Breakfasts of Champions

(The Global Origins of Daily First Meals)

It was the Tudors who first invented the concept of breakfast as we know it, despite the fact that they routinely skipped it. The word literally means the “break of fasting” from the previous night, but this first meal of the day is distinctly different in every culture and country.

Pancakes are the true fossils of breakfast foods; they’ve been around since prehistoric times. Nuclear Imaging has shown that the world’s oldest mummy – Otzi the Iceman – had just finished off a stack of bran meal flattened into a pancake before he died. His name was a nod to the Otzal Alps (a region bordering Austria and Italy), where his skeleton was discovered in 1991. The first-ever, freeze-dried human specimen, Otzi had been well preserved by the ice pocket he fell into 5,300 years ago. He spent more than fifty centuries entombed in ice and when found; his brain, eyeballs, even his penis and internal organs were intact (hence the ability to study what his last meal had been).

In Ancient Egypt, both the peasants and their strict Pharaoh commanders filled up on bread, beer and onions before hitting the fields. Leeks, beans and fruit were often added to this morning diet. Few wells existed, and no one wanted to drink directly from the Nile, so flasks of barley-based beer were an essential. I can only hope the workers were spaced far and well apart. I wouldn’t have wanted to be around the after-effects of such a gastric combo!

In the Middle Ages, Europeans had just two formal mealtimes: one midday and one in the evening. (Those Tudors took their time getting breakfasts added to the roster.) Soldiers in Rome woke up to thick, steaming porridge, made of polenta, spelt or barley. In Asia, the rice porridge called Congee from the Zhou Dynasty (around 1000BC), is still a staple of their diet, whereas the American South boasts porridge made from maize, aka Grits. Longtime pig and chicken farmers of England started their days with what was readily at hand: bacon, sausage and eggs.

Unusual sweet breads and moist baked goods share a long history of preference as morning snacks. Croissants weren’t created until 1683 and not in France, but by a baker in Vienna, Austria. The German for cake is muffe, but the first time a muffins recipe was ever mentioned in print appeared in England in 1703, and the spelling read as “moofins”. A Colonial version called Mush Muffins (aka “Slipperdowns”), came from New England and were made with hominy; while the origins of its crustier cousin – the English Muffin – dates back to Wales in the 10th or 11th century.

Eating at dawn in the sixteenth century became a vital habit for those newly and regularly employed other than on their own farms and homesteads. Laborers soon found that long workdays without sustenance could be substantiated by having big meals at home early in the morning.

Early Colonists favored pancakes, but they were dry, unsweetened specimens. It was ages before sweet toppings evolved. Surprisingly, the indigenous people of North America were responsible for producing the now classic batter mates of maple syrup and maple sugar; Native Americans had been tapping trees long before any settlers arrived.

It was the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century that regularized working times and made it essential for both laborers and bosses to gorge on breakfasts before reporting for a day of long, unfed hours. The British had oatcakes (a biscuit-like bread), homemade jams, cheeses and crusty bread. Sometimes leftover meat pies were toted to fuel their days. Pies were such a popular commodity, there were always small stands selling them outside of factories.

Orphans, the destitute and factory workers often existed on a thin porridge called Gruel: basically oatmeal boiled in water and milk. More priviliged folk enjoyed Yorkshire Parkin – a sweet and sticky gingerbread made from black treacle (molasses), margarine, powdered ginger and its cherished grace – a dose of brandy.

In 1878, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (who presided over a sanitarium), invented both Granola and then Cornflakes as part of his Puritan diet intended to suppress sexual desires and steer Americans away from sin. Fat chance. But it did intoduce two elements of food that have become modern staples of the American breakfast diet: granola and boxed cereal.

Growing up, family meals in my house were sparse and sporadic; formal gatherings evolved only during holidays or in the presence of company. We all kept different schedules and were expected to fend for ourselves, certainly in terms of breakfast and lunch. I grew up thinking all my peers had similar lifestyles and ate carrots and bananas to kickstart their days.

Even now, I still tend to skip breakfasts, although coffee is an essential launch to my mornings. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in Britian that tea lost its title as “most preferred beverage” to java. Before coffee, many people started their days with alcohol. For ancient Egyptians, beer and bread was the morning meal, while Romans and Ancient Greeks preferred wine.

Coffee is said to have had its origins in Ethiopia, when a goat herder named Kaldi found his flock cavorting energetically after grazing on the red fruit of coffee plants. The goats were so gleefully rambunctious and fired up, they even refused to sleep at night. The flockmaster had his brainstorm: “If it’s good for goats…”!

For those whose workdays were interminably long and arduous, coffee quickly became a vital drug to combat fatigue and has certainly remained so. But the concept of breakfast serves the same impetus and energy boost: igniting one’s metabolism, helping burn calories and balancing blood sugar levels.

However or wherever we reside, revitalizing one’s self at the start of a new day is quite the nutritional sunrise.

However or wherever we reside, revitalizing one’s self at the start of a new day is quite the nutritional sunrise.

Published by Humanity Tales

Mine has been a life defined by words, paint and performances. Having earned a BFA with Honors from Pratt Institute. I've exhibited and am collected globally; illustration clients include Warner Bros. Records and Henson Associates. A Russian-trained acrobat, I was a founding member of Big Apple Circus, Circus Smikus and Friendly Bros. Circus, and toured with ballet and theatre productions. Physical and visual arts taught me to be observant and writing journals have accompanied all my lifelong travels. From them, I have compiled my stories of life in NYC and on the road into a comprehensive narrative memoir. This blog represents separate compositions evoked by these recent difficult times.

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