Eclectic Wednesdays on PBS: docs on breakfast and Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard

If it's Wednesday night (or any other night, really), you know what's on network TV. But PBS - that's another story. On one Wednesday, there might be an hour about great places to eat breakfast; the next week, you could enjoy an excellent 90-minute documentary about country singer Merle Haggard.

That, in fact, is what PBS and WFYI will offer the next two Wednesdays. Both deserve your time.

Breakfast Special takes us around the country to eight restaurants where people line up for special breakfasts. That means places like the Maple Tree Inn in Angelica, N.Y., which is only open from mid-February to mid-April. Their specialty: buckwheat pancakes topped with maple syrup from trees they tap themselves. Or ethnic places like Hing Lung in San Francisco's Chinatown, where patrons love the congee - a creamy rice porridge mixed with a variety of ingredients, including shredded pork or sliced fish. Or trendy places like the Tin Shed in Portland, Ore., where one diner raves about the coconut milk jasmine rice porridge with cinnamon and mango - and many customers appreciate that they're allowed to bring their dog.

The closest we get to home is Ohio - a place called Skillet in Columbus ("comfort food with an edge"), and nearby in Westerville, where you'll find The Best Breakfast & Sandwiches. Skillet serves up exotic fare like sweet potato duck hash and breakfast risotto with honey crisp apple brulee; The Best Breakfast boasts about basting their potatoes in bacon grease before baking.

The food at every location looks delicious, but the real joy of these visits is seeing unique cuisine. In a world of chains, it's great to know there are still places that reflect their cities and their cultures. Just be warned: You will want breakfast afterward.

Next week, you'll want country music. The American Masters documentary, titled Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself, takes us on a painful but ultimately satisfying trip through the life of one of our greatest country musicians.

For more than 50 years, in songs like "Mama Tried," "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and the spectacular "Pretty When It's New" from his new CD, Haggard has been sharing his life, his loves and his personal miseries. Along the way he's influenced the likes of Keith Richards, John Fogerty, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. In fact, every alt-country act owes him thanks for forging their sound.

He's still a terrific singer, with a honeyed voice (think a slightly gruffer James Taylor) and a way with words. It's those lyrics - those genuine feelings - that have made him a legend.

They tell the story of a man whose beloved father died when he was 9, leaving behind an angry boy - a "rotten kid," to use Haggard's own description.

Haggard went on to lead the life of a country song. He rode trains, got arrested for car theft and ended up in San Quentin at age 19. There, he saw Johnny Cash perform, and that concert, along with getting thrown in the hole for making and selling homemade beer, turned him around.

He turned this personal pain into a career that's still going strong at age 73.

In the film, Tanya Tucker says Haggard finds it difficult to feel anything but pain, and Haggard himself says, "I'm probably as emotionally disturbed as anyone."

At least now he knows how to channel it. And filmmaker Gandulf Hennig captures it beautifully.

Breakfast Special

8 p.m. Wednesday, July 14

WFYI (Channel 20)

American Masters: Merle Haggard

9 p.m. July 21

WFYI (Channel 20)