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.