For much of my adult life, I’ve rarely eaten breakfast. As a kid, I’d eat whatever generic sugary cereal that promised the best toy or we’d be sent out the door to school armed with a Pop Tart or snack cake. I’ve never been a morning person either, but most of my aversion to breakfast stems more so from the fact that even when I ate meat I never really liked breakfast foods, or, at least, popular American breakfast foods. Bacon? Ick. Sausage? Links maybe, but definitely not patties. Fried eggs? Gross. Doughnuts or strudel? Too saccharine. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in my early 20s and prescribed Synthroid, which must be taken on an empty stomach. I got into the habit of taking it in the mornings, thus giving me a convenient excuse to skip breakfast altogether.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day or so dietitians keep telling us. And studies showing that kids and adults who eat breakfast perform better in school and are more productive at work certainly back it up. My doctor recently recommended that I try to increase the number of hours I sleep and to start eating breakfast, so I’ve been making a concerted effort in both areas. My dilemma, however, is not whether I should eat breakfast, but rather what to eat for breakfast. We’re so culturally staid in that there are certain foods that are appropriate for certain meals and foods that are not appropriate at certain meals. Brunch for lunch was always popular in my grade school even though it consisted of limp French toast drowning beneath watery syrup and accompanied by anemic sausage links just because the breakfast-lunch inversion was so novel a concept to us. Bacon and eggs, French toast, waffles and pancakes, toast and cereals are all considered traditional American breakfast foods, but it’s interesting to note that they haven’t always been the breakfasts of champions. Here’s a quick rundown of American breakfast foods through the ages:
Pioneer Breakfast: Like their Native American counterparts, pioneers relied on cornmeal as a breakfast staple. Cornpone (pan-fried in oil), hoecakes (small pancakes cooked on a garden hoe), Johnnycakes (flattened and griddle-fried) and Ashcakes (wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked in campfire ashes) were popular amongst the poor and well-to-do. George Washington’s step-granddaughter recorded his breakfast habits, for instance, as: “‘[H]e ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream.” Check out Paula Deen’s hoecakes recipe or this recipe for Johnny cakes.
Victorian Breakfast: Victorian breakfast menus were more extensive owing to the rise of the middle-class and middle-class mothers who had more leisure time and disposable income to improve the quality and range of food options. Middle-class families expanded breakfast to include at least one hot dish or meat and/or eggs, along with fish, breads, porridge and fruit. Menus could be quite extensive and a formal Victorian breakfast might include Eggs Benedict, smoked Haddock, English muffins, fruit, toast and cake or crepes. Folgers introduced its pre-roasted and ground coffees in the 1860s, and coffee quickly became a breakfast staple. Check out these recipes offered by Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and inns across the nation.
Breakfast Cereals: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg developed and patented America’s first flaked cereal he called Granose Flakes in 1894. He and brother Will Keith Kellogg joined him in creating the first corn flakes cereal three years later. After a bitter feud left them divided, Will Keith started his own plant in 1906 that would come to be known as the modern day Kellogg Company. He introduced Rice Krispies in 1929. Inspired and rebuffed by J.H. Kellogg, an inventor by the name of C. W. Post went on to produce his own cereal he called Grape Nuts. By 1900, he had become a multi-millionaire. Read more about the Kellogg brothers here.
Oatmeal: Some 80 percent of Americans are estimated to have oatmeal in their cupboards today, but it wasn’t always so popular. Although oats are one of the earliest cereals to be cultivated by man, Americans did not begin growing them in large quantities until the nineteenth century. And until the twentieth century, oatmeal proved quite arduous to prepare, requiring as long as 24 hours soaking time. Quaker Oats was registered as a cereal trademark in 1877. “Quick oats” were introduced in 1922 and “Instant” oatmeal in 1966. “Flavored” oatmeals arrived in the 1970s. Today’s rolled, instant and quick oats are far different from the steel cut oatmeal prepared in earlier centuries and as some would say, less tasty and healthy. Check out a recipe for steel cut oats here.
Doughnuts: Doughnuts date back to prehistoric reuins in the American Southwest, but they’re primarily credited to the Dutch who would fry sweet dough balls in pork fat. Dutch pilgrims brought these olykoeks to America where they were dubbed “dough-nuts” because they were usually prepared with prunes, apples or nuts in the middle (these fillings were added mostly because it was so difficult to fully cook the centers of the doughballs). Legend has it that a popular sea captain disliked the nuts his wife prepared in his doughnuts and poked them out. Acting on his orders, the ship’s captain removed all subsequent doughnut centers with a round tin cutout, thus giving rise to the doughnut hole we all know today. Returning WWI G.I.s brought back with them a craze for doughnuts after having been served them by the grateful French and doughnuts began to be mass-produced by the 1920s. They remained primarily a snack food in the U.S. however, until the invention of the doughnut machine in the 1930s. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Doughnuts arrived in the 1940s and 1950s and made popular the pairing of coffee and doughnuts. The whole cops and doughnut shops lore exists today because these shops were often the only places open all night. In the days before Red Bull, police officers would get their caffeine fix there so as to get them over the 4 – 7 a.m. hump. The doughnut’s holiness was challenged by the growing popularity of the bagel in the 1970s and 1980s; by 1999 bagels were reported by the New York Times to have overtook the doughnut in popularity. However both remain popular today with even Dunkin’ Doughnuts selling bagels. Check out these recipes for doughnuts and bagels.
I’m trying to let go of my breakfast foods propriety and instead just make things that I like and that will give my brain a much-needed boost. Some of my breakfast favorites are: strawberries, blueberries and granola in yogurt; Morningstar Farms Veggie Sausage Links; peanut butter toast and a banana; pineapple chunks and cottage cheese; a veggie BLT made with Morningstar Farms Bacon Strips; the occasional scrambled eggs on toast; and, of course, fresh fruit. How about you? Are you a breakfast person or no? If so, what are some of your favorite breakfast foods?