When I was 28 and fresh off another involuntary commitment to the mental institution in Louisville, KY, I took a duffel bag and my last $125 and bought a Greyhound ticket to New York.  It’s a long trip. It takes days.  This story starts on the third day of that trip, somewhere in the countryside of the Northeastern US in late November of 2003.

In the annals of professional breakfasting, perhaps no name has sounded out quite like that of Richard Alpen. His appeal was unique, his influence on breakfast undeniable. Having earned the respect of luminaries of the field of professional eggs and baconing when his peers were still fighting their way up the rankings, Alpen expanded the International Breakfast Association into an industry force. His charitable work in the development of free facilities for children to eat breakfast under I.B.A. coaching is as notable among humanitarians as among advocates for the regulation of pancake size. Innovator, champion, loving husband and father of two, Richard Alpen was more than just a great eater of eggs and bacon. He was an eater of life.

Alpen started his breakfasting career auspiciously, winning five out of six I.B.A. Grand Slams in his rookie season, and making 1997 Egg and Toast Magazine “Man of the Year.” Alpen’s Eating Breakfast for a Better You motivational video series topped bestseller lists in 1998, and the film biopic, depicting his rise to breakfasting glory in the greasy spoon diners of Hoboken, New Jersey, won four statuettes in the 2002 Academy Awards ceremonies, including Best Song for Celene Dion’s ballad, “The Most Important Meal of the Day.” Experiencing a minor setback after releasing an album under the hip-hop moniker, M.C. Egg Whites, Alpen bounced back with a successful petition to the International Olympic Committee to include professional breakfasting in the 2004 Olympic Games. After his subsequent appointment as coach, Team U.S.A. won the silver medal for Eggs and Baconing and a gold for Toast Sopping.

Alpen wasted no time in silencing those critics who had speculated that Olympic coaching had softened his form. Upon resuming his professional career, analysts and fans alike agreed that Alpen’s egging technique had maintained the consistency and ruthless elegance of his brilliant early years. Due to stress injuries, Alpen originated a new fork-knife position in the second act of his career, a stance since coined as the “Curly-cue Crossbent,” a tines-down fork orientation with the opposing forefinger bridged over the dull edge of the knife.

A study done over several months in 2006 at the Motor Skills Initiative at The University of Toronto showed that Alpen’s form had actually improved compared with footage from his rookie season, his perfectly triangular bites as accurate and streamlined as ever with an almost robot-like efficiency to his chew technique. A 20/20 “Special Report” with Barbara Walters conducted in conjunction with the study showed the now famous slow-motion footage of Alpen cutting a piece of sausage, dipping it in the yoke of his egg, lifting the morsel to his mouth, sipping his coffee, and then tearing off an additional bit of toast, all in a fraction of a second and with a fluidity of motion not previously thought possible at such speed. In the televised special, the slow-motion footage was shown in split-screen alongside video of cheetahs bounding over the grasslands of the Serengeti. Additional trials in the study conducted with random degrees of difficulty—jelly added to his toast, syrup to his pancakes, even some loose grounds in his coffee, requiring picking of the teeth—showed little to no difference in IBA style points or Bites Per Second.

Alpen’s golden boy image declined somewhat in the post-Olympic years. Always intensely private, Alpen did his best to keep his wife, Jeri, and his children, Ethan and Jennifer, out of the limelight. But the 2006 publication of the unauthorized biography Egg on My Face sent shockwaves through the professional breakfasting community, giving light to revelations about his swinging bachelor past, a doping scandal centered during his college days from which he was eventually exonerated, and a salmonella accident on the compound of his New Jersey estate. These events shook the faith of even his most hardcore fans. Alpen’s closely guarded childhood history was also finally revealed, passages on Alpen’s formative years painting his mother as an obsessive who controlled every aspect of her son’s eating habits. During this time of public hardship, opposing fans at his away matches took to chanting “Over easy! Over easy! Do it again!” as a send-up of one particular passage from the biography where Alpen’s mother allegedly forced him to eat breakfast ten times during a 24-hour period. The man himself never responded to such taunts, though his trademark smile and perhaps something of his swagger were lost forever.

But Alpen outlasted his critics, bringing his professional career to a close on a wave of popular resurgence following the 2008 public television retrospective directed by Ken Burns, in which the director was granted unprecedented access to Alpen through a series of in-depth interviews. After retirement, Alpen took a teaching position at the Academe Gastronomique, where he had learned breakfasting methods with the French Masters and first competed as an undergraduate. His biggest collaborator at the Academe was his former teacher, Gaston Gourmagond, an Austrian master known for his radical views that breakfast should be motivated from existential hunger, an approach he called the Alienation breakfast theory. Alpen and Gourmagond would write a book together, entitled Unbreaking the Yoke: How to Bridge the Void With Breakfast, in which teacher and student shared equal billing defining what would become the “New School” of professional eggs and baconing.

In his twilight years, Richard Alpen enjoyed standing invitations at the finest restaurants in the world, though most days he could be found bellying up to his old table at the IHOP a block from his parents’ house. A steadfast man of the people, he believed the greatest effect of his celebrity was to inspire the egg-deprived children of his community. Every Sunday, his fans crowded around his table at his neighborhood IHOP to watch him eat eggs, the diner keeping permanent accommodations for a press line. His every bite was an event, and the last bit of egg-sopped toast from his plate was invariably met with rounds of applause and cheers. He always stayed after his performances to sign autographs or take pictures with his adoring fans, posed with his empty plate, brandished a smile and a thumbs up. And when the odd nay-saying bystander broke through the clamor of hero-worship with remarks like, “Aren’t you just eating breakfast?” he only shrugged and nodded his head amiably. Perhaps Richard Alpen was just eating breakfast. But his eating was like no other.

Richard Alpen was laid to rest on Tuesday at Lily of the Valley Cemetary, dead from heart failure at the age of 29.

As children, my sister and I would fight mercilessly for the dining room chair with the armrests. My parents had a mismatched set—2 chairs with them, two chairs without. One of the prized chairs went to my father, always. The other one remained up in the air. We had to devise our complaint plans carefully. If things escalated past a certain point of shrillness, or, heaven forbid, reached for tears, the up-for-grabs chair with the armrests would go to my mother.

“Settled!” she would yell, plopping herself down as my sister and I, defeated, scowled at each other and struggled throughout the meal with where to put our stupid little arms.

Here, in México Viejo, I feel like I’ve won for good, been granted the lifelong vindication with which I can now, via my penchant for self-satisfied teasing (a characteristic necessary to any successful older brother), torture, if only in some unspoken way, my sister back in Illinois. The armrests here are huge enough to house our old seven-year-old bodies comfortably, and I feel compelled to use the space, soak up the luxury, slide my arms from the inside edge to the outside and back again.

“Why are you doing that?” Louisa asks, “You look like some demented chicken.”

Through a screen of pickled nopal cactus salad with tomatillo, garlic, and cilantro, I muster my best, food-drunk, “Bok-bok-bokaaaaaahhhk!” to Louisa’s shaking head.

The cactus leaps in my mouth quite unlike any chicken-feed, food-drunk or otherwise, gives-in to my teeth like something vaguely marine, the soft interior organ-gum of some aphrodisiac crustacean, reached only through a sharp, poisonous shell. I soak the nopal salad’s skinny juice with the remains of the corn tortilla that once held my roasted chile rajas taco, crowned with paprika-crusted goat’s milk queso anejo and blackened mushrooms. The chilies and mushrooms held within them that clandestine cooking aqua vitae soaked up from the surface of the comal; the serum released from countless meats, oils, spices, vegetables who came to perfection on the hot griddle, leaving trickles of their best selves behind. With each bite, these juices stream into my mouth like some liquid encyclopedia of culinary history. Chapter One: Fuck, this is good. Chapter Two: Oooooohhhh…

Louisa and I work our way through, as if in competition, mounds of pickled pigs’ feet with onion, chile chilaca, and epazote; pink-rare tuna in tomato-jalapeño broth; miniature corn tortillas topped with red chile beans and cotija cheese… As we move from the bottom of the L-buffet to the table equivalent of the letter’s vertical pillar, we fill our plates further with chilaquiles en salsa verde, what the taco lady refers to as, the classic Mexican hangover breakfast—strips of fresh tortilla cooked in oil with tomato, onion, garlic, chiles and eggs. We heap the slow-roasted marrow-sticky blackness of barbacoa de borrego next to the chilaquiles—marinated pulled lamb shoulder packed with the vegetal density of its cooking accompaniments—carrot, celery, onion, poblano chile, garlic, tomato, cilantro—all enfolded into a banana leaf and cooked over low heat for ten hours.

Eating it, our lips bear a sheen that teeters on the verge of the sexually aroused and the sexually satisfied—right there in the middle, where all the good stuff is. I want to kiss marrow residue from my wife’s lips. Thank you, Mexico City! I stand, woozy, Louisa stares at me in disbelief.

“You can’t possibly be going back for more,” she says.

I respond in the only way I can, full to the point of stretch marks, intoxicated on chile spice and fruit vinegars, but determined to taste two more things, two more tacos: with a lisp.

“I can pothibly,” I muster, and make a beeline for the taco lady.

She must be about my mom’s age, but packed with a compact vitality. Everything about her is bright and small—her eyes like dimes, ears like dwarf Seckel pears, a nose I can swallow with nary a sip of water. She explains in a unicorn voice my options: lime-marinated chicken, carne asada… I choose this time one taco with chorizo and queso fresco, the other with flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower). As she prepares my tacos, a little cuerno pastry of a girl—she can’t be more than eight years old—approaches me from my blind side, taps me on the butt-cheek and sings, “I can speak a little English.”

My heart leaps. I look down and see her scalp first, her hair perfectly parted down the middle, held into place with yellow beaded tree-frog barrettes.

“I can speak a little Spanish,” I say, “Por ejemplo: pollo, carne asada, queso…”

She giggles, “You can only say food?”

I shrug and she asks where I am from.

“Los estados unidos,” I say, “La ciudad de Chicago.”

“I hear of Chicago,” she says, “It is very big?”

“No tan grande como aquí,” I say, indicating with my hands that Mexico City is bigger.

“Your Spanish is not very good,” she says, and takes her plate of tortillas and beans back to her table.

I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed, and I turn back to the taco lady, who smiles at me, lips like a silkworm. She holds her hands toward me, fingers balancing the two finished plates. I take them from her, our hands brushing, and in our touch, something sparks; something in me, as if emulating her, reaches for smallness—not heart or appetite, but resolve, my already diminutive ability for restraint. I am a little afraid I will not stop eating.

As the chorizo’s allspice and apple vinegar run into my mouth, the corn tortilla heavy with its orange grease, Louisa holds my hand as if I am on a gurney, having a piece of me excised, sans anesthesia, with a scalpel.

“Whew…” I say, and finish the pumpkin flower, the delicate flavors of soil and sweet summer plant coating my tongue, stirring some childhood memory—the first taste of zucchini perhaps, or the happy winning of the armrest chair. I swallow and see long-dead constellations.

“You are done,” Louisa commands, a leaf of cilantro plastered to her front tooth.

I smile. I decide not to tell her.

“Yes,” I say, sputtering into my chalice of carrot juice.

We lean back in our chairs, arms reclining like spent suntanned lovers, watching the restaurant become more and more festive by the moment. Toward the rear of the place, a massive wedding table hugs the orange wall, and twenty people pound their fists on its surface, rattling the clay bowls of caldo de res beef stew and menudo tripe soup in red chile brew, as the bride, in her white gown and veil whips her napkin like the blades of a linen helicopter over her head, lifting the dress train to expose the full mahogany of her gartered thighs.

Everyone said owning chickens is great but you’ve got to watch out for predators. I took this to heart because we share our wooded mountaintop home with hawks, raccoons, foxes and feral cats.

I bought a custom-made coop from a guy who builds them in Michigan. The little green, wooden house has screened windows, a door with a hasp, and a hatch that lifts open to the nesting box where you collect eggs. The run, which is attached to the house, is made up of two wood-framed galvanized wire triangles that form an airtight enclosure.

Reading up on chicken predation, I learned that a raccoon can use its tiny hands to open a hasp. For peace of mind, we installed a simple gym lock on the door of the run. It looked a little odd, but, hey, I’m originally a city girl who’s accustomed to living with three bolt-locks on a door.

We brought six hens home on a beautiful Saturday in June. Like a new mother who constantly checks to make sure her baby is breathing, I took to counting six pecking hens every time I came in and out of the house. Two Rhode Island reds. Two black sexlinks. Two barred rocks.

On day five, I returned home from an errand early in the afternoon. I walked past the coop. One, two, three, four, five, six — all there.

Three hours later, I went outside and looked into the run. One, two, three, four, five. I looked inside the coop and then in the nesting box for the sixth bird. But there were only five. It appeared that one had literally flown the coop.

But this seemed impossible. A hen would need to be a super-avian superhero to lift the door of the run. There’s no other exit.

Running around like a chicken with its head . . . no wait . . . like a mother who has lost her kid at the mall, I tried to think who would steal a chicken. A prankster? An angry neighbor? A poultry thief? And in broad daylight?

So I did what any concerned mom would do: I called the police.

“I’m reporting a stolen chicken,” I said. They had a good laugh. An officer arrived 30 minutes later.

I could swear the cop was trying to suppress laughter when he asked, “Are you sure you’re missing a chicken?” Then, gesturing with his flashlight, he asked me to open the egg-box hatch so he could look up in the rafters of the coop. Five birds.

“Are you sure one of the birds didn’t escape on its own, ma’am?” he asked. “Quite sure,” I said.

Here’s the thing about reporting a missing chicken. A police officer doesn’t understand that losing a chicken feels the same as losing a cat or dog. A police officer wants to know how much you paid for the chicken, so he can qualify the crime as petty larceny.

Even though the hen only cost $20, which is expensive for a chicken, the cost was immaterial. I was devastated; I had horrible visions of what might have become of her.

The officer filed a report but told me there was nothing more he could do. “It’s not like I’m going to put a detective on the case,” he said.

The next day, I called ADT, the home security company, to evaluate security options on my property. My husband added a couple of locks, turning the coop into Fort Knox. Every time I went outside to throw the hens some feed, I felt terrible. “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I’ll do a better job protecting you from now on.”

At 4:45 p.m., the phone rang.

“Ma’am, this is officer so-and-so from the police department,” he said. “Someone down the road has reported a chicken on the loose.”

I got the address and called my husband, who’d just backed out the driveway. He whipped his car around and I jumped in.

Four doors down, in front of a multi-unit apartment building, stood a bemused woman looking down at my Rhode Island red on the grass. My husband grabbed the bird by the feet and cradled her. While stroking her feathers, I broke into sobs of joy. The woman who’d found my chicken hugged me.

We took the hen back to the coop. I’ll never know how that bird got out, but I suspect there was human intervention. It took a kind neighbor and some decent police work to get it back.

Now if I’d only gotten the woman’s name and address. I sure would like to bring her a basket of eggs.

E-mail: [email protected]

When I bought my house five years ago, there was a little green shed with the whimsical inscription “Fresh Eggs Sold Here.” It was not entirely a gratuitous flourish because the former owner kept a flock of free-range hens. These birds, like roving cats, were known by everyone along the road.

At the end of Via Crosia, at least a kilometer past the Macelleria, but before the vineyards, the street’s rose cobblestone is cracked with anthills. Surely these bugs are, right now even, communing under the town, perhaps under a single block, waiting to bore holes through the bathtubs of Barolo, Italy.  In one of these homes (we can only hope), someone will be washing for work—an Elena or Francesco, Valentina or Beppe—dreading the sight of silver tray, meat case, trade show badge, and tractor. By the time the ants reach the white-green tile, this person, whoever they are, will recall their breakfast if only with their throat: the buckwheat flour, egg, and water gelling inside them to spawn something entirely new.

At least a kilometer away—maybe even more—the temperature drops one degree over the grapevines and the wind brushes them into hair. The last of the colony, having just dined on a white truffle crumb, folds full and thorax-first into the anthill. Signaled from the front of the line, the last ant knows that at least a kilometer away, someone is afraid to bathe, can’t afford to fix the hole in their tile. This person, whoever they are, can not wash away breakfast’s hold, lest the ants, with the water, rise from the drain like palm fronds, slow in destroying the foundation, but surely building something—the spindle-laddered metaphysica of the flightless insect, perhaps. Yes: they rise, craving the mask of spiders, a banana tree sprouting in fast forward to bite cacti-like at the soft dough ends of Italian toes.

Breakfast will reassert itself with the fundamentals. Everything must evolve: the eggs, the hens that laid them, the naked stomach snapping back on its food, and fear. That too.