The Most Contentious Meal of the Day

The current debates about breakfast are nothing new; the morning meal has long been a source of medical confusion, moral frustration, and political anxiety.

Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

It was the (up)shot heard ‘round the world. In May, The New York Times’s data blog, having conducted a lengthy review of scholarly assessments of the meal that Americans have been told, time after time, is the day’s most important, declared what many had known, in their hearts as well as their stomachs, to be true: “Sorry, there’s nothing magical about breakfast.”

The pre-emptive “sorry” was an appropriate way both to soften the announcement and to sharpen it: Breakfast—when to eat it, what to eat for it (cereal? smoothies? cage-free eggs fried in organic Irish butter?), whether to eat it at all—has long been a subject of intense debate, accompanied by intense confusion and intense feeling. “Breakfast nowadays is cool,” the writer Jen Doll noted in Extra Crispy, the new newsletter from Time magazine that is devoted to, yep, breakfast. She wrote that in an essay about her failed attempt to enjoy pre-noon eating.

But breakfast wasn’t always cool. People of the Middle Ages shunned it on roughly the same grounds—food’s intimate connection to moral ideals of self-regimentation—that people of the current age glorify it; later, those navigating the collision of industrialization and the needs of the human body came to blame hearty breakfasts for indigestion and other ailments. Breakfast has been subject to roughly the same influences that any other fickle food fashions will be: social virality, religious dogmas, economic cycles, new scientific discoveries about the truth or falsity of the old saying “you are what you eat.” And all that has meant that the meal associated with the various intimacies of the morning hours has transformed, fairly drastically, over the centuries. Our current confusion when it comes to breakfast is, for better or worse, nothing new: We in the West, when it comes to our eggs—and our pancakes, and our bacon, and our muffins, and our yogurt, and our coffee—have long been a little bit scrambled.

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The Europeans of the Middle Ages largely eschewed breakfast. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, lists praepropere—eating too soon—as one of the ways to commit the deadly sin of gluttony; the eating of a morning meal, following that logic, was generally considered to be an affront against God and the self. Fasting was seen as evidence of one’s ability to negate the desires of the flesh; the ideal eating schedule, from that perspective, was a light dinner (then consumed at midday) followed by heartier supper in the evening. People of the Middle Ages, the food writer Heather Arndt Anderson notes in her book Breakfast: A History, sometimes took another evening meal, an indulgent late-evening snack called the reresoper (“rear supper”). The fact that the reresoper was taken with ale and wine, Anderson writes, meant that it was “shunned by most decent folk”; that fact also might have contributed to breakfast’s own low status among medieval moralists, as “it was presumed that if one ate breakfast, it was because one had other lusty appetites as well.”

There were some exceptions to those prohibitions. Laborers were allowed a breakfast—they needed the calories for their morning exertions—as were the elderly, the infirm, and children. Still, the meal they took was generally small—a chunk of bread, a piece of cheese, perhaps some ale—and not treated as a “meal,” a social event, so much as a pragmatic necessity.

It was Europe’s introduction to chocolate, Anderson argues, that helped to change people’s perspective on the moral propriety of breaking fast in the morning hours. “Europe was delirious with joy” at the simultaneous arrival, via expeditions of the New World, of coffee, tea, and chocolate (which Europeans of the time often took as a beverage), she writes. Chocolate in particular “caused such an ecstatic uproar among Europe’s social elite that the Catholic Church began to feel the pressure to change the rules.” And so, in 1662, Cardinal Francis Maria Brancaccio declared that “Liquidum non frangit jejunum”: “Liquid doesn’t break the fast.”

That barrier to breakfast having been dismantled, people started to become breakfast enthusiasts. Thomas Cogan, a schoolmaster in Manchester, was soon claiming that breakfast, far from being merely acceptable, was in fact necessary to one’s health: “[to] suffer hunger long filleth the stomack with ill humors.” Queen Elizabeth was once recorded eating a hearty breakfast of bread, ale, wine, and “a good pottage [stew], like a farmer’s, made of mutton or beef with ‘real bones.’”

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century—and the rise of factory work and office jobs that accompanied it—further normalized breakfast, transforming it, Abigail Carroll writes in Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, from an indulgence to an expectation. The later years of the 1800s, in particular, saw an expansion of the morning meal into a full-fledged social event. Wealthy Victorians in the U.S. and in England dedicated rooms in their homes to breakfasting, the BBC notes, considering the meal a time for the family to gather before they scattered for the day. Newspapers targeted themselves for at-the-table consumption by the men of the families. Morning meals of the wealthy often involved enormous, elaborate spreads: meats, stews, sweets.

With that, the Victorians met the Medieval edicts against breakfast by swinging to the other extreme: Breakfast became not a prohibition or a pragmatic acquiescence to the demands of the day, but rather a feast in its own right. And that soon led to another feature of industrialization, Carroll writes: the host of health problems, indigestion chief among them, that people of the 19th century and the early 20th came to know as “dyspepsia.” They weren’t sure exactly what caused those problems; they suspected, however, that the heavy meals of the morning hours were key contributors. (They were, of course, correct.)

Here were the roots of the current obesity epidemic—the culinary traditions of active lifestyles, imported to sedentary ones—and they led to another round of debates about what breakfast was and should be. Fighting against his era’s preference for heavy breakfasts, Pierre Blot, the French cookbook author and professor of gastronomy, stipulated that breakfast that be, ideally, as small as possible. He also argued that it should, when consumed at all, consist of meats (cold, leftover from the supper the night before) rather than cakes or sweets, which rotted the teeth. (Blot further advised against taking tea with breakfast—water, coffee, milk, and even cocoa were preferable—and prohibited liquor.)

Blot was echoed in his advice by the Clean Living Movement that arose during the Jacksonian era and that has remained as a feature of American culture, in some form, ever since. The movement, which emphasized vegetarianism and resisted industrialized food processes like the chemical leavening of bread, also recommended abstinence from stimulants like coffee and tea. It led to products like Sylvester Graham’s eponymous “crackers”—made of the whole grain that, Graham thought, would curb sexual appetites along with those of the stomach—and helped to make cereal a thus-far-enduring feature of the American breakfast table. (The irony that the “cereal” of today is laden with sugar and chemicals would surely not be lost on Graham or on his fellow Clean Living proponent, John Harvey Kellogg.)

The cereals invented by Graham and Kellogg and C.W. Post became popular in part because they could simply be poured into bowls, with no cooking required; soon, technological developments were doing their own part to turn the laborious breakfasts of the 19th century into briefer, simpler affairs. The advent of toasters meant that stale bread could be quickly converted, with the help of a little butter and maybe some jam, into satisfying meals. Waffle irons and electric griddles and the invention in Bisquik, in 1930, did the same. Those appliances and other cooking aids made breakfast more convenient to produce during a time that found more and more women leaving the home for the workplace—first in response to the labor shortages brought about by the World Wars, and then on their own accord.

But breakfast also became more fraught. During a time that found Betty Friedan equating cooking with the systemic oppression of women, the morning meal forced a question: Could women both win bread and toast it? Breakfast presented a similar challenge for men: In the 1940s and 1950s, Anderson notes, amid the anxieties about traditional gender roles that the post-war climate brought about, cookbooks aimed at men emerged in the marketplace. They suggested how to cook breakfasts, in particular, that would be composed of “manly” foods like steak and bacon. They proposed that eggs be fried not in pats of butter, but in “man-sized lumps” of it. Even baked goods got masculine-ized: Brick Gordon, in 1947, recommended that male cooks might, if baking biscuits, eschew ladylike rolling pins for … beer bottles.

Today, those anxieties live on, in their way: Breakfast remains fraught, politically and otherwise. (And that’s not even outside of the slow-poached minefield that is brunch.) The current debates, though, tend to address not gender roles, but rather considerations of health—for the individual consumer, for the culture in which they participate, and for the planet. The low-fat craze of the 1990s, the low-carb craze of the 2000s, today’s anxieties about animal cruelty and environmental sustainability and GMOs and gluten and longevity and, in general, the moral dimensions of a globalized food system—all of them are embodied in breakfast.

And so is another unique feature of contemporary life: the internet argument. The essay in which Jen Doll declared breakfast’s coolness was a confessional titled “I’m a Breakfast Hater.” The Times’s article describing the non-magical nature of breakfast was preceded by “Is Breakfast Overrated?” and, elsewhere on the web, an article explaining breakfast’s importance from the blog Shake Up Your Wake Up. It was preceded by thousands of other pieces that are all, in some way, engaging with profound questions about the most basic meal of the day. One of them was from The Times itself. It was called “Seize the Morning: The Case for Breakfast.”