fruit and tells me ahead, we’ll try to have it but it is not what we’re all about.”

That said, what JK’s does do it does very well and enjoys a mini-reputation among east-siders as a great place for such staples as pancakes, French toast, and goetta. Kagrise, who found JK’s for sale on Craigslist about a year ago, has added some new items—sausage gravy and biscuits, steak and eggs, fried cheesecake—but nothing that breaks with the restaurant’s overall philosophy of arterial challenge. Bored in retirement, Kagrise decided on a whim to become a restaurateur and then went at it with vigor. The formerly bland and unkempt premises have been painted a crisp white and teal; a coat rack is finally available; there are new counters and many new appliances. The restrooms are next, he tells me.

“If Barack Obama wins again, I’m moving to Canada,” one of our number announced at a recent gathering. “I won’t have a choice.” It is not the first time we’ve heard the lament. This is the east side of Cincinnati after all, and there is little the president is likely to do that would please most of our group. “He has no concern about the debt, and no one has ever spent more on White House parties,” the plaintiff continues, and several heads nod sympathetically.

Talk at the breakfast table often revolves around politics or the economy—primary concerns of one of our most gifted conversationalists—but at other times it drifts to the arts, or municipal governance, golf, hunting, or summer getaways. Once, one of the regulars, who rides a motorcycle, showed up in a leather biker’s suit—black from shoulder to boots, with a red bandana tied around his forehead. It was a showstopper. Another time, the perceived deterioration in Hillary Clinton’s appearance stimulated a brief but intense review. As I say, the group is not without its biases.

JK’s compact interior accommodates a short counter with stools and about eight tables. Because habit is to be honored, we sit at the same two tables each week with extras added as numbers require. Waneda, the server who looks after us, adds a comforting consistency to the experience. She knows who likes coffee and who likes tea. She takes orders promptly and delivers the plates with dispatch. Somehow, she manages to be caring without becoming maternal—it’s a fine line. When I was out last year with a broken limb, Waneda signed the card that the breakfast club sent me. When Waneda was out this winter with a coronary bypass, the club sent her a card—and was relieved to see her back within a few weeks. At the conclusion of breakfast, each person puts $10 toward the bill, assuring Waneda a generous payout for her many ministrations.

Over the years, my feelings about breakfast have evolved. As a young adult, I mostly skipped it, but when age and awareness revealed the folly in that, I adopted cereal with fruit, and yogurt on the side, as a healthy way forward. Like most people I know, I am a sucker for a really special breakfast, the kind they serve at, say, Brennan’s in New Orleans or Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. On a recent trip to Georgia, I stopped at Tybee Island’s famed The Breakfast Club and ordered the house specialty—something called the Grill Cleaner’s Special, an unholy mix of eggs, cheese, sausage, potatoes, and peppers—and wished only that my brother Peter, who reveres a good breakfast the way crows worship corn, were there. But such experiences require time and travel.

While JK’s will probably not be on any tourist map soon, it does offer proximity, hearty fare, good fellowship, and a guarantee that we will be out—promptly—by 9 a.m. So am I coming to breakfast? You can count on it.

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