Why Do Americans Eat What We Eat For Breakfast?

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Are the reasons we eat Cap'n Crunch really related to our tendency to consider bacon a breakfast meat? It was perhaps a fool's errand to think that there was a clear and concise trajectory to explain how we arrived at the series of unwritten rules surrounding a meal that is at least as old as the country. (There are few, if any, international patterns to be found, and tackling the subject country by country proved prohibitively unwieldy.) And when I asked Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, to help me understand breakfast, she cautioned as much.

"I would hesitate to say there is a universal quality to the foods that become breakfast foods," she said, "except to say that they fit into a morality around breakfast and do so in different ways."

Now that is something. The idea of fitting our foods into a morality construct might take a little getting used to. But then again, given the culture's current rhetoric of juice cleanses, guilty pleasures, sinful treats, and sensible salads—not to mention our country's puritanical origins—maybe it won't.

Prior to the mid-1800s, the apex of the Industrial Revolution in America, there was no such thing as breakfast food whatsoever. In the morning, you ate whatever was around to fuel you for a day on the farm—leftovers from dinner, pie, cheese, hasty pudding (a sort of cornmeal mush). There wasn't much in the way of convention with regards to food or etiquette. Dinner, in the middle of the day, was the main meal, while earlier breakfast and later supper were purely utilitarian.

Whole Wheat: Good for your intestines, good for your soul

During the Industrial Revolution, hordes of people moved to the cities where they adopted more sedentary urban lifestyles, working in factories instead of on farms. But, at first, they didn't change their eating habits. Naturally, this resulted in widespread indigestion, known as dyspepsia.

"People are either suffering from it or they’re scared of suffering from it," Carroll says. "They are trying to figure out how to get better if they have it or how to avoid it. So a lot of advice comes out and not all of it, but a lot of it, ends up centering around breakfast with the big farmer’s breakfast becoming a culprit."

Enterprising social reformers started opening health spas called sanitariums where middle and upper class people could go to be treated for dyspepsia with water cures and vegetarian, grain-based diets. The fiber-rich food did prove beneficial to alleviating indigestion, but people like Sylvester Graham and his cohorts took it a step further. The failed evangelical minister and his "Grahamites" proclaimed their whole wheat "Graham bread" (you may have heard of its cracker descendant, although the two bear only a passing resemblance) and the accompanying bland diet a virtuous panacea that was Biblically sanctioned—not only did it cure whatever ailed you, it was also supposed to repress immoral sexual urges.

Graham advocated strict vegetarianism with no alcohol, tobacco, or even spices to season your food because he thought it would quell masturbation. But even more radical was John Harvey Kellogg, who abstained even from sex with his own wife. As the chief medical officer at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Kellogg was interested in developing new ways to serve whole wheat and in the process he created cornflakes and granola, the first breakfast cereals.

Unsurprisingly, this radical lifestyle failed to find widespread popularity. But the benefits of whole wheat—both moral and bodily—had become ingrained in the public consciousness, which made it prime for capitalizing on.

"Entrepreneurial-minded people realize that there’s a huge profit margin, because grain is really cheap and you can sell that specialized food in a box if you moralize it by saying 'this is what you should eat,'" Carroll explains. One of those entrepreneurs happened to be John Harvey's brother, Will Kellogg, who founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which you probably know better as the Kellogg Company.

But to really solidify cereal as a cure-all in the mind of the average person, it took Charles W. Post, the inventor of Grape Nuts. A chronically-ill Post had first sampled cereal while staying at the Kelloggs' Battle Creek Sanitarium but he was able to transform the health food trend into a mainstream staple through clever marketing. Carroll credits him with inventing modern advertising for his use of testimonials from people who went from being very sick to suddenly better just by eating Grape Nuts.

Even More Breakfast "Shoulds"

By the early 1900s, breakfast became the most "should"-ridden meal. What had started out as suggestions for avoiding indigestion had resulted in a nationwide moralizing rhetoric specific to a single meal. And that opened the door for other dictates.

In the 1910s, an increased understanding of vitamins sparked a new trend among Americans anxious about malnutrition and deficiency diseases. At a time when the lower class often suffered from diet-related ailments, the discovery that certain foods could prevent things like scurvy and rickets was a major development in the way people ate. Milk was the first highly-touted source of vitamins, and that meant more good news for cereal manufacturers.

"Of course milk went perfectly with cereal, so that was natural for breakfast," Carroll explains. "But also I think that because breakfast was already moralized and because it was already about health and what you should and shouldn’t eat, [milk] just sort of naturally grafted on to breakfast." And that logic held true when, soon after, oranges were found to be a good source of Vitamin C, and quickly became a breakfast staple.

"Then there's another 'should' that comes up in the teens and ‘20s, when people are really interested in efficiency and so 'you shouldn’t eat too much for breakfast because it’s going to slow you down; you’re going to get constipated,'" Carroll says. "And so the shoulds start off being about health and then there’s this religious aspect to them and then they become about being an efficient, functional, productive member of society; specifically in a capitalist society cause you’ll be more profitable." The light, fiber-rich whole wheat cereals fit the bill, but as Americans branched out from breakfast cereal, efficiency still ruled.

"People don’t want to spend their time cooking when they could spend their time earning," Carroll explains—an American sentiment if ever there was one. Streamlined mixes bring quick breads and muffins from tea time to breakfast, and even waffles, once a dessert or dinner item, started showing up in the morning after the invention of the modern waffle iron and, shortly thereafter, the frozen toaster waffle.

But What About...

This is hardly the whole picture, because it can't be. A single, simplified timeline can't justify the eating habits of a large nation, so let's look at some exceptions. Bacon and eggs, a classic American breakfast, seems to be the absolute antithesis of the quick, convenient, whole wheat meals proposed above. And that's because it is—but it took advantage of the same public susceptibility.

In the 1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing Company found themselves with a surplus of bacon. To sell it, they created a need within the public to buy bacon. First step was to hire shrewd public relations guru Edward Bernays. Cereal had become a commercial success after whole wheat had been introduced as a healthy alternative to heavy meats, so Bernays just flipped the script. He convinced the company doctor to agree that our farming forefathers had it right along—meat was the right way to start your day. And from there, he found 5000 other doctors to also sign off on the totally un-tested claim. He published their endorsements as if it were a medical study and, just like that, the public started buying bacon. (To be fair, bacon probably took a lot less convincing than Grape Nuts.)

Even though we've mostly moved past a fear that anything other than bland cereal will result in masturbatory urges, advertising has found a way to capitalize on the impulse to start the day off "right." The through-line seems to be less about the evolving ethics of eating one dish or another and more about our susceptibility to moralizing marketing techniques around breakfast.

Additional Source: Heather Arndt Anderson