Breakfast in America

Breakfast is a fundament of American cuisine and American culture.  A change here marks a change in other things. 

Consider these early warning signals from today’s New York Times.

Mark Bittman confesses,

[A] year or two ago, I started eating things at breakfast that you would more likely associate with dinner: black olives, quinoa, miso, dried tomatoes, sesame oil, bok choy, wheat berries, roasted carrots.

Mark says he eats these as left overs.  There is something odd about this.  Breakfast is for breaking the fast, not for renewing the meal after a longish pause. 

When Thomas Keller was creating French Laundry, his Napa Valley restaurant, he decided to raid breakfast for other meals.  He made doughnuts and coffee a dessert.  Julia Moskin explains,

Other top kitchens followed suit, starting with doughnuts and then strip-mining the entire breakfast menu, transforming greasy-spoon staples into minutely detailed desserts. Now, the familiar flavors of granola, scones, bacon, waffles, pancakes and even soggy cornflakes have become materials for the artists at the very top of the inventive and competitive pastry world.

Maybe it’s me, but “breakfast” and “minutely detailed” don’t look right in the same sentence.  Breakfast, as I understand it, is supposed to be rich, reckless, and in its very humble way sumptuous.  It’s supposed to be a reminder of the paradise lost that was sleep.  It’s supposed to be an apology for our rude awakening and to supply a culinary platform from which to survey the coming wonders, curiosities and challenges of the day.  If it’s “minutely detailed,” I think most of this is lost.  Lost on me, in any case.

Should breakfast be subject to these cultural transplantations?  Should it have to suffer the indignity of higher cuisines now prepared to slum their way into breakfast time?  As Russell Davies demonstrates in his superbly interesting study of the English case in point, breakfast has earned the right to traditional treatment.

And I don’t think elevation to fancy restaurants, the last meal of the day and the last plate of the meal is any real compensation.  Breakfast has no aspirations to upward mobility.  It knows who it is and where it belongs.  It shuns exposure to the vagaries of fashion, because in our culture it is one of the places to which people retreat when in retreat from fashion. 

If we are on the verge of a great restoration of traditional values, the better to batten down the hatches, as we ride out our latest perfect storm, I think breakfast may look forward to a restoration of its own.  Let us drive out the pretenders.  Let us repudiate the culinary experiments.  Make that two eggs over easy.  Black coffee.  Oh, and a large orange juice, please. 


Bittman, Mark. 2009. “Your Morning Pizza.” The New York Times, February 18 (Accessed February 18, 2009).

Davies, Russell. 2005. Egg, Bacon, Chips & Beans: 50 Great Cafes and the Stuff That Makes Them Great. HarperCollins UK.

Moskin, Julia. 2009. “Ending the Day Where It Began.” The New York Times, February 18 (Accessed February 18, 2009).

6 thoughts on “Breakfast in America

  1. Susan Kuchinskas

    oatmeal? Cornflakes? “rich and sumptuous”????? Yuck. As someone who hates milk and mushy things, I can see that my life would have been very different if I had learned earlier to eat things that I like for breakfast. Like an organic corn tortilla taco with low-fat cheese and brown rice. Now, that’s a breakfast.

    As American culture becomes increasingly influenced by our (most welcome!) influx of other ethnicities — most of which eat protein and not mush for breakfast — I wonder if our concept of a “proper” break-fast will continue to evolve. I sure hope so.

  2. Amy Alkon

    I’m with you on being attached to traditional versions of breakfast. For me, breakfast is a very comforting meal. I eat oatmeal or sometimes an egg and cheese on a roll. I’ve thought about eating other things. I sometimes have smoked salmon if I’m doing a TV or radio show in the morning, so I don’t have carbohydrates. But, it just seems too much to eat steak or a hamburger or a chicken or salad at breakfast.

    And it’s not that I’m adverse to trying new things. I grew up in the midwest, on gruel (mother into health food, terrible cook), and went to France and Italy and ate everything from brains to tail (cowtail at Perilli, in Rome). And I’ve since vastly transformed my palate. But, beans and tortillas are not wonderful food (others apparently feel differently). They’re poor people cuisine that people have tried to elevate. Thanks, but I’d rather have a hamburger.

  3. srp

    As a long-time breakfast-phobe–eggs are just plain gross (and whose stomach functions before they’ve been awake for a couple of hours?)–I must step away from my prejudices to analyze this fairly. The real trend in breakfast has been the drive for convenience. Ready-to-eat cereal consumption grew rapidly (before plateauing in the mid-Nineties) because it was more convenient than eggs and bacon and pancakes or even oatmeal (especially pre-microwave).

    But the gods of convenience are still not appeased. RTE cereal, while free of the need to cook, still requires utensils and two hands and a stable platform upon which to eat. The new frontier is breakfast bars and burritos and other one-handed foods that can be consumed while driving or riding the bus. Kellogg’s now gets less than half of of its revenue from cereal, where it was over 90% in 1995 or so.

    Perhaps the new homeyness of which Grant has written will reverse these trends toward food-on-the-go in the morning. I doubt it.

  4. Christopher

    I grew up in the midwest of the 1980s, with early school times and barely making it out of bed after 6 hours sleep — so breakfast was whatever we could have quickly. I often made it downstairs before mom. My dad a farm boy from Iowa was just as big a fan of cereal and milk as I was. Eggs? Bacon? Waffles? Pancakes? These are luxuries of the urban and suburban leisure class. People who don’t have to be at the school bus at 7:30 or out on the farm before dawn. These leisurely breakfast foods had long migrated to evenings — easy enough to prepare with time and something we never had in the mornings. So waffles at the dinner table, fresh blueberry pancakes, eggs — not uncommon for dinner. And like Seinfeld. A bowl of cereal or oatmeal is always the perfect anytime snack. Think I got through college on milk and cereal almost exclusively.

  5. Jeremy

    The real point of the Great British Breakfast, I think, is that it is one of the few British dishes that seems to be universally admired, even in the UK, where places advertise the “all-day breakfast”. There’s lots of good British cooking, don’t get me wrong, but the one that people find reliable and desirable is the breakfast.

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