Why Do We Eat What We Eat for Breakfast?
This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Breakfast in America: What It Is and What It Means for more.
Think for a moment about bacon and eggs.
These are two relatively simple, fundamental foods, both of which serve countless purposes as ingredients in every aspect of Western cuisine from sandwiches to hors d’oeuvres to entrées to desserts.
And yet the phrase immediately conjures a certain time of day and a certain type of meal — just as might sausage and biscuits, cereal and milk (or muesli and yogurt), doughnuts and coffee, or pancakes and syrup. While few modern eaters would seriously hesitate to enjoy these foods at any time of day — witness the sustained success of the 24-hour Waffle House, for instance, or the amusement derived from “breakfast for dinner” — most Americans also wouldn’t hesitate to call them what they quintessentially believe them to be: breakfast foods.
But why are these foods associated so strongly with breakfast in the first place? Why does the act of eating perfectly normal foods, with a relatively middle-of-the-road nutritional profile — scrambling three eggs on the stove at 7 p.m., perhaps, or boldly ordering the Breakfast Sampler at IHOP after a late night out — carry with it a modest thrill of transgression if done at the wrong time of day?
As it turns out, many of the associations described above, which we tend to think of as essential, are relatively new. Some of these new traditions have been quietly shaped by practical technology — from the invention of the blender to innovations in frozen food — while others have been influenced by elaborate public relations campaigns. And many aspects of the modern breakfast took shape in response to our shifting views on the meal’s role — breakfast has been variously (and sometimes simultaneously) viewed as a culinary afterthought, as an indulgent and sinful trifle, as a moral necessity, and as a functional part of industrial routine — and to our still-incomplete understanding of nutrition and of how the eating of breakfast affects the human body.
A glorified snack
The history of breakfast in the Western world is a bit hard to piece together, as poets and chroniclers have always tended to focus on the more dramatic meals of the afternoon and evening. (Grendel wouldn’t have had the cover of darkness or the Geats’ drunken slumber to massacre his victims had Hrothgar hosted a great breakfast for his warriors, after all.) And very rarely would much be written about the breakfast habits of the common folk; whatever served as the workingman’s quotidian breakfast must have seemed as inconsequential as, say, an Egg McMuffin might seem today.
This may partly be because breakfast was simply not a big deal for much of Western history, with the largest meal taking place in the evening. Most breakfasts in ancient Greece and Rome seem to have consisted of cold bread, along with perhaps some olive oil or wine, figs, and olives. Ancient people did enjoy one familiar staple, however: pancakes. Some version of this venerable dish — at its heart, simply a grain batter cooked on a hot surface — appears in the cuisines of cultures worldwide, and it is likely that some iteration of griddle breads appeared as soon as prehistoric societies mastered grinding grain into flour. Like modern Americans, the ancient Greeks seem to have enjoyed flapjacks at breakfast.
For the next millennium or so, most Europeans largely ignored breakfast — or, in some cases, specifically eschewed it. The theologian Thomas Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, considered eating too early an act of gluttony, and religious notions helped to give the English language its ambivalent term for the day’s first meal; the Old English morgenmete simply meant “morning meal,” and when the word breakfast took hold in the 1400s, the fast was taken more seriously than it is by diners today, for whom having not eaten for several hours is simply an accidental consequence of having slept. The idea that skipping or delaying breakfast was an act of asceticism, though, indicates that even the devout perceived breakfast’s nutritional potential, and breakfast was not uncommon among those preparing for a hard day’s work — like travelers and laborers — or those whose health was vulnerable — like the young, the old, or the infirm.
Historian Ian Mortimer argued in a 2013 piece in BBC History Magazine that England’s famously hearty breakfast really started to take shape during the Tudor dynasty in the sixteenth century — largely due to economics and the increasing prevalence of wage employment. As more and more people came to spend long days working for someone else and supper moved later in the evening, what we now think of as lunch moved from late morning to early afternoon — and breakfast, for the first time, really came to be thought of as a proper meal.
Even still, in Colonial America and even into the nineteenth century, breakfast was nearly an afterthought. In her book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, Abigail Carroll describes typical breakfasts of the time as “glorified snacks,” their role (along with that of supper) simply “to bridge the gap between dinner one day and dinner the next.” What we ate for breakfast at the time, most days, was cold leftovers.
Inexpensive and easy to prepare
Both the relationship to work described by Mortimer and the ready use of leftovers by Colonial Americans fulfilled a persistent requirement of breakfast foods: practicality. As Andrew Dalby points out in The Breakfast Book, one key feature of breakfast foods, whether leftover or not, is that they be “quick and easy to assemble.” Especially for modern diners, tied to the electric rhythms of our alarm clocks, stoplights, and commuter trains, morning isn’t thought of as a time to enjoy oneself so much as a time to check off a series of necessary steps at appointed times in preparation for the day. One reason breakfast usually doesn’t capture the imaginations of poets and chroniclers is its relationship to routine and efficiency.
Routine enables breakfast food to fill its useful role, while perhaps explaining its lack of prominence in the imagination. Even within this special report, The Daily Meal’s Alyssa Haak asks successful chefs — culinary professionals whose lives are devoted to the exploration of flavor — what they eat for breakfast, and each answers in a single paragraph. Now imagine asking a chef to describe what she eats for dinner.
Having a standard breakfast also points toward another practical priority: efficiency. Many breakfast foods — from the ancients’ cold bread and leftover meat to the Pop-Tart and the frozen bagel — owe at least part of their popularity to the lack of time consumed by their preparation. The day-to-day breakfast tends to be simply handled as a task and then forgotten. Pancakes, fried eggs, and even relatively rich and decadent bacon are among the quickest hot dishes that can be made on a stovetop.
Further befitting the lack of prominence, breakfast foods have also tended to be economically practical — not just in the West but around the word. Alongside pancakes and bread, a simple porridge made from a staple starch is perhaps the most common breakfast food across cultures, from rice-based dishes like congee in much of East Asia to cassava- or maize-based porridges in parts of Africa and buckwheat kasha in Eastern Europe. Even in their characteristically American variety, inexpensive and easy to prepare breakfast standbys like oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, and cornmeal grits fit squarely into this tradition — as do, in a way, breakfast cereals, from corn flakes to Count Chocula.
The most important meal of the day
While derived in part from these older folkways, breakfast cereal also owes much of its popularity to a more modern focus in our breakfast choices: an obsession with nutrition. Breakfast is often cited as the most important meal of the day — whether this assertion is accurate or not, as our Holly Van Hare considers in this piece — and the use of the word important is significant. (Try replacing it with satisfying, social, exciting, or creative and saying the phrase out loud.)
No, breakfast is specifically important — and this idea truly took hold in the unique moral, technological, and scientific milieu of late-nineteenth-century America. The first cold breakfast cereals were crafted by men who considered nutrition and morality to be fundamentally intertwined. John Harvey Kellogg, whose name graces cereal boxes to this day (albeit through his brother William, but more on that below), was a devoutly religious physician who — as director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a sort of ascetic health retreat for the late 1800s run by the Seventh-day Adventist church — popularized cold cereal as a way to specifically avoid passion by virtue of its fundamental blandness. For Kellogg and many of his peers, good nutrition could lead to chaste and moral behavior, and breakfast, that least thought-of of meals, must have seemed the ideal place to win the first battles toward a more godly society.
While Kellogg may not have succeeded in making Americans more moral, he did succeed in centering the discussion about breakfast around nutrition. Kellogg might seem a quack (or much worse, as catalogued by Therese Oneill in this Jezebel piece) to the modern reader, but he was an earnest and serious physician, some of whose ideas — the importance of intestinal flora, for instance — have come back into vogue today. Subsequent health crusaders, surfing the waves of the still-inexact science of nutrition, have similarly made breakfast a bitter battleground — consider the shame any self-respecting late-‘80s yuppie must have felt enjoying a breakfast of bacon and eggs — to much the same effect: We don’t know whom to trust regarding the components of a nutritious breakfast, but we know we’re supposed to eat one.
The ‘full American’
Unlike many health gurus, Kellogg wasn’t running a scam. He and his peers were early in responding to a quintessentially American problem, one that continues to reverberate in today’s obesity epidemic: overabundance.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the stereotypical American breakfast had quietly burgeoned from the colonial leftovers to the monumental farm breakfast, and even beyond what we might expect of a truly decadent morning meal today. A visitor in the 1820s from England— itself home to a fairly grand breakfast tradition in the form of the “full English” — was agog at the spread presented to him in a tavern in Philadelphia. “Besides tea, coffee, eggs, cold ham, beef, and such like ordinary accompaniments,” Carroll quotes Englishman William Blane in Three Squares, “we always had hot fish, sausages, beefsteaks, broiled fowls, fried and stewed oysters, preserved fruits” — to which he tacked on three instances of “&c.” to accentuate the overwhelming plenty.
What the American breakfast lacked in subtlety — Charles Dickens described his Boston breakfast in 1842 as “deformed beefsteak … swimming in butter” — it made up for in sheer gluttony, based on the productivity of American farms, excellent transportation, and a host of other factors that conspired to provide the average American with an overabundance of food. The crusades of Kellogg and his successors make more sense in light of what they realized they were up against — torrents of sausage gravy, towering ziggurats of steaming flapjacks, rivers of syrup, mountains of sugar, and a veritable avalanche of bacon.
The sweet spot
Leave it to marketing, then, to give the appearance of resolution to the struggle between abundance and temperance at the breakfast table. As with many other aspects of life in industrial America, to make breakfast eaters into consumers, corporations found it easiest to convince everyone that they could have their pancake and eat it, too.
Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon involves Edward Bernays, often hailed as the “father of public relations.” Already a successful innovator in the field, Bernays was hired in the 1920s by the Beech-Nut Packing Company, one of whose primary products was bacon, which had fallen out of favor as an increasingly urban populace turned away from the farm breakfast for reasons of both health and convenience. Bernays’ PR coup seems almost quaint by today’s cynical standards: He simply got 4,500 doctors to sign off on the idea that a heavy breakfast, which should of course include bacon, was the soundest way for Americans to start the day, and made sure that the news was reported. Bacon sales soared.
Even Kellogg’s chaste cold cereals somehow became the Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes of today. While Kellogg himself remained committed to proselytizing and willingly shared his recipes, his brother, Will Kellogg, and a former patient, C.W. Post, both saw the commercial potential. The companies these two founded became increasingly divorced from John Kellogg’s ideas of nutrition but seldom hesitated to trade on them. Breakfast cereal brands cleverly used marketing to stay in the (literally) sweet spot: As long as they could maintain parents’ faith in their healthfulness — fortified with a full daily allowance of vitamins and minerals — they could do whatever was necessary — bury a toy in the box, say, or absolutely drench the flakes in sugar and artificial colorings — to maintain kids’ faith in their deliciousness.
Marketing plays a tremendous role in what Americans eat today at every meal, but breakfast branding stands out in its persistent reassurance to consumers they’re doing the right thing. Far fewer people would be willing to sacrifice their evening meal to something called Nutri-Grain or Slim-Fast, and “Dinner of Champions” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The industrial era did more than bewitch Americans with advertising, however. The waffle iron, coffee maker, and blender wildly changed breakfast, as did other simple appliances — notably the freezer, which helped make waffles, bagels, and especially orange juice nationwide staples.
Technological innovation and mass production have opened up a bewildering array of breakfast options by making nearly every breakfast food practical. It’s possible to make a slice of toast without a toaster or pre-sliced bread, of course — but can you make it with less than five seconds’ worth of effort? Now imagine making yourself a plate of Hot Pockets Breakfast Bites — and then imagine the process involved if you’d wanted the same dish in, say, 1830.
The drive for convenience would seem almost pathological — pancakes, noted above as the simplest dish that can be prepared using flour, now come in a boxed mix — if the grab-and-go impulse didn’t resonate with how we’ve treated breakfast all along.
The only way to make breakfast even easier to prepare is to have someone else prepare it for you, and in the twentieth century, America’s diners and fast-food joints eagerly adapted traditional breakfast elements into fast, hearty plates and easily packaged to-go meals for a populace that, increasingly, breakfasted alone en route to the job. The elements in an Egg McMuffin — egg, ham, cheese, and an English muffin — are simple staples, but the McMuffin as a complete, mass-produced package is a multibillion-dollar innovation.
On the other end of the spectrum, dining out has become the most typical way to reach the heights of gluttony expressed by the farm breakfast, which would now much more commonly be eaten as a Denny’s Grand Slam than at Grandma’s table. At the highest end, brunch has emerged as the ultimate leisure meal, a conspicuous signifier that the eater is either enjoying the weekend, on vacation, or divorced from the need to work entirely. Nothing screams indulgence like enjoying those same McMuffin elements in the form of a $20 Benedict three full hours after all those other schmoes fumbled to pass a handful of quarters through the drive-thru window at McDonald’s.
In a country more reluctant to cook for itself than ever — evidenced by millennials’ famous insistence that preparing breakfast cereal is too much work — the restaurant industry in recent years has increasingly tapped breakfast as a source of revenue, and Americans have literally eaten it up.
If you’ve read this far, it’s possible that you’ve given breakfast more thought in the last five minutes than ever before in your life. For most, the frantic scramble of the average morning precludes contemplating much more than the drive-thru menu at Hardee’s or the de rigueur USDA Food Pyramid guide next to the brain teasers on the cereal box.
Like the drive-thru and the cardboard box, most of our breakfast “traditions” are relatively new products of the modern world. (The outdated Food Pyramid has now been replaced with USDA’s MyPlate, by the way. You haven’t eaten cereal in a while, eh?) Perhaps the haze of the morning makes breakfast the meal most susceptible to the influence of trends — uh, sure, I will have an açaí bowl, please, I think? — even if it is simultaneously the least susceptible — I do not know what you just said, and I would just like bacon and eggs — depending on the morning, of course.
Breakfast’s mutability seems as likely as not to continue into the future, and it’s hard to predict what will make the list of “traditional” staples two decades from now. Young people are abandoning breakfast cereal in droves, for instance, and coffee has graduated from functional necessity to gaudy confection.
But it seems likely that the primary reasons we eat what we eat for breakfast — convenience, economy, and nutrition — will continue to do battle with our tendency to overindulge. And two decades from now, as you button your shirt to rush out the door, you may wish you had given yourself time to prepare a hearty, old-fashioned, nutritious breakfast…
Maybe something like avocado and toast.