Read: The most contentious meal of the day
“Breakfast food” might be an arbitrary concept in America, but it’s a distinct one: cereal with milk, a cup of yogurt, eggs, muffins, fruit, oatmeal, juice. Maybe pancakes or waffles on the weekend, if you have some extra time. There are some regional variations, like bagels or biscuits, but the menu tends to be far more predictable than lunch or dinner. And although American breakfast isn’t nutritionally or philosophically cohesive, how the country goes about its morning meal isn’t a mistake. Modern breakfast in the United States tells the story of more than a century of cultural upheaval.
American breakfast begins in Europe, which provided the food norms imported by early colonizers. There, the day’s first meal had emerged from centuries of prohibition under the Catholic Church. “There was a period of time in England and western Europe where eating breakfast was sort of tied to gluttony,” says Heather Arndt Anderson, the author of Breakfast: A History. That all changed with the Protestant Reformation, when morning sustenance became more broadly permissible, if not all that exciting, or even distinct from everything else people ate. Lack of refrigeration meant the meal was usually sour and tepid. In Germany, beer soup was common.
In early America, breakfast remained a matter of convenience for most people: bread; preserved meats; repurposed leftovers; and things, like eggs, that were easy to prepare and regularly available to rural families, Arndt Anderson says.
According to Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University, that’s consistent with how much of the world still approaches the day’s first meal. “Poorer people everywhere, especially in places like India and China, eat the same kind of food for meal after meal,” he says. “The strict differentiation of meals is partly an American thing, but partly a thing of upward mobility.” Breakfast food, as a concept, is a luxury. As colonial America developed into a more robust culture with distinct class markers, breakfast started to change with it.
At first, this evolution was slow. America was a growing country, but technological limitations in both communication and food preparation meant that the morning meal was a largely regional concern, dictated by crops and livestock, as well as the previous day’s leftovers. In at least one sense, a college student waking after a night out and scarfing down two slices of unrefrigerated pizza rapidly aging in their delivery box is actually just participating in what breakfast has historically meant to billions of people.
The alarm with which Americans now commonly regard eating day-old, unrefrigerated food started to develop as the Industrial Revolution changed food preservation, the workday, and cultural conceptions of health. Arguably no one was more directly responsible for these shifts than the Kellogg brothers, who developed Corn Flakes in the late 1800s as an outgrowth of John Harvey Kellogg’s work at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, in Michigan. Kellogg was a doctor and an adherent of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which advocated a bland, vegetarian diet and abstention from things like caffeine and alcohol.