I am honored to have been chosen by the International Committee of Pancakes in Oslo to write the first-ever critical introduction to breakfast. My qualifications for this endeavor are more than adequate. I have eaten breakfast for the better part of five decades—not all at once but in fits and starts, usually in mornings. I was introduced to breakfast at an early age by my parents. I have eaten breakfast on three continents, in eleven countries, twenty-six states, and in every possible circumstance; in private homes, in restaurants, on public transportation, on streets, hungover, in the cocky brashness of adolescence and unemployment. Furthermore I have on many occasions indulged my intellectual curiosity so far as to prepare and consume my own breakfasts. Though I am on record to the effect that breakfast is not my favorite meal of the day (what repast can compare to that king of feasts, the dinner?), I have all the same contributed to man’s understanding of breakfast with a keen eye and with robust enthusiasm.
I shall leave to the professionals—the biologists, dieticians, chemists, and health teachers—the nutritional aspects of breakfast, and not even approach the question of whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Such controversial questions lay waste to the analytic powers of human intellect on factionalism, and leave fallow the fields in which a truly aesthetic enjoyment of breakfast, or any meal, does grow. For it is not this critic’s job to tear down this or that meal, this or that breakfast, but to uplift the spirit of all humanity with a newly polished introduction to the rough gems of our morning foods.
There are three main Western breakfast traditions: the English, the Continental, and the American. With today’s ever more international and global culture, these original geographic categories are almost meaningless. Any citizen of today’s progressive breakfast-eating nations, whether he be Jacques, James, or Jim, can easily obtain, indeed mix and match, anything he desires from these disparate traditions. Nonetheless it is on these now-antiquated distinctions that the study of breakfast must be founded. Therefore allow me to commence with a brief overview of the prevailing themes of these legacies.
The English breakfast, dreadnought of the morning, lion of the dawn, is a mighty thing indeed. The English breakfast, though frequently derided as “heavy,” in fact reflects a tradition of lighthearted indulgence and a frolicking amongst plenty. The meat and eggs so characteristic of this school are the proud inheritance of a country whose material wealth and agricultural abundance granted them a far higher standard of dietary proteins. The steak, kippers, sausages, gammon, and bacon one may find in such a breakfast bespeak the rapid economic and agronomic advance of the English through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This progress culminated in a standard of living far superior to bread-dependent European diners, and thus a more expensive and time-consuming morning meal.
The general theme of the English breakfast is savory proteins. Meat, fish, stewed tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms, and of course eggs of every variety all parade across the English table, leaving not the slightest trace of sweet in Albion’s mouth. Indeed even toast, the modern development of which was perfected by the English, in other countries operates as a sweet-jam delivery system; for the Englishman, however, it is a way of introducing orange marmalade into his gullet.
Where the English breakfast is the acme of savories, the Continental breakfast is largely the domain of the plant kingdom’s sweets and carbohydrates. The sweets come in both natural forms (fruits) and processed forms (chocolates, crèmes), but from whichever source, “salty” is not brought to mind. The Continental breakfast, perfected with the epitome of pastries in France, is a small meal, to be eaten in a hurry by a poor people in need of quick sugary energy. As times have changed, however, the Continental breakfast has matured into something that can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace purely for pleasure. The delicacy of powdered sugar and cream on berries, the light folds of pastry, and the dab of sweet farmer’s cheese on a crepe, are, to those with morning sweet-teeth, the absolute pinnacle of day-starting routines. Here we have breads laden with saccharine fruit preserves and jellies, dripping honey from each toasted edge. The abundance of fruit usually found in modern Continental breakfasts (no doubt a broader range than in the early days of breakfast under the House of Valois) are the perfect encouragement to today’s health-conscious gourmands.
But the idea of a maximally healthful breakfast is the domain of the American breakfast. For the unschooled or provincial American reader I should stress that this does not signify just any breakfast eaten on those vast landmasses of the Western hemisphere. Instead “American Breakfast” denotes a meal dependent on that distinctly American invention of the late nineteenth century, the cereal flake. Although now encompassing multifarious shapes and materials—from flakes to rings to puffed rice to letters to yellow horseshoes and green clovers—it is truly the “corn flake” which started and continues to define the genre. These dry breakfasts, to be enhanced with milk and possibly sugar and/or fruit, are the result of an American passion for efficiency. The desire to place the utmost utility into every aspect and action of every day led to this invention. The “cereal” is designed to provide maximal nutrition and bowel regulation in minimal preparation and consumption time. Although mention is always made that cereals are meant only “as a part of a well-balanced breakfast,” it is clear to most consumers what the score is: you have a bowl of cereal and get out the door to work.
Across this majestic landscape, this mélange of plenty, this confluence of all the rivers of the breakfast world, are now sprinkled newcomers. They come not from recently discovered ancient folkways (like the bagel) but from the laboratories and testing facilities of the breakfast-industrial complex. This new breed of post-American breakfasts, spearheaded by the toaster pastry, are still too young to be fully analyzed. One could stand “like a fop with arms akimbo” across the path of these new morning treats. But perhaps to do so would be to stifle creativity. The storm surrounding these sweet pockets of goo severely underestimates the strength of our traditional breakfasts, especially with all three combined in a great Western “omni-breakfast” as we must consider them now to be. No, let us instead let the children of the factories into our kitchens. Let them mature. Let us see what they have to offer. Who among us would like to have been responsible for murdering the father of the Eggs Benedict before he had time to breed? Certainly not I.
In sum, whether or not breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it is certainly one of the more fascinating. The rich history and blend of traditions that now greet us each morning is a testament not only to the greatest heights of mankind’s artistry and ingenuity, but to his common humanity and hunger as well.