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The weird history of breakfast (and why I start my day with any damn food I want)

By April 23, 2022No Comments



Food writer Jocelyn Doyle takes a stand against the concept of ‘breakfast foods’


I’ll never forget the look on my boyfriend’s face the first time he saw me begin my day, many years ago. He walked in as I was chomping into a tortilla stuffed with leftover chilli con carne, potato wedges, sour cream, cheese and lettuce. (As may be evident, I was mildly hungover.) He looked horrified. He looked how I imagine he’d look if he entered to find me slicing into a small child with a knife and fork, napkin in collar. “You’re having that for BREAKFAST?” he asked, aghast — a question that has been screeched at me in disgust by new friends and whispered to me in quiet horror in office kitchens.

Here’s the thing: breakfast is a made-up concept. I mean, so are most things, when you think about them: gender, money, virginity, manners. Whether sweet or savoury, the idea of the morning meal being restricted to a short list of prescribed foods is nonsense. Not only that, but it’s nonsense that has been deliberately curated — so that it could be sold to us.

In medieval Europe, a morning meal was not considered necessary. Amongst the upper classes, a two-meal day was standard. The ‘most important’ was a hefty midday meal known as dinner, designed to give those engaged in physical labour the energy they needed for the rest of their day. (Etymologically speaking, and rather confusingly, the word ‘dinner’ actually means breakfast — it comes from the Latin ‘dis,’ signifying the opposite of an action, and ‘ieiunare,’ to fast.) This was followed by a lighter supper, come evening. (The supper was not necessarily light for royals, especially once Henry VIII burst, opulently and corpulently, onto the scene.)

With religious purity linked to ideas of abstinence and fasting, eating before morning mass was frowned upon, even considered sinful. Eating breakfast meant you must need the energy for a day of hard labour, signalling low social status, or that you were too elderly, weak or infirm to last until midday. Even then, the fare was simple — maybe a hunk of bread and piece of cheese, possibly a glass of ale — and not treated as a meal so much as a necessity. The word ‘breakfast’ only entered the English language in 1463; until then, anything eaten before work was known by the (Old English) morgenmete, literally ‘morning meat’.

By the 15th century, breakfast was becoming common in western Europe. There were no special foods required. People ate whatever they had often leftovers. Elizabeth I was recorded eating a breakfast of ale, beer, wine (solid start there), manchet (white bread) and “a good pottage (stew)… made of mutton or beef with ‘real bones.’” That sounds like my kind of breakfast, minus the rake of booze.

In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution brought factory work and office jobs, and breakfast became a part of daily life. By the tail end of the century, it had ballooned into a full-fledged social event, a lavish spread for those who could afford it. In England and the US, wealthy Victorians built special breakfast rooms into new homes. Designed for languishing prettily over an impressive meal — toying idly with resources and leisure time that the average worker didn’t have — these spaces offered another way to emphasise the family wealth.

In America, things began to get out of hand. The breakfast table in the late 19th century saw steaks, mutton chops and roast chicken join muffins, flapjacks and even pie. This decadent start soon induced a host of new health problems, including higher instances of tooth decay, weight gain and, especially, chronic indigestion. Nutritionists labelled this ‘dyspepsia’ and it was everywhere; Victorian newspapers obsessed over it in the same way that our modern media do about obesity. Riddled with acidity, dreaming of Rennies and desperate for a solution, the Americans were sitting ducks. Enter the advertisers, with a new problem to solve and a brand new concept to sell: breakfast foods.

Cereal slotted nicely into this gap, marketed as a solution that would promote general health. Weirdly, however, it was actually invented to solve a whole other (non) problem. Cornflakes were invented in 1894 by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, an enthusiastic Seventh Day Adventist with some intensely puritanical views on masturbation. Kellogg believed Americans’ meat-centric meals were stirring up unpalatable urges; to his mind, a restrained breakfast would form part of a more ascetic diet designed to suppress sexual desire and turn America away from sin. Hence, cornflakes. Cereal became outrageously popular, viewed as a solution to dyspepsia and convenient for people heading out to work early.

The idea of foods specific to the breakfast table grew from there, rooted in clever campaigns. The classic (to today’s mind) combination of bacon and eggs is another such occurrence; in the 1920s, PR pioneer Edward Bernays persuaded 5,000 doctors to sign a letter recommending a hearty breakfast. Bernays then published this in newspapers, presenting bacon and eggs as the ideal start to the day. This was all done on behalf of Beech-Nut, a packaging company that had recently diversified into food (pick a lane) and suddenly had bacon to sell. Even the phrase ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ taken by many as canon, was originally an advertising slogan in the 1940s, created by ad men desperate to secure the early morning market. The rest is history.

I love a weird breakfast, and I refuse to be constrained by any ideology proposed by a man with a freakish vendetta against self-pleasure, then perpetuated by greedy advertisers. Often, I’ll eat whatever remains of last night’s dinner; this might be cold pizza, which many seem to understand, but it might also be roast vegetables in a sambo, considerably less palatable to the masses. Maybe it’s potatoes and a piece of fish, a noodle stir-fry, veggie chilli, or carrot and parsnip mash. It’s not always leftovers: I love sardines on buttered toast with black pepper, or spicy lentils with an egg on top. I’m a huge fan of soup for breakfast, and during the winter I have that most midweek mornings with some sourdough; there’s nothing like starting work with a warm soup tummy.

Even if you’re shuddering at the thoughts, there are indisputable benefits to expanding your breakfast horizons. Allow me to persuade you:

  • Minimise waste. If you’re happy to eat any kind of leftovers for breakfast, it’s easy to use up every bit.
  • Eat more veg. I’ve often had one, two or even three of my daily veggie portions by the time I put on the kettle for a mid-morning cuppa. Not many people I know can claim that. My weekend breakfasts, in particular, often include a pile of veggies, whether it’s a large salad plate with some smoked trout and brown bread, or a pile of sautéed spinach, onions and mushrooms topped with a healthy dose of kimchi and a fried egg.
  • Save time. Many days, I’m just reheating cooked leftovers; quick and convenient.
  • Reduce sugar. I don’t really have a sweet tooth (other than two days every month when all I can think about is tiramisu). However, if you are partial, eating dinner for breakfast removes the chance of indulging in something sweet. Plenty of ‘normal’ morning foods, like pastries or cereals, are high in sugar, but a bowl of curry is not.
  • If nothing else, raise a metaphorical middle finger to the advertising industry. Enjoy a small rebellion. They don’t get to tell you what you can eat — or what time of the day you can eat it. If you’re still unsure, throw an egg on top. Anything can be breakfast crowned with a runny yolk.

Go forth and celebrate the joy of a weird and wonderful start to the day… and don’t let any man prevent you from enjoying a chilli wrap in the morning.