(Note: I must apologize for the delay in this post. I have been infested with grouchiness lately. I also fell into an imbalance of my medications, which left me woozy and short of breath for several days. On top of these pleasantries, people have been exploiting my good will! One of them has even sat and watched me eat my lunch, which is a gross violation of human rights! It is difficult to write in an angry state of mind; one tends to write to those who have angered him. But I will try to avoid this pitfall today.)
Lately the news media has rolled out all sorts of stories about how skipping breakfast can lead to heart attacks and diabetes. They all seem to stem from a recent study, published in the July 23 edition of Circulation magazine, which shows a correlation between men who skip breakfast and coronary heart disease.
This is very typical. Some medical study is published and it captures the collective imagination of the news media, then the blabbering faces on television prattle about it for weeks and news outlets publish their own takes on the study. The news somberly proclaims on one day that caffeine will kill you, and then two weeks later they smugly assert that caffeine cures cancer and shingles. In fact a Google news search currently shows two sets of opposing headlines on the subject: “Research: Skipping breakfast could lead to heart attack” and “Skipping breakfast may be healthy way to shed weight”. These health studies garner ratings, and I suspect that they also provide a private little joke to the news makers.
While I don’t care about the health studies, they do bring up a question that I have pondered for some time: Why does breakfast differ so greatly when compared to lunch and dinner?
Breakfast is like a remnant of a conquering foreign power that our country long ago drove from our shores, but the invader left behind this strange, greasy, and eggy meal as a testament to their heavy dominance during those perilous times. The foreign power in this case was merry ol’ Great Britain.
In the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Canada), breakfast takes four major forms. All four types of breakfasts are often accompanied with coffee or juice (or sometimes tea in Canada).
- The first and most stereotypical is the breakfast of eggs with sausage or bacon and with pancakes, biscuits, or toast and frequently served with maple syrup. Most people think of this sort of fare when they think of breakfast foods.
- Second are the breakfast cereals, prepared either hot (including oatmeal or grits) or cold (pre-packaged cereals made from processed grains). This is probably the most widely eaten form of breakfast in English-speaking North America. A kaleidoscopic variety of breakfast cereals stretches for a statute mile from one end of a supermarket aisle to its distant, hazy, foreshortened terminus at the grocery store horizon, countless varieties to satisfy every dry cereal fantasy!
- Third is the pastry/muffin/doughnut-type breakfast. These usually make for a very quick morning meal and are the choice of people on the rush.
- Finally there is the no-breakfast option for those people really in a hurry. Sometimes this variety is served with a cigarette on the side—or, more rarely, a shot of whiskey—but the whiskey/tobacco breakfast has lost favor with the cool kids these days. For the purpose of today’s discussion I won’t include the no-breakfast option.
None of these types of breakfast bears close resemblance, as a whole, to the two other meals. Lunch and dinner include an enormous variety of foods that have evolved from an ever-growing pantheon of ethnic backgrounds. Compared to one another, they only differ in quantity. Lunch is often a scaled-down, sometimes more portable form of dinner, sometimes sandwiched between bread, but otherwise much the same as its evening counterpart.
I’m not a large fan of breakfast. Or mornings. Every day I awaken earlier than I want to, often with the infernal sun blazing into my face from the bedroom window. Every night I lower the blinds on that window, but my dear Millie raises them when she so cheerfully wakes up at 4 AM. Sometimes I still occasionally grumble and protest to her about this inconsiderate rudeness, but my complaints do not move her. With the awful sun cooking my brains, I squint and marvel that I’m still alive for another day, then I slowly drag myself out of bed to a soundtrack of unharmonious creaks and pops from stiff joints and tendons over ever-aching bones. Eventually I creak my way to the kitchen, where Millie has kindly placed a bowl, a spoon, and my box of Grape-Nuts cereal before my seat at the kitchen table. By this time, Millie has long ago finished whatever mysterious breakfast that she eats, and she discreetly keeps herself away from me until almost lunch time (only an hour or two after my breakfast). I am very grouchy in the morning, and don’t enjoy the company of others at this time. Never have. Cheery morning people, especially whistlers, should be exiled to Siberia. Or maybe even shot.
The fast food industry is embroiled in a very competitive war for breakfast customers. One by one they have opened early and served some greasy fare with coffee, even Taco Bell. According to research from the NPD Group, “servings of specialty coffee and breakfast sandwiches grew twice as fast as the [fast food] industry” from 2005 to 2010. The study continues: “Currently only one out of ten breakfast opportunities is satisfied by foodservice, and there are more breakfasts skipped than served in restaurants, all of which means that breakfast is a significant growth opportunity for the foodservice industry.”
Once a store locks into a customer’s morning routine, the customer might visit that store every day for years and years, till he dies! Lunch and dinner customers aren’t nearly so loyal or reliable as people robotically locked in their automatic morning programs.
So where did this breakfast food come from?
The greasy-eggy variety came from England. Often we call it a full English breakfast. By the late 1700’s, the English working and middle classes were eating a scaled-down version of what became the famed full English breakfast of the Victorian Era. Their meal typically included sausage, bacon, eggs, bread, and potatoes. Of course, the upper classes would add to this meal fried tomatoes and mushrooms, black pudding, a variety of breads and rolls, jellies, marmalades, and “pyramids of fruit” to complete the full breakfast.
This food, in turn, evolved from the meals of Middle-Ages England. I suspect that at some time in Medieval England the sausage, ham, bread, and eggs of breakfast would have more closely resembled the other two meals, but this is just a guess.
The pastry-muffin-doughnut form of breakfast has a more varied evolution. While the English developed the leavened and un-molded English muffin, the Dutch colonists of New York (nee New Amsterdam) introduced their cookies, apple pies, and cobblers, and their oliekoeken “oil cakes”. By 1808, Americans in the North were eating fried dough that they called doughnuts, but they did not have the hole in the middle until 1847. Hanson Gregory hated the rawness in the center of his greasy fried confectionery, and he angrily punched a hole in the middle of his dough to create the world’s first modern doughnut. By the end of the 19th century, the doughnut had largely assumed its modern form.
American Muffins, presumably, arose out of this variety of traditions. In the 18th century, Americans discovered how to refine potash into pearlash (whatever those are), which produces carbon dioxide gas in dough similar to baking powder. With this pearlash they made quick breads. By the early 1800’s, cupcake molds had been invented, and these semi-sweet quick bread muffins quickly developed.
Of course nowadays the breakfast pastry can be found in manufactured form as the Pop-Tart (or the dreadful Toast ’em). The Pop-Tart and its imitators came about in the 1960’s and owe their existence to the electric toaster. These junk-food slabs hardly resemble pastries at all anymore, having evolved into such an extreme form of pre-packaged convenience.
Breakfast cereals are a strange phenomenon. Hot breakfasts have existed in Europe for centuries in the form of various porridges. And in the US, Southerners adopted the hot grits of the American Indians. But modern cereals such as oatmeal and corn flakes seem to owe their popularity to 19th century religious social engineers who ran sanitariums. They believed that eating meat in the morning contributed to a variety of unhealthy and immoral behaviors among the general population. One of these zealots was John Harvey Kellogg from Battle Creek, Michigan, nowadays known as “Cereal City”. Few sane people liked Kellogg’s soggy, tasteless grain-based cereals until one day there was an explosion at his Seventh-Day Adventist cereal factory. Among the smoking debris and melted wreckage were a myriad of light and crispy flakes of corn. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was born, and the modern cold cereal conquered the breakfast diets of hundreds of millions.
Cold cereal has evolved into a variety of mass-produced forms. From healthy bran and fiber-filled flakes and nuggets of wood pulp and hay (such as Grape Nuts), to sugar-coated puffed sugar-balls surrounded by a colorful menagerie of marshmallow treats, cereals might be the most popular form of breakfast in North America.
If someone wanted to create the equivalent of dog food for humans, then the product would likely resemble cold cereal. Breakfast cereal has most of the nutrients that a human needs; it’s mass-produced at a low price; uniform in shape and size; and humans like the taste. Of course we would have to have a different type for breakfast than for the other two meals.
What is the deal with children’s cereal commercials? Since the 1970’s, various cartoon characters have either tried to steal cereal or fiendishly protect it from theft by children; they’re like junkies. When they finally eat their cereal, their eyes pop out with euphoria and frenetic energy while they bounce within colorful psychedelic visions, sometimes appearing in groovy worlds of floating cereal, milk, and marshmallow tracers.
And the boxes of cereal are crazy, too, with the cereal depicted on the front of the box no longer content to rest passively in the bowl like good, civilized cereal. No! Now the cereal and milk are exploding out of the bowl like a horde of Mongols. The names all scream and twitch at passers-by. Kinetic energy gushes from every corner of those boxes. No wonder so many kids have ADHD.
But anyway, back to the main question: why is breakfast so different?
Maybe we should ask why lunch and dinner are so different. These two meals have evolved steadily and constantly since colonial times. Each wave of immigration or advance in technology has brought new varieties of food into everyday meals. When I was a kid, no one in my part of the United States ever ate pizza or Mexican food. Chinese foods were still a novelty. Now these foods are everyday staples for millions.
Breakfast is a far more conservative meal, with the English breakfast hardly changing at all since colonial times, and the doughnut/pastry only changing very little. An attempt by 19th century religious movements to impose breakfast cereals on everyone was the last great innovation in breakfast to take hold within the culture. Breakfast is the stalled out battle between these two, almost-forgotten morning-time forces, with the less popular doughnut stuck somewhere in the middle.
Why has breakfast remained so slow to change?
People in the morning cherish their routines. Most people do the same exact thing every morning when they wake up, and this includes their breakfast. They may welcome convenience with their breakfast foods, but they still prefer the same breakfast style. I myself am so wedded to my joyless morning routine that I’ve been eating Grape-Nuts for almost seventy years, and I don’t even like them very much anymore.
So what should we do about breakfast?
Well, I’ll tell you one thing! I am done letting people watch me eat, that’s for sure! That creepy, gluttonous swine who inhales his own food and then gets his kicks by imagining himself in the place of those others who are eating their food around him, oblivious to his voyeurism, he will no longer eat in my company, never again—not for lunch, dinner, or breakfast!
 Cahill, Leah E. “Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals.” Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals. American Heart Association, Inc., 23 July 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2013. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/128/4/337.abstract
 I very recently, just a month ago in fact, belatedly discovered that Post had changed the Grape Nuts formula. About two years ago, Post added soy protein to make their product even better(!), a fact that escaped my not-always-diligent attention (but not my wife’s). When I mentioned my horror at the change, Millie confessed that she’d noticed the alteration when it first happened but didn’t want to upset me by pointing it out. Even though I had not tasted any difference, I asked Millie to change my cereal for the first time in my entire life to the Walmart store brand, Crunchy Nuggets, which do not have the soy additive. Somehow Crunchy Nuggets didn’t seem to taste as nutty as my Grape-Nuts. Was it all in my head? I don’t know, but I went back to the altered Grape-Nuts with their wretched soy protein that I now think I can taste and which I almost daily grumble about in the morning. I suppose I am like an old basset hound bellyaching about his dry dog food while steadily crunching away. “Whoa is me; my dog food is so dry and hard and it doesn’t taste the same as it did just yesterday. But what can I do about it? There is nothing else to eat around here in the morning anyway.” But this nonsense of companies changing their age-old formulas exasperates me to no end!
 NPD Group. “Breakfast Accounts for Nearly 60% of U.S. Restaurant Industry Traffic Growth Over the Past Five Years, and Continues to Be Bright Spot.” NPD. The NPD Group, Inc., 21 June 2010. Web. 11 Aug. 2013. https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/pr_100621/
 The English Breakfast Society. “History of the Traditional (full) English Breakfast.” The English Breakfast Society. The English Breakfast Society, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2013. http://www.englishbreakfastsociety.com/english-breakfast/history_of_the_traditonal_full_english_breakfast/
 Ehler, James T. “Muffins: A History.” Muffins, Origin and History. James T. Ehler and http://Www.FoodReference.com, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2013. http://www.foodreference.com/html/artmuffinhistory.html