One of the greatest memories I hold dear of my Dad since his death is his love of grape jelly on breakfast sandwiches. My Dad loved breakfast—my Mom tells me that when he first immigrated to this country from Lagos, Nigeria, in his late 20s he became enamored with that first, very American meal of the day.
Stacks of fluffy buttermilk pancakes steaming with pillows of butter delicately melting, rounds of gristley sausage patties or links shiny from the grease it crackled and popped. And scrambled eggs. The good kind—the fluffy ones that my Dad always broke up bits of American cheese to make extra creamy.
My Dad made making breakfast his ritual to start the day. Get up, fix a cup of coffee—lots of cream and lots of sugar—start breakfast to fuel the workday ahead. In the last few years of his life, as his health deteriorated he was no longer able to muster the energy to wrap this ritual around each of his days as the sun rose, the cicadas roaring in delight at another day.
But, he still tried to carry this forward in little ways that were within the realm of his capacity. During the holidays, when my three sisters and I were all together, he’d rise in the mornings and go to the nearby McDonald’s. His gift, his portion, was a bag full of sausage, egg and cheese McMuffins in that crinkly yellow paper that made me smitten with glee. One thing that could always be found rummaging at the bottom of the grease-soiled bag were packets of jelly—both grape and strawberry.
I’ve never questioned this layering of flavors on a breakfast sandwich. If I’m getting a sausage biscuit, of course I’m asking for grape jelly. For something with bacon or chicken, for sure strawberry because the strawberry melds better with pork and chicken in my opinion. I always thought that the way we did it, us being Southerners, was just the way it was done. A divine order of the Universe if you will.
But tweeting about this a few years ago brought home that perhaps this was a Southern thing. People thought it was weird—why in the hell would one ruin a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sammich with a smattering of jelly? Why not stick with ketchup or hot sauce to round it off? And who came up with that strange combination?
The latter is a question I’ve remained curious about all these years, even for something that has been instinctual and second nature. I think about other very Southern combinations that rose from something random into what is merely practical and makes sense, perfectly cemented in our Southern food lexicon. Like slaw dogs or coleslaw atop barbecue sandwiches. Years ago when I researched and talked to people about that strange yet familiar combination I was told it arose for a variety of reasons—the Great Depression, the ease and affordability of a head of cabbage to make slaw from, something with a slight crunch that just works.
Funnily enough, I’m not the only one thinking about food combinations, ones that seem odd, that have their origins in the South as far as jelly is concerned.
Richard Gorelick from the Baltimore Sun writes about this in a short pithy piece, noting that in Baltimore, many restaurants squirt a little dab of grape jelly on breakfast sandwiches even if it isn’t asked or requested. In 2019, rapper Wale found himself in the middle of a deluge of strong food opinions when he hemmed and hawed about jelly belonging on a turkey bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. A little further north, Youtuber JL Jupiter makes a visit to Camden Seafood in New Jersey to take a literal bite out of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich that has jelly on it. The subhead of the video itself questions who created this—and whether D.C., New York or Philly are responsible.
For jelly on breakfast sandwiches, I think the answer lies in a mix of creativity, invention, a little necessity. For eons, Southern aunties and mamas have tried to impress guests with their rendition of hot pepper jelly pooled over a block of cream cheese, served with crackers. Breakfast sandwiches are like this but an expansion—taking the artistry of making perfectly fluffy and flaky buttermilk biscuits, adding your meat of choice, eggs and jelly as a finishing touch. It marries the sweet and savory and gives you a burst of many things in each bite. And because we know the Great Migration continues to play a hand in national foodways, it explains why some folk who are not in the South—such as the folk in Detroit and Chicago—share a love of this combination, too.
But overall, it comes down to sweetness. A love of sweet things and adding sweetness into whatever we can as much as possible. To not only sweeten the taste but to sweeten the experience of whatever is being called forth, whatever is being presented to family, friends or other loved ones as a labor of one’s heart and soul. Think of all the desserts that are Southern in origin that you love: coconut cake, banana pudding, peach cobbler. We do like it sweet in the South you know—our sweet tea is a thing of legend and beautifully sweet for surviving those dog days of sultry summer.
The demonization of sweet things is interesting, considering that the labor of enslaved Africans was used to farm cane sugar fields. In the most grueling of circumstances, in unrelenting heat with no food, water or breaks for hours-long stretches, Black bodies farmed and harvested cane sugar that was then industrialized, sent to factories for processing, and eventually ended up on shelves in your local grocer. Today, Black and brown folk are still used for this labor. Deeming it unhealthy or uncivilized for us to enjoy things that are sweeter is the greatest of ironies.
In my humble opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a touch of sweetness, a touch of sugar, to make something feel right or comforting. Thankfully, I have my Dad and his memory to forever remind me of this.
About Nneka M. Okona
Nneka M. Okona is an author and journalist from Atlanta, by way of Stone Mountain. Her work centers on food, travel, spirits, history, the American South and grief—with special emphasis on Black stories as it relates to these topics. You can read her work in The Washington Post, Food & Wine, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler and more.