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opular opinion in today’s world is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Mention it now and people have no trouble emphasizing its importance. We have been conditioned as such. Whole studies have been conducted by eager medical researchers to prove that the energy a first meal in the morning brings cannot be replaced. Memory improves, children are less likely to misbehave, and people are more likely to work for longer periods of time without losing their energy. And still, people—especially the working man or woman—frequently choose to skip that all-important first meal and replace it with coffee or in some cases, nothing at all. Are those people missing anything from their daily diet? Probably. But they are also following a long and historic pattern of ignoring breakfast as a whole.

In the days of the Roman Empire, most of its citizens were led to believe that only one meal was necessary in a day and that meal typically happened later on. In Native American tribes, people snacked on bits of food throughout the day but often skipped the big meals. In Europe during the Middle Ages, like in the Roman Empire before, people mostly shunned the idea of breakfast. As Europe continued to modernize, the rich began to embrace that first meal but those who were poorer still pushed it aside. Breakfast was not a romanticized idea. Some saw it as pointless while others saw it as being an expensive luxury. In Christian circles, it was even seen as a sign of sinful behaviour. The prominent Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that eating after a long period of sleep was a sign of gluttony. Some even believed that eating first thing in the morning was a sign of one’s overt sexual desires. 

The English term “breakfast” actually came about as a way to ease people’s concerns over that first meal of the day. It is thought the term came into regular use during the Middle Ages and was meant to convey a breaking of the night’s “fast.” To have a meal first thing in the morning was therefore an almost religious experience.

You had fasted as long as you could, broken off the shackles of your sinful human desires and could now eat, filling both your soul and your stomach with the energy needed to get you through another day. And for all their attempts to avoid a hearty meal in the morning, religious rituals are actually responsible for the full English breakfast. Before Shrove Tuesday arrived and Lent began for many citizens of England, all the leftover meats in the house—typically pork—had to be eaten and it was often served with eggs. Still, breakfast remained mostly neglected until the Industrial Revolution in the 16th century. Why did things change? 

Kellogg’s Puts More Into Your Day

Notably, the development of whole grain cereals gave many Americans, and later many around the world, a ready-made excuse to have something first thing in the morning. In a time when people in the United States in particular were eating for breakfast the equivalent of what we today would consider a full course meal, cereal made it just that much easier to feed yourself in the morning. Nothing could have been simpler or more welcomed.

The introduction of cereal for breakfast by Breakfast in the marketing campaign “Mother Knows Kellog’s Best” from 1948 (Source: The Ladie’s Home Journal 1880)
The introduction of cereal for breakfast by Breakfast in the marketing campaign “Mother Knows Kellog’s Best” from 1948 (Source: The Ladie’s Home Journal 1880)

Americans had come to believe that what was being put on the table during that first meal was much too hearty for them to eat that early in the day. There was generally too much protein and the nation’s appetite for such a large meal was dwindling. People were genuinely concerned about their calorie intake. So, physician, inventor and businessman John Harvey Kellogg set out to fix it. Yes, that Kellogg. Unlike most, Kellogg and those healthy eaters just like him saw whole grains in a totally different light. They certainly had a unique flavour, but they provided much needed vitamins and would help balance the American diet, something that Kellogg believed had too much meat and spices. Kellogg also believed, rather naively, that it would suppress people’s sexual desires. Like Thomas Aquinas before him, Kellogg was wrong.

But, he was by no means wrong about people’s overall reaction to cereal. People readily embraced it and soon cereal became the most popular breakfast item in America. Recognizing the astounding success of the new product, General Foods even came up with a slogan to help sell it. This might sound familiar: “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” 

All Around The World

Because of items like cereal, which provided even the poorest families an opportunity to eat the first meal of the day, the custom of eating breakfast has now become a truly widespread practice. It’s not like people don’t understand breakfast. But around the world, like so many things often do, it differs. In Argentina, locals typically eat one of two things: tostados (toast) or medialunas, which are smaller, croissant-shaped pastries. The Argentinian breakfast is quick, to the point and a no-frills affair. Like so many other places in the world, coffee is the drink of choice. In Australia, Vegemite on toast is the preferred breakfast for many people, although if some find it to be not to their liking, a fry-up of bacon, eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes is likely to be served. Avocado toast with an egg is common as well. In the Eastern European nation of Bulgaria, a banitsa is a breakfast favourite. Made by whisking eggs together with cheese and baked in the oven, this pastry is typically served with yogurt and fermented grain drinks.

In the central region of Columbia, soup is often served for breakfast. Known as a chuanga, the soup contains water, milk, potatoes and a fresh egg on top. In Canada, bacon, eggs, pancakes and toast are all common breakfast items. Costa Rica typically has a dish called Gallo Pinta, which is a combination of both rice and beans. In Nigeria, locals like to eat something known as kosai, a deep-fried ball made with black-eyed peas, onions, dried chilli and fresh red chilli peppers. In South India, fluffy, steamed cakes made with a fermented batter of rice and lentils called idli is amongst the most popular choices for breakfast. Most Asian and Middle Eastern nations have a dish that involves rice. In poorer countries, eggs are very common.

Looking at a list like this can make the head spin over just how many flavours there truly are in the world. But that is really what makes the world unique. Although we have borrowed from one another over the years—simply the mark of globalization—each nation also has its own dishes that reflect its culture as a whole. Breakfast has certainly arrived.

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