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A geography of breakfast

Savoury steamed buns are one breakfast option in London’s Chinatown Savoury steamed buns are one breakfast option in London’s Chinatown Maggiezhu
09 Feb
2015
Doughnuts, eels, and bean curd buns feature on breakfast menus across the world. Geographical looks at global breakfasts, from the full English to beyond

Invented, reinvented, neglected, and sometimes ignored completely, breakfast is a meal that fought for a place at the table.

‘Nobody really writes about breakfast in the mainstream media, people always review lunch and dinner,’ says Seb Emina, who founded the website The London Review of Breakfasts after a particularly disappointing fry-up in east Dulwich.

Soon he was collecting reviews from across the world, a project that eventually led Emina to write The Breakfast Bible

‘Breakfast is a more tectonic meal than the other ones. It changes more slowly than the others,’ says Emina. ‘One trend I have noticed is coffee. The Australian coffee wave hit London with considerable force, although now it’s trailing off. The flat whites aren’t as good anymore,’ he adds. ‘High end restaurants are serving breakfast whereas before they might have only opened for lunch service and onwards, and it’s seen as something of a trophy meal.’

While British breakfasts move at a geological pace, change is faster in America. ‘Breakfast in the US has probably changed more than any of the other meals and has at times embodied rather contrasting ideals,’ says Abigail Carroll, a cultural historian. ‘Breakfast has long served as a barometer of health trends in America, and as a result it is the most moralised of all of our meals. Breakfast is laced with shoulds and shouldn’ts.’

Carroll draws a contrast with how people think about dinner. ‘Morals around dinner have to do with manners and sociality more than health. As ideas about health have changed, so have breakfast ideals,’ she says.

Emina agrees that people think about breakfast differently to other meals. ‘Repetition is a theme. Everybody tends to have the same meal day in and day out everyday. We tend to feel ashamed of having the same thing for dinner. There’s no reticence in admitting breakfast repetition,’ he says. ‘It is a myth that we don’t have time to eat anything more than a bowl of cereal, and a myth pushed forward by people who have a vested interest in convincing us that is the case.’

shutterstock 100780297The full English breakfast ‘experience’ (Image: vichie81)

Eating history

The economic pressure for a short breakfast goes back to the late 19th century. ‘In our capitalist society, a light and quick breakfast saves time that can be spent earning money. The idea of convenience is deeply intertwined with breakfast, and that relationship goes back to the second half of the 19th century,’ says Carroll.

And as people feel more economically stretched, breakfasts become shorter still. ‘Instead of cereal and milk or toast and coffee, Americans are opting for breakfast bars and yogurt products. Breakfast food is moving more and more in the direction of a snack. It’s a food occasion that does not necessarily involve cooking, clean up, silverware, or even sitting down,’ says Carroll.

But before all this change could happen, breakfast had to be invented, and some places haven’t event got that far yet. Climate can means that in some countries there is no demand for a morning meal. ‘It is not just something there in the world that everyone has. In many cultures, especially in hot climates you might eat your first meal later. It’s the same in the south of Europe,’ says Emina.

Even the word ‘breakfast’ is tricky to link to a morning meal. ‘Looking for the word ‘breakfast’ in many languages can be struggle until you realise the word for ‘breakfast’ is also the word for ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’ because it simply means to eat after a period of not eating. It’s the same in English, ‘dinner’ comes from the French meaning ‘to break one’s fast,’ says Emina.

shutterstock 109342949Typical American breakfast pancakes (Image: Jill Chen)

Morning in America

What is consumed at a typical western breakfast has been reinvented over time. At first, there was no such thing as breakfast food on US tables.

‘In the 1600s and early 1700s, breakfast was likely to consist of leftovers from dinner or supper the previous day consumed reheated or cold. It might look like a hasty pudding or it might look like bread and cheese, perhaps beer,’ says Carroll.

As settlers became more established in the mid-1700s, new items arrived on the breakfast table. Meat was served, often multiple meats types. ‘Breakfast looks a lot like dinner, and European travellers often comment about this in their travelogues,’ adds Carroll. At this point in history, breakfast was generally the second largest meal of the day, according to Carroll.

In the mid-1800s, technological advances helped muffins on to breakfast tables. Quick breads, such as muffins and popovers, previously associated with tea, became breakfast regulars.

‘These appear on the scene thanks to the invention of the cookstove, increased affordability and availability of wheat with the opening of the mid-Atlantic and Midwest via the Erie Canal, and the invention of a number of chemical leavening agents,’ says Carroll.

shutterstock 16591399The popover, a Yorkshire pudding-like bun, was a breakfast impossibility until the right oven technology arrived (Image TW)

US breakfast tables became very mixed, with meat and breads competing for space. ‘Breakfast could look pretty eclectic at this time,’ says Carroll. ‘Henry David Thoreau recorded a breakfast he consumed in 1848 while on Cape Cod. It included eel, applesauce, doughnuts, and buttermilk cake.’

By the mid to late 1800s, American stomachs groaned under the breakfast variety. ‘As people move to the cities and leave behind their agricultural lifestyle, and as they embrace more sedentary ways but continue to eat a farmer’s breakfast, their stomachs suffer,’ says Carroll. Reformers began to advocate a vegetarian, grain-based breakfast as a solution to pacify America’s gut. ‘A new kind of breakfast is born – a light, vegetarian meal that is seen by the early reformers as having biblical roots,’ says Carroll. ‘Cold breakfast cereals are born. Toast and coffee are another iteration of this paradigm – although early reformers would not have approved of the coffee,’ she adds.

Discussing breakfast wouldn’t be possible without mentioning Kellogg, or rather the Kellogg brothers. ‘John Harvey Kellogg was a doctor deeply motivated to serve his patients, but his brother William Keith Kellogg was an entrepreneur who cared less for improving patients’ health than making money,’ says Carroll.

William Keith Kellogg is a big reason why breakfast cereal did not end up as a health food primarily served at health institutions. ‘William Keith is responsible for getting word out and making breakfast cereal available to the public, and he’s also the one responsible for the introduction of sugar to Corn Flakes, which probably helped popularise the product,’ says Carroll.

John Harvey Kellogg’s Seventh Day Adventist faith included dietary laws that disapproved of sugar and while John Harvey may have wanted cornflakes available on prescription only, a former patient, Charles W. Post, began a marketing campaign to make breakfast cereal the standard American breakfast.

Sugar and marketing proved an irresistible combination, establishing breakfast cereal as a staple. Cereal is so successful that 30 per cent of cereal in Mexico and the US is consumed beyond ‘the breakfast occasion’, according to a 2012 Kelloggs report

shutterstock 195077114Anyone for loco moco? (Image: Leigh Anne Meeks)

Monocultural meal 

Breakfasts in the UK have been more stable than the US. ‘In London, everything is still a variation on the same theme: eggs, carbs and maybe pancakes,’ says Emina. It’s a pattern he sees across the world, with eggs always a particular favourite.

As a megacity though, London can still manage variety. ‘The classic Chinese cafes in Chinatown serve pastries that would definitely push the boat out from a western perspective. There the red curd bean pastries have much more variety in terms of filling,’ says Emina. ‘The Malaysian canteen under the Malaysian embassy serves spicy curry for breakfast.’

Breakfast cultures may not have mixed yet in London, but some places have achieved a multicultural breakfast. ‘One of the weirder breakfasts is in Hawaii, a dish called loco moco,’ says Emina. ‘It means ‘crazy snot’.’

While there appears to be consensus on ‘loco’ being taken from the Portuguese or Spanish for ‘crazy’, the internet is divided on ‘moco’ with some cooking websites translating it as ‘mix’ while others, perhaps modestly, translate ‘loco’ alone.

‘It’s a strange mishmash of appropriate geographical influences, Hawaii formerly being the Sandwich Islands, controlled by Britain and then America as a trans-Pacific outpost,’ says Emina.

The loco moco consists of white rice, a burger patty, a fried egg and gravy. ‘So there’s the British influence there, but I can’t say I finished the one I had,’ adds Emina.


Breakfast is always going on somewhere in the world. Seb Emina and Daniel Jones started the website Global Breakfast Radio, which plays breakfast radio from wherever dawn is breaking. ‘There’s one in Uruguay which plays old, scratchy Spanish music. There’s one local station called Ancient FM in Canada that plays medieval music. Even if it’s just Bon Jovi, if it’s from a remote Pacific island it’s great to think of people listening while it’s playing in my kitchen,’ says Emina.

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