Before the invention of cereal, breakfast was not as standard or routine as it is now. "The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day," food historian Caroline Yeldham has said. Many Native Americans, Abigail Carroll writes in The Invention of the American Meal, ate bits of food throughout the day (rather than at set meals) and sometimes fasted for days at a time.
Of medieval Europe, historians alternatingly write that breakfast was only a luxury for the rich, only a necessity for laborers, or mostly skipped. And while many American colonists ate breakfast, it was a reputedly harried affair that took place after hours of morning work.
Historians tend to agree that breakfast became a daily, first-thing-in-the-morning institution once workers moved to cities and had set schedules. In Europe, this first began in the 1600s, and breakfast achieved near ubiquity during the Industrial Revolution. With people going off to a full day’s work, breakfast became a thing. By this time, there was already a tradition of certain foods—like bread, ale, cheese, porridges, or leftovers—being cooked or eaten in the morning. Although, since chroniclers of history spend little time describing breakfast, tracing the origins of favorite dishes is difficult.
Why are eggs a staple of brunch? Searching for the eggs–breakfast link takes one back at least to early history; John A. Rice, a Bible scholar, describes Mary of Nazareth preparing eggs for a breakfast attended by Jesus. What about pancakes? Paleontologists speculate that humans ate primitive pancakes over 5,000 years ago; more recently, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed crepe-like flapjacks.
But once breakfast became an American institution, the meal grew increasingly like dinner. “Americans wanted meat, meat, meat. And potatoes. And cake and pie,” Lowell Dyson, an agricultural historian, wrote of food preferences in 19th-century America. This mania extended to breakfast, and dishes like beefsteaks and roasted chickens joined staples like cornbread, flapjacks, and butter on American breakfast tables.
It was not a recipe for good health. Americans complained chronically of indigestion, which early nutritionists and reformers named dyspepsia. As the historian Abigail Carroll has explained, “Magazines and newspapers [just overflowed] with rhetoric about this dyspeptic condition and what to do about it.” It was the 1800s equivalent of today’s conversations about obesity.
Americans needed a simpler, lighter breakfast. What they got was cereal.
Before cereal represented an over-sugared, overprocessed relationship with food, Americans viewed cereal as a health food. Its origins lie in sanitariums run in the mid- to late 1800s. It was a period when doctors were still often called quacks: Germ theory was just gaining prominence, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s favorite medical tool was a bath. His malady cures resembled spa treatments; “hydrotherapy” was popular at the time.