Go inside any breakfast place around midnight on a Saturday and find multiple tables of drunken college kids consuming pounds of eggs and toast. Waffle House is always a particularly entertaining example, their cheap prices and greasy bacon calling hundreds of intoxicated lined stomachs every weekend night. In fact, restaurants like Waffle House, International House of Pancakes, Bob Evans, and Cracker Barrel (think more predominantly 24-hour places) double their staff to accommodate the influx of breakfast lovers.
If you’re a fan of NBC’s sitcom Parks and Recreation starring Amy Poehler,then perhaps you’re familiar with Ron Swanson. As a character Ron Swanson embodies everything the original Americans loved from the beginnings: small government and exceptional breakfast food. But how did the American breakfast transpire to be those pancakes, waffles, French toast, grits, eggs, potatoes, omelets, toast, sausage, bacon, and biscuits that we’ve all grown up eating as Americans?
The beginning for our love as a nation for breakfast began with the Native Americans and their multitude of breakfast cakes that mostly consisted of corn meal and water. There was the corn-dodger (an oval-shaped baked corn meal biscuit), a Johnnycake (flattened and griddle-fried—think first American pancake), the Ashcake (cornmeal wrapped in cabbage leaves and cooked in the ashes of a fire), and the cornpone (pan-fried in oil), just to name a few of the classic favorites consumed during the pioneer age. As America became more colonized and politically and economically stable, their breakfasts showed an increase in nutrition and substance, a sign of an increase in wealth for most Americans.
Bacon has been a substantial part of our diet since the colonial period because pigs were an easy animal to domesticate and the drying and salting process in creating bacon allowed the meat to stay fresh despite not having refrigeration. But bacon did not creep into our breakfast diets until about a century ago when it found it’s eternal soul mate: the egg. Of course, bacon and eggs didn’t find each other on accident. They were more or less set up together on a date. Think breakfast food dating sites. Something like Compatible Foods, Breakfast Harmony, or Breakfast Foods Meet.com in which eggs and bacon found each other and fell madly in love. Mr. Edward Bernay’s just so happened to be their love guru.
Edward Bernay is known as the father of public relations and when he was offered was a well-known psychological marketing expert. In the 1920s, Bernay was approached by the Beech Nut packing company who wanted to increase the demand for the bacon that the company produced. Manipulating one American doctor into announcing that a heavier, more regular breakfast was healthier for Americans, Bernay asked that doctor to write to other 5,000 American doctors to confirm his hypothesis. Confirming that Bernay’s doctor was indeed correct and that bacon was healthy, it began the influx of American’s eating a heavier breakfast, traditionally that of bacon and eggs.
The history of the grit is something I’m sure all Southerners claim, either with their dose of sugar or plump of cheese that mixes in with the white lusciousness. But actually, grits are one of are countries oldest breakfast foods. The origin of the grit dates all the way to before our country was deemed America. Native Americans would grind the hominy by a stone mill and then would take the grits through several different screen processes to filter out the coarser grits. Southerners have relished in the traditions and customs that come along with grits for centuries. Being someone from South Carolina, I’m well aware of the symbolic meaning of the grit, as it represents something deeper than the Dixie flag, but almost as deep as a glass of sweat tea. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’re not familiar with the south because Southerners are more serious about grits than they are about college football. In 1952 the Charleston Post Courtier (South Carolina) said that grits are, “An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace.” The Post Courtier, although ridiculous, might be right. A man full of grits is a man full of peace because he’s too full to move or be angry. The grit was one of the first breakfast foods of many that make you feel like you need to unbutton the top button of your pants and let yourself digest. It was the first breakfast stuffer of many.
Breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day. Studies shows that those that eat breakfast perform better mentally, physically, and have been known to lose (and keep) weight off. However, this statement was proclaimed back in the seventies when the wife/mother would wake up every morning to fry bacon and scramble eggs while the children kicked one another under the table and the father engrossed himself in the black and white pages of the newspaper. The age of the “healthy American breakfast.” But when industries noticed women moving into the working world, companies saw an opportunity to make the quick breakfast: cereal.
Cereal marks the beginnings to an unhealthy American breakfast, and perhaps even an unhealthy America. Although the first cereal like Toasted Corn Flakes, didn’t have that much sugar to our present day standard, Toasted Corn Flakes had a large dose of sugar for an individual in the 19th century. I imagine taking the first bite of Toasted Corn Flakes was like a crack head’s first hit of dope, or an alcoholic’s first drink. It was meant to be.
Quickly after the first production of Toasted Corn Flakes, the obsession for cereal and the idea of other sugary cereals quickly hit the fan. With the popularity of their Toasted Corn Flakes, the Kellogg brothers opened up their own cereal factory and began to produce even more pre-obesity sugary goodness in the 1920s. With other production companies noticing the popularity and profits that cereal could offer, other businesses forced their way into the cereal community. General Mills was the next big cereal company to emerge in America (although the fourth company to emerge in on the cereal game). General Mills was successful at that, doing something importantly different than the Kellogg Company to give them an edge to consumers and buyers: commercials and advertisements. Commercials and advertisements were large in the 1920s in magazines and particularly radio. Advertisement and marketing companies saw a great opportunity with cereal boxes because most families saw the box every morning. For propagandists and marketers, discovering the cereal boxes potential was like the Tuohy family discovering Michael Ohr in The Blind Side.
We as Americans consume one of the largest and heaviest breakfasts, more than any other economically developed nation. That which seems light compared to the breakfasts you find today at Waffle House like the Champion’s breakfast that often include two to three eggs prepared to your liking, toast or a biscuit, bacon or ham, a pancake or waffle, and two hash browns that you can have smothered in cheese, capped in mushrooms, topped with onions, chunked with ham, diced with tomatoes, scattered on the grill, peppered with jalapenos, and covered chili. Our breakfasts are also far more sugary than anywhere else in the world with our French toast and pancakes that we down in syrup (and of course don’t forget Paula Dean’s favorite: butter), the sausage and biscuits that swim in white gravy, cinnamon toast, and of rightfully included in the list, cereal. Although breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we as Americans have seem to forgotten that breakfast is important to our nutrition because it’s supposed to be healthy, which is not what we have begun consuming in the past sixty five years.
– Katie Sober