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“Breads, mush, cakes, porridge: the average early American cook was like a composer scoring a symphony with only one note available”

A Brief History of Breakfast

Words by Sarah Suksiri Photographs by Young & Hungry

This all-important meal has quite the storied past—and present. 

Before there were forefathers and Stamp Acts and rebel tea parties in the local harbor, there were many uses for corn on the breakfast table. Breads, mush, cakes, porridge: the average early American cook was like a composer scoring a symphony with only one note available. There was no wheat then, at least not yet, and no coffee, juice or tea; the cost of those exotic imports was not realistic for a small settlement on the other side of the ocean. Instead, the working man drank beer or hard cider, both beverages rich with fermented nutrients, before heading out into the new, unbroken fields.

Later, when people knew the land better, breakfast carried a more varied tune. Wheat was more available, and trade became easier as ship routes expanded. Fruits were grown and made into pies that could keep into the morning, a small miracle in the age before refrigeration. Animals were raised, meats cured and salt pork, bacon’s brother, could keep in the cellar for months.

The breakfast table grew modestly, a reflection of the earth’s slow yield and a testament to the rigor of the Puritan lifestyle. In his memoirs, Benjamin Franklin recalled, “We kept no idle servants, our table was plain and simple, our furniture of the cheapest. For instance, my breakfast was a long time bread and milk (no tea), and I ate it out of a two-penny earthen porringer, with a pewter spoon.”1 The unadorned table was a thing of pride, proof of a life too occupied with honest work for ornamentation.

As the country flourished, one change led to many more, and soon, a small settlement became a state. A union of them became a nation. In the south, breakfast was a grand affair, long and leisurely and late in the morning, made possible by an economy run on slavery: biscuits and gravy, fried ham and oysters, even imported chocolate warmed with milk. Northerners, ever frugal, were appalled by this extravagance, but perhaps their appetites were more forgiving.

More people came and settled, and with them came their breakfast tables. The Swedes brought coffee cake. The Danish brought their pastries, the Austrians strudel and the Dutch oliebollen. It was as if someone were hosting a party and had sent out invitations in a dozen languages, instructing everyone to bring something new to try.

And so it went, the steady rhythms of days and work. Bread and cheese and cold meats were eaten in the summer months for energy, and iced currants, slices of watermelon and cantaloupe halves were enjoyed on golden, sultry mornings. In the winter, the fire kept the buckwheat cakes and baked pumpkin warm, foods prized for their comfort and heat.

Eventually, driven to offices and city centers, few people worked at home, fewer gathered at midday to eat, and the evening meal developed into a lavish event. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter that a British gentleman, bored of the formal dinner fuss and nostalgic for the candidness of breakfast, felt that “You invite a man to dinner because you must invite him…but you invite a man to breakfast because you want to see him.”

Though breakfast continued to be dramatically transformed by industrialization, fit into cardboard boxes and sold at stores—a long way from the porridge of corn that needed hours of tending—some things remain the same: we still gather in the most intimate hours of the day to make plans and to fortify each other, both in sustenance and society. We still share the foods and traditions that make up a part of who we are and where we’ve been, be it on a ship that traveled across the ocean or the one in the dream we just woke from. We still come to the table like pilgrims, wanting a fresh start in the new world that is each day.

1 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Gordon S. Haight, PhD (New York: Walter J. Black, 1941), 125. 

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