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first person

Illustration by mary Kirkpatrick

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If you had asked me at the age of 12 what my favourite breakfast food was, my answer would have varied from fried fish to kielbasa to spaghetti to pork chops to quesadillas. Some days I’d say jambalaya. An active swimmer since elementary school, I had a voracious appetite that ordinary breakfasts didn’t seem to quell. At this age, my palate was undiscerning, my stomach always growling and I awaited each Saturday breakfast like the last day of school or the release of the latest Lemony Snicket book.

Whereas my mom might set out cereal boxes and the milk carton during the week, Saturday mornings were special. For 15 years, my dad commuted for his work – he had an apartment in another city – and came home only on the weekends. Depending on where he was working at the time, he’d drive anywhere between five and 10 hours after leaving his office on Friday night to be home in time to prepare the coffee and don his apron before my siblings and I bounded downstairs.

Even as children, we were aware of his sacrifice that allowed us to grow up in the same town with the same friends until all four of us graduated high school. During the week, my sisters, brother and I would run from one activity to another, go home from school with friends and sometimes spend no more than five minutes at the dinner table. But Saturday mornings were sacred. These moments were not only special because of my father’s presence, but also because of the culinary circus he’d perform for his pyjama-clad public.

Spatula in hand, apron tied and leather loafers traded for well-worn slippers, my dad the insurance executive would station himself behind the island in the kitchen where he became MOTLO, Master of the Leftovers.

MOTLO quickly integrated my family’s vocabulary and transformed our approach to leftovers. At his hands, conventional breakfast foods were all but forgotten as the remains of last night’s dinner or yesterday’s lunch were heated up to create an early morning feast. The more diverse the contents of our refrigerator, the more exotic my dad’s propositions.

“How about an egg sandwich on an English muffin with a few slices of meatball ever so delicately dusted in Parmesan cheese?” He’d kiss his fingers like a Michelin-starred chef evaluating his masterpiece.

“Or a breakfast burrito with Mom’s ratatouille?”

“A bowl of chili with a fried egg on top? Or better yet, a ham steak with sautéed mushrooms?”

“I think we’ve got a slice of lasagna behind the jar of pickles.”

Each plat du jour was accompanied by a flourish of the spatula, arms spread wide like a magician presenting his next trick. The breakfast table was MOTLO’s domain, the place where he could interact with the family he hadn’t seen for a week or more and where he could test the comedic material he’d accumulated in his absence. My dad loved seeing just how far he could push the envelope until even I, his most loyal customer, would turn up my nose at an unsavoury suggestion. I often drew the line when I spied mould.

MOTLO was as resourceful as he was creative, the frugal father of four loath to let any foodstuff go to waste. “Waste not want not” was his motto, the first rule in his book of “dadvice,” and if his children weren’t willing to clean their plates, he certainly would. Each bread crust tossed to the dog was met with a hairy eyeball. No plate made it to the sink with a forkful of food still clinging to the surface. Legend has it, MOTLO once ate half of a grilled cheese out of the trash.

My dad’s parents were second-generation immigrants from Poland. He liked to remind us that his own grandparents “didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out,” but they raised their children and grandchildren with healthy appetites and a solid work ethic. My grandmother is still hailed for her meatloaf and her chili sauce recipe has a place of honour inside our family’s fondue pot.

For years I struggled to reconcile the image of my dad behind the stove with the man who worked in property and casualty insurance. On more than one occasion, I suggested he quit the corporate world to open a restaurant.

I delighted in each and every one of MOTLO’s creations and his enthusiasm for easily microwavable meals. He’d remove Tupperware containers or plastic-wrapped platters from the shelves of the fridge without discretion, laying everything out on the counter to assess his ingredients. Everything was fair game and a game it certainly was.

Although the other meals were my mom’s specialty, MOTLO sometimes made an appearance at lunch or dinner. But what made these morning meals so exciting was how they broke the mould of what culture (and mom) told us breakfast should be: eggs, bacon, waffles, pancakes and orange juice. The meal was more fun when we felt like we were breaking the rules – especially when it was a parent that had us do so.

More than 10 years later and living on my own, my palate is (only slightly) more discerning, though my mornings are much quieter than they were during my childhood. Shortly after I moved to Paris, France, the capital of haute cuisine, my parents left our Virginia home and its familiar kitchen for the Midwest. Despite the vast geographical changes, I often find myself paying homage to the Master of the Leftovers when my grocery budget takes a hit and finances require a creative approach to morning meals. There have been mornings when I’ve whipped up a ham and tomato risotto, lentils with hard boiled eggs and cheese tortellini – all washed down with French-press coffee before 9 a.m. Whereas my roommate might consider my breakfast concoctions sacrilège, I feel a private satisfaction in knowing MOTLO would be proud.

My parents’ move marked the end of my dad’s long commutes. Now the two of them, empty-nesters, spend their weekday mornings like their weekends: drinking coffee and reading the paper.

This past Christmas was my first time in my parents’ new home. Although it had been nearly two years since I’d seen the Master of the Leftovers in his element, I was happy to find that the new setting lent itself just as easily to our old routine. At 24, my breakfast table conversations with my dad had evolved from swim practice and algebra to my job and grad-school program, both a trans-Atlantic flight away. But once MOTLO revealed his hodgepodge menu of holiday turkey, Chicago deep-dish pizza and oven-roasted potatoes, I couldn’t help but feel I was 12 years old all over again.

Julia Skorcz lives in Paris.