History Matters: Breakfast

History Matters: Breakfast

Breakfast hasn't always been the most important meal of the day.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day—an aphorism first uttered by, of all people, Franz Kafka—but our ancestors were slow to get the wake-up call. Our Neolithic kin ground grains for a sort of porridge, and Roman soldiers started the day with another porridge called pulmentus. But for much of recorded history, only children and the weak ate three square meals a day. Adults were expected to get by on a midday dinner and a light supper.

The word breakfast doesn’t even appear in English until 1463, in a royal expense accounting. Confusingly, in Latin this conjoining of “break the fast” was disjejunare, from which our word dinner also derives. As the midday dinner moved later in the day, people woke up hungrier and began to need a morning meal. The rise of office and factory work later fed the demand for breakfast before leaving home (and contributed to dinner’s move to the evening, since workers couldn’t readily return home at midday for a big meal).

American Indians ate a breakfast of cornmeal mush, which white settlers adopted. The addition of molasses to cornmeal made hasty pudding. Cornbread took many forms and names, including pan-fried cornpone, flattened jonnycakes, hoecakes (small pancakes cooked on a hoe), and ashcakes cooked in cabbage leaves in the ashes of the previous night’s fire.

Oats didn’t begin to supplant corn at breakfast until the 19th century, when they first became widely cultivated. Quaker Oats and its figure of a man in Quaker garb were trademarked in 1877, though the product was still sold in bulk rather than in boxes. The company promptly went bankrupt. Rescued by Henry Parson Crowell in 1881, Quaker Oats launched the first national magazine ads for a breakfast cereal—beginning a profitable symbiosis between cereals and advertising.

Back in Victorian England, however, breakfast was going in the opposite direction of pre-packaged cereals. The English breakfast included, according to the 1861 Book of Household Management, a cold joint of meat, game pies, broiled mackerel, sausages, bacon, eggs, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, jam, coffee and tea. Breakfast grew even more elaborate and caloric as the 19th century waned; wealthier Americans copied the full English breakfast, while others settled for bacon and eggs.
A variation on that popular breakfast, eggs Benedict, was invented in 1890s New York City. One origin tale credits Delmonico’s restaurant, responding to a request from Mrs. Le Grand Benedict for a less-boring breakfast. Another story places the invention in 1894 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where Lemuel Benedict ordered toast, bacon, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce as a hangover cure.
As for brunch, the credit goes to Guy Beringer, in the magazine Hunter’s Weekly in 1896. This breakfast-lunch hybrid was ideal, Beringer wrote, after a morning’s hunting.
While English and Americans were literally porking out, Europeans on the continent stuck to a modest breakfast of bread or pastry with coffee. The continental breakfast got a cool reception from most Americans, who agreed with William Dean Howells that breakfast was their “best meal.” (That 1907 sentiment was given its now-familiar formulation in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in 1915: “For Gregor’s father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day.”)
An all-American reaction to breakfast excess was brewing, however, with the pro-vegetarian gospel of Seventh-Day Adventism, founded in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1863. One of the church’s founders, Ellen G. White, had been a patient in Dr. James Caleb Johnson’s sanitarium in Dansville, NY. Johnson had invented a cereal he called Granula (as in “granule”): dense bran nuggets that had to be soaked overnight before serving. White may have taken this idea to Battle Creek, where fellow Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg ran another sanitarium. In 1887, Kellogg developed a breakfast biscuit of oats, wheat and cornmeal, which he called Granula until a lawsuit made him rename it as Granola.
His brother, former traveling broom salesman Will Keith Kellogg, helped develop new granola variations for the sanitarium and spa. In 1894, cooking up a wheatmeal, the Kelloggs forgot about a batch overnight. They ran it through rollers a second time in hopes of salvaging the wheat and got individual flakes instead of a cracker-like sheet. Roasted, the flakes were a hit with guests. The Kelloggs began marketing the cereal as Granose.
Two years later, Will tried the technique with corn and made corn flakes. In 1906, he bought out his brother and began selling Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes. But Charles William Post, a former patient at the Battle Creek sanitarium, was already marketing his own corn flakes, introduced in 1904 as Elijah’s Manna (rechristened Post Toasties in 1908). After founding his own Battle Creek spa, Post had developed a coffee substitute, Postum, and his version of granola, Grape-Nuts.
Although Kellogg’s Corn Flakes followed Post’s, savvy marketing (“wink at your grocer and get a free box”) overcame that two-year gap. Kellogg’s also found creative ways to appeal to young customers, with characters like Tony the Tiger. Created in 1952 by Leo Burnett art director Eugene Kolkey, Tony won a public competition against a kangaroo, an elephant and a gnu. Thurl Ravenscroft provided Tony’s voice for the next five decades, growling a catchphrase anyone born in the 20th century will recognize: “They’re grrrrreat!”
Kellogg’s also outfoxed Post with the next great leap forward in breakfast convenience, the toaster pastry. In 1963, Post announced that it would be introducing Country Squares. But because the toaster treats weren’t yet actually on the shelves, Kellogg’s was able to imitate the idea and rush its own Pop-Tarts into supermarkets in just six months. With the help of Milton, a talking toaster, and the addition of frosting in 1967 (once a toaster-proof frosting was developed), Pop-Tarts triumphed.
In 2001, as the US invaded Afghanistan, the military airdropped 2.4 million Pop-Tarts into the mountainous country. Who knows? Maybe if the Roman legions had breakfasted on Pop-Tarts instead of pulmentus, they might still rule the world.


  • Some say French toast was originally called German toast, but the French won out thanks to WWI anti-German sentiment.
  • A recipe for a pancake appears in an ancient cookbook by the Roman Apicius, and almost every culture has its own version.
  • Doughnuts were considered snacks, not breakfast, until World War II, when they were served to soldiers.


  • 1270: France establishes a guild to train street waffle vendors
  • 1620: Dutch Pilgrims bring waffles to America
  • 1863: Dr. James Caleb Jackson develops “Granula”
  • 1894: Kellogg brothers accidentally discover cereal flakes
  • 1924: General Mills introduces Wheaties
  • 1937: Vernon Rudolph founds Krispy Kreme in Winston-Salem, NC
  • 1953: Brothers Tony, Sam and Frank Dorsa sell Eggo frozen waffles
  • 1958: First International House of Pancakes opens in Toluca Lake, Calif
  • 1966: Quaker introduces instant oatmeal
  • 1972: McDonald’s rolls out the Egg McMuffin nationwide

From the December 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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