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Breakfast: A Brief History of the Most Controversial Meal of the Day

People tend to place themselves in two camps: breakfast haters and ardent lovers of early morning meals. Physicians can’t always agree on whether it’s a good idea to have it or not, and many will fight you if you don’t recognize dinner as the hero of the day. You’ve also likely heard the word itself comes from the idea that one must “break the fast” after a night’s sleep. But where did the practice of eating specific types of food first thing in the morning come from?

Pre-Historic Nibbles

We’ll begin by giving away a spoiler: breakfast as we know it in the West is a modern affair. Our motivations for early-morning eating and the types of meals we indulge in are largely the results of good marketing and the word of contradictory health experts. However, that’s not to say comestibles like pancakes and oatmeal are novel inventions.

We as a species have been eating pancakes for quite some time. When a pair of hikers found the remains of Otzi the Iceman, a naturally preserved 5,300-year-old mummy, researchers were keen to scrutinize every inch of him. It took about twenty years to find his stomach, but once they did, a treasure trove of information opened up. His last meals consisted of deer and ibex meat, along with bracken fern and ground einkorn wheat. The wheat, along with a few bits of charcoal, suggest Otzi may have eaten it in pancake form, cooked over an open fire. Whether he had his Neolithic pancakes in the morning remains to be seen.

otzi the ice man
Textbook food coma.

How Staples Get Started

Pancakes stuck around, spreading through cultures across the world. People in the burgeoning United States ate thin, European-style pancakes at any time of day, but that changed around the 1780s. Cooks began to thicken them up with pearl ash, resulting in hearty rounds. Unlike bread, they were quick and easy to make first thing in the morning before a hard day of manual labor.

Oatmeal is potentially even older. Around 12,000 years ago, humans decided they’d had enough of hunting and gathering and tried their hands at farming. The advent of agriculture brought on sweeping changes, one of them being a higher population. Hunter-gatherers needed to be mobile, which meant taking your babies along for the ride. This limited the amount of small children women could have. Combine that with the fact that breastfeeding was the only way a baby could get nutrients, and you’ve got some compelling birth control.

early farming
This is a lot of work…are we sure we want to do this?

That all changed when farming made it possible to grow cereals. When cooked and mashed into a pulp, suddenly you had a food source that the soft teeth of little kids could handle. You could also easily spoon this pre-historic porridge straight into their mouths. Farms need year-round attention, which meant families remained in one place. This allowed them to grow even bigger.

We’ve been eating hot grain-based cereals all over the world ever since, with many experts exalting their benefits as a hearty start to the day.

Ancient Eats

Once humans started developing into the first civilizations preferences began to emerge. Egyptian peasants generally partook in one daily meal, likely in the morning, of beer, bread, and onions. Grecian laborers appeared to take a meal not long after sunrise, again to buoy their energy before the day’s chores. The Iliad points this meal out numerous times, calling it ariston. There was also something called akratisma, a morning repast that could include barley bread dipped in wine, figs, olives, and spelt pancakes topped with cheese and honey.

Well-off Romans would start the day with jentaculum, a dish that incorporated staples like bread, cold meats, raisins, cheese, and olives. Some sources record this meal as a very early affair while others note it being later or not at all. It seems likely it was a matter of personal preference. Poorer Romans and soldiers would wake to a nice bowl of porridge, which could contain everything from eggs to honey to milk or water.

Medieval Morsels

medieval meals
A typical evening at Medieval Times.

Many medieval societies looked to religious leaders to guide them in what they ate. Christian Europeans forewent food before morning Mass and could not eat meat about half the days of the year. Renowned 13th-century priest Thomas Aquinas wrote that eating too early was a form of gluttony, and therefore, a sin. Laborers, the elderly, children, and the infirm were the exception to this rule out of necessity.

Cue breakfast-shaming that made early morning meals a source of embarrassment. Eating them meant you were poor or unfit, and so often people skipped it. An exception was traveling nobles. When English King Henry III needed sustenance on a trip in 1255, he was supplied with well over a thousand gallons of wine for his breakfast. Any king on a religious pilgrimage could eat whenever he liked, bans be damned.

Speaking of the English, the full English breakfast of today was the result of religious ritual. Devoted Christians needed to get rid of their stored meat before Lent began. As people often kept pigs, this meant pork and bacon. They would enjoy their meat with eggs, another delicacy that needed to get used up, and thus the ancestor of a quintessentially British meal was born.

Modern Meals

victorians ate everything for breakfast
Sir, can you slow down? It’s 7 AM.

Over the next few centuries, breakfast would break free from its religious shackles. British historian Ian Mortimer suggests modern breakfasts originated with the Tudors. As employment became more common in that era, people were no longer in control of how they spent their time. When a long day of work at an employer’s estate was ahead of you, that meant a big breakfast was in order.

By the 17th-century, people of all social classes enjoyed a morning meal. After the 1660 restoration of Charles II, drinks like tea and coffee began showing up on the tables of the wealthy alongside scrambled eggs. Europeans enjoyed caffeinated beverages in the morning as a means to “evacuate the superfluities” of the day before. Yum.

When the Industrial Revolution came, the need for breakfast was even stronger as workers filed in and out of factories instead of farms. For wealthy Victorians, breakfast evolved into a social event held in special rooms. Heavy spreads of meats, stews, and sweets became the rage. Eventually, this led to pushback, as people in the 19th and 20th centuries suffered a host of health problems. This resulted in a wave of reforms that swept the United States and parts of Europe.

Make Breakfast Bland Again

kellogs corn flakes breakfast ad
Sorry, can’t hear you over those bows.

Health zealots thought that a tiny breakfast was the best way to go. No sweets, alcohol, or even caffeine should be allowed. American entrepreneurs like Sylvester Graham and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were quick to create appetite-suppressing crackers and cereals to help people lead a cleaner, less sinful lifestyle. They hoped the convenience and blandness of these inventions would stop gluttony and sexual desires in their tracks. The fact that modern cereals are laden with sugar likely has them spinning in their graves.

As the decades wore on, governments promoted breakfast as the most important meal of the day. Once WWII broke out, patriotic citizens made do without the usual fare, which was hard to come by. After Allied forces emerged victorious, an economically liberated population leaned into breakfast again, hard. Companies flooded the market with toasters, pre-made waffle and pancake mix, instant coffee, sugary cereals, and more.

But we still think einkorn pancakes will make a comeback any day now.

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