The story of breakfast

Breakfast literally means to break one’s fast, and has its origin in the Christian custom of fasting between supper Holy Communion the following morning. A related word that you probably don’t know is jentacular, an adjective which means of, or relating to breakfast. Alas, it has fallen into disuse. We would have to use something like breakfasty or breakfastish, but I don’t like them. This extract from John Murray’s 1820 The New Family Receipt-Book shows the majesty of this word:

To valetudinarians (a person of a weak or sickly constitution) and others the following method of making coffee for breakfast is earnestly recommended, as a most wholesome and pleasant jentacular beverage.”

Breakfasts vary and have varied throughout history and depending on the part of the world you are looking at The Romans didn’t really eat it, usually consuming only one meal a day around noon. The Romans thought that eating one meal a day was healthier; having two meals a day was gluttony. In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate. Nothing was supposed to be eaten before morning Mass. There were also restrictions on the consumption of meat, which could only be eaten for around half the days of the year. Collop Monday was the day before Shrove Tuesday. People wanted to use up meat, with pork and bacon being the most typical, before the start of Lent. The meat was often eaten with eggs, which also had to be used up. Thus bacon and eggs, precursor of the full English breakfast, was born.

It is thought that it wasn’t until the 17th Century that eating breakfast became prevalent among all social classes. With the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. In the 19th Century hunting parties became all the rage in aristocratic circles. These parties could go on for weeks and participants would want sustenance. Breakfasts of up to 24 dishes would be served. It was not just the upper classes. With the onset of Industrial Revolution working hours meant that factory workers and labourers needed a substantial early meal to sustain them at work.

The next important change came at the end of the 19th Century. It was in America where the breakfast cereal was born. John Harvey Kellogg accidentally left some boiled maize out and it went stale. He passed it through some rollers and baked it, creating the world’s first cornflake. Kellogg, who was a teetotal, vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist, was quite a character. In his sanatorium in Battle Creek, his pride and joy was an enema machine that would run water several gallons through the bowel. Every water enema was followed by a pint of yogurt — half was eaten, the other half was administered by … enema. The idea was to create a squeaky-clean intestine. This practice never really caught on.

Kellogg was also an advocate of sexual abstinence and an impassioned campaigner against masturbation; Kellogg thought that diet played a huge role in masturbation and one that was bland would put a dampener on all these sexual urges and prevent masturbation. He hoped that feeding children this plain cereal every morning would rid society of “self-abuse”

What began as a wacko religious, pseudo scientific health-food cure become a massive business. Will, Kellogg’s brother, was a more worldly man. He wanted to add sugar, and when John refused to countenance it, he started selling the cereals through his own business, which became the Kellogg Company.

The majority of modern cereals are basically modifications of the original types with added sugar or flavourings, or in new shapes. All Bran, which is in fact only 87% bran, was invented in the 1920s by John L. Kellogg, the original John Kellogg’s nephew. It was indeed a convenient way of using up bran left over from other products, and its laxative properties marked a return to the company’s health food origins.

I do like a good full English breakfast and I never say no a bowl of porridge. Nevertheless, there are many traditions and rituals around the world. In Spain it is typical to have two breakfasts, a small one at home. France of course has its croissants and café au lait in France, and Spain its chocolate and churros. Traditional Indian breakfasts include dal, rice, breads, samosas, and fruit.  In the Middle East bread, yoghurt, fruit, and preserves are staples. I have never been to Mexico, but I like the sound of a traditional Mexican breakfast, which consists of Huevos Rancheros eggs accompanied by beans with chile and tortillas. I’m not quite so sure about elephant’s foot. In 1790, François Le Vaillant was given an elephant’s foot for breakfast while visiting the Hottentot (Khoi) tribe of south-western Africa. This is how he described it in his journal:

“…it exhaled such a savoury odour, that I soon tasted and found it to be delicious. I … could not conceive that so gross and heavy an animal as the Elephant, would afford such delicate food. “Never,” said I, “can our modern epicures have such a dainty at their tables; let forced fruits and the contributions of various countries contribute to their luxury, yet cannot they procure so excellent a dish as I have now before me.”

Now I’m going to jenticulate. But I think I’ll give elephant’s foot a miss.

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