“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it’s the meal that gets the day started.” This oft-quoted adage is credited to Lenna Frances Cooper, dean of Battle Creek Sanitarium School of Home Economics. She was also co-founder of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The nurse-dietitian’s words became an advertising slogan in 1944 to promote Grape-Nuts and Post Toasties Corn Flakes for Postum Cereal Company. Owner C.W. Post was a business competitor of health food pioneer Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who was superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Dr. Kellogg invented granola to improve the digestive health of his patients. Post, a former sanitarium patient, reportedly learned many of the production details during his stay.
Dr. Kellogg and his brother William Keith (W.K.) were the first to produce “Corn Flakes” cereal. In 1906, Will founded the W.K. Kellogg Company and manufactured ready-to-eat cereal products as breakfast foods. The company began to fortify cereal with vitamins and minerals in 1938.
Nineteenth-century America suffered from dyspepsia, also known as indigestion. Heavy fare such as beefsteak and eggs, salted meats, fried potatoes, boiled rice with syrup, and pie were consumed at breakfast as well as dinner. Dr. Kellogg warned, “The human gastric machine has broken down.” His dietary cure started with a bowlful of cold cereal. It was just what the doctor ordered. At the turn of the century, a new era of health and convenience had begun. Cereal became the quintessential American breakfast food. “What’s more American than cornflakes?” sang Bing Crosby in a popular song in 1968.
Breakfast Debate: To Eat it, or Not
For some adults, breakfast is the best meal of the day; their breakfast expectations include eggs and bacon, pancakes, or French toast. Others get by grabbing a muffin or protein bar and a cup of coffee on the way out of the door. Around 25 percent of Americans skip breakfast because they are short on time, they aren’t hungry, or they dislike breakfast foods.
A new study from The Ohio State University College of Medicine suggests breakfast skippers are more likely to miss out on key nutrients and make unhealthier food choices during the day. The human body is regulated by circadian rhythms — our internal body clock — that continuously calibrate themselves to external cues. In the early morning, they synchronize with light exposure and food. Some health experts say skipping breakfast may disrupt circadian rhythms leading to increased risk for metabolic disorders such as type-2 diabetes.
Although studies are inconsistent and inconclusive as to the influence of breakfast on managing body weight, everyone can benefit from consuming nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, eggs, fresh fruit, 100-percent fruit juices, and dairy, preferably within an hour or two of waking. Nutritionist Adelle Davis (1904-1974) instructed, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”
A Bite of History
The word breakfast (“break the night’s fast”) is from the Middle English “brekfast.” It first appeared in written English in the late 15th century. Prior to this, breakfast was of little consequence; it wasn’t endowed with the prestige of the other meals until the 18th century. Midmorning dinner was the first and most important meal of the day. (Dinner, or desjeuner in Old French, which means “stop fasting,” goes back to Latin jejunus, or “fasting.”) Supper, the second meal, was eaten before dusk.
Collop Monday, Pancake Tuesday
In the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church exerted a strong, lasting influence on people’s diets. Long periods of strict fasting were imposed throughout the year. Church law decreed personal behaviors such as the time one could eat and when the foods could be eaten. Breakfast was banned since breaking-the-fast during Lent wasn’t allowed before Nones, or 3 p.m. prayers.
Shrove Monday or “Collop Monday” was the final day to cook and eat meat before the long fasting period of Lent. Collop is an old Scandinavian word for a small, thin slice of meat. Collops of salted or smoked bacon were eaten with eggs for dinner. This tradition may have been the basis for our modern breakfast of bacon and eggs.
On the following day, Shrove Tuesday or “pancake day,” people feasted on pancakes to use up eggs, dairy, and suet left from Shrove Monday. The shriving bell once summoned the faithful to confession. It’s now the “pancake bell” and heralds the pancake-day festivities. Pancake flipping and pancake races have occurred in Olney, Buckinghamshire, since 1445. In centuries past, children reciting rhymes went around in groups asking for pancake treats. Should nothing be given, some indulged in “Lent crocking” — lobbing broken pottery pieces at cottage doors. In New Orleans, Shrove Tuesday is the French Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday.” The “feast before the fast” is celebrated with crepes and pancakes.
The Great English Breakfast
Mealtime hours were slowly shifting. In the 18th century, dinner was eaten late in the day. Breakfast assumed a more important role and had become a separate meal. It was served around 9 a.m. — the same hour earlier generations ate dinner. “To eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day …” advised writer W. Somerset Maugham.
The landed gentry, a new social group, were the “guardians of English countryside life.” They leisurely entertained guests with lavish breakfasts in their “great country houses.” Sideboards and tables held country fare that showcased seasonal ingredients from the estates: cold joints, savory pies of fish or game, bacon, ham, sausage, eggs, “devilled” kidneys, Indian kedgeree, toast and marmalade, greenhouse fruits, and more.
The tradition continues today in the Full English Breakfast, also called the “Fry-Up” or “Full English.” The Victorians helped standardize the ingredients; the Edwardians made it accessible to the middle class. The meal includes fried or poached eggs served slightly runny, back bacon and sausage, blood sausage called black pudding, grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms, baked beans as an American influence, and fried or toasted bread.
A Spirited Breakfast
European settlers brought their appetites for alcohol to North America. Most Colonists started the day with an eye-opener of beer, rum, or hard cider. Everyone drank, including toddlers. Chocolate was a luxurious breakfast drink for the wealthy. Martha Washington steeped cocoa bean husks in hot water to make a breakfast tisane with a chocolaty aroma and flavor. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the popularity of coffee skyrocketed. Sixty-five percent of coffee consumption today occurs during breakfast.
Coffee offers health benefits, but a 2020 study from the University of Bath, UK, says black coffee before breakfast, especially after a poor night’s sleep, has a negative effect on glucose metabolism by about 50 percent. The authors of the study say it’s better to drink coffee during, or preferably, after breakfast. If you need that early morning cup, add dairy or a non-dairy flavored creamer with low sugar to prime your metabolism before breakfast (the second meal) and slow the absorption of blood sugar.
South Carolina’s rich heritage of foodways reflects influences from England, Africa, France, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Spain, and the Caribbean. Breakfast in America often mirrors the fast pace of modern life, yet our diverse tastes and rituals reveal a long, winding history of global influence. We each hold tightly to our breakfast traditions, yet dishes tend to become hybridized in a way that creates a multicultural vibrancy. We are richer for it. It’s in our culinary DNA to be curious and explore the food rituals of different immigrant groups. This reflects the true spirit of the American breakfast.
Scottish Oatmeal Pancakes
Oatmeal is a wholesome, whole-grain food high in complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber. It helps keep energy levels steady and hunger pangs at bay. Scotland’s “oat cuisine” includes drop scones — “Scotch pancakes” made by dropping dollops of batter onto the griddle. Queen Elizabeth shared her recipe version with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. In Camden, South Carolina, 18th century Scottish settlers made “bonny clabber” and sweetened the soured, thick cream with molasses for breakfast. In the same spirit, serve these pancakes with crème fraîche or sour cream and homemade applesauce or sugared apple slices sauteed in butter. Butter and maple syrup are fine too. The custom of pancake stacks started in Colonial America.
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup whole buttermilk (shake before measuring)
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons molasses or light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground mace, nutmeg, or cinnamon
3 tablespoons safflower or light olive oil (plus extra for greasing the griddle)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, to taste
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoon rolled oats, if desired
Put oats, buttermilk, eggs, molasses, vanilla, mace, oil, and salt into a blender. Blend until smooth, then pour into a large bowl. Sift the next three dry ingredients (not the rolled oats). Stir flour mixture and oats into the buttermilk mixture just to combine; do not over mix. Let the batter stand for 10 minutes. Wipe a griddle or large skillet with oil. When heated to medium heat, pour ½ cup batter onto the griddle. Cook 1½ to 2 minutes or until the top begins to set and the bottom is medium brown. Turn and cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Adjust heat as necessary. The pancakes brown quickly; watch carefully. Do not turn pancake again. Keep warm while making the remaining pancakes. Makes about eight (6-inch) pancakes or 16 slightly smaller pancakes using a ¼ cup measure.
Variation: Gluten-free Oatmeal Pancakes
In a blender, process 2 cups rolled oats until powdery. Add in ¾ cup whole fat plain Greek yogurt and ¾ cup whole milk, 2 large eggs, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and ½ teaspoon fine sea salt. Scrape batter into a large bowl. After a 10-minute rest, prepare as directed above.
Shakshuka, which originated in the Maghreb countries of Northwest Africa, is a breakfast favorite throughout the Middle East. I first tasted it in London at Honey & Co., an iconic Israeli cafe. It was love at first bite! Shakshuka is a highly personalized dish. Chickpeas, spinach, or zucchini can be added or finishing spices like Aleppo pepper — mildly hot, chili flakes — or za’atar. Serve with labneh (strained yogurt), olives, avocado, flatbread, and mint tea. I often spoon portions into large bowls of hot, stone-ground grits. Make the sauce 3 or 4 days in advance; refrigerate. Reheat, then poach eggs on the stovetop or in a hot oven. Or cook eggs separately, to order, and arrange over the sauce. Four individual portions can be prepared using 6-inch-wide ramekins or small casserole dishes that each hold 1 cup of sauce.
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 small onion plus 2 shallots, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, seeded, diced
1½ teaspoon slightly crushed cumin seeds or ½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon each ground cinnamon and cardamom
1 teaspoon smoky or sweet paprika
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1-28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (or 3½ cups chopped, ripe tomatoes)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon harissa (Tunisian hot pepper paste) or 1 minced fresh, hot chili
¾ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste
Juice of ¼ lemon
4 to 6 free-range, organic large eggs
Fresh cilantro, basil leaves, flat-leaf parsley, or mint leaves, shredded or a blend
About ½ cup crumbled feta cheese, if desired
Place a 10-inch cast-iron or enameled cast-iron skillet or casserole with oil over medium-low heat. Saute onion, shallots, and bell pepper 20 minutes to soften; avoid browning. Stir in cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, and paprika; stir 1 minute. Stir in garlic, then add tomatoes, tomato paste, harissa, sugar, salt, and pepper. Simmer on low heat about 20 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times. Sauce will thicken slightly and develop a rich flavor. If too thick, stir in up to ½ cup water. Add lemon juice. Crack one egg at a time into a custard cup; pour each one into a well pressed in the sauce. Simmer on low heat, partially covered, 7 to 8 minutes or in a preheated 375 F oven 10 to 12 minutes. The cooking times may vary; the egg whites should be set with slightly runny yolks. Sprinkle with herbs and feta, if used. Carry skillet to the table for serving or divide into 3 or 4 portions.
Variation: Shakshuka Pizza
Prepare a pizza by spreading a large round of pizza dough with the sauce; top evenly with eggs and feta. Bake in a 450 F oven until the crust is done and the eggs have set. Garnish with cilantro.
If you prefer nontraditional breakfast foods, try this greens and quinoa salad. Five years ago, the idea of salad for breakfast was trendy; now it’s mainstream. Tomas J. Murray’s 1885 cookbook Fifty Salads featured a “Breakfast Salad” composed of tomato, cucumber, lettuce, and fresh tarragon. He was a chef at Astor House, New York’s first luxury hotel. It’s true — “everything old is new again!” Salad-like dishes are a morning tradition in many world cuisines. To meet nutritional requirements, include protein, seasonal veggies, fruits, power greens, healthy fats like nuts or avocado, and energy grains like quinoa, lentils, or brown rice. Organize ahead for quick assembly, like preparing the quinoa, dressing, and greens.
1 cup uncooked quinoa, cooked in 1¾ cups vegetable stock (for 3 cups grain)
3 cups baby greens such as kale, arugula, spinach, and fresh herbs
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon Dijon
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons minced shallot
¼ teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 free range, organic eggs, preferably extra-large or jumbo
¼ cup pomegranate arils
Roasted hazelnuts or pecans
4 slices cooked, crispy bacon, torn into pieces, if desired
¼ cup crumbled goat cheese or feta, if desired
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Prepare quinoa following package directions but use the proportions above. You’ll need about 1½ cups cooked quinoa. To make dressing, put vinegar, orange juice, Dijon, honey, shallot, sea salt, and oil in a small jar with a lid; shake to blend; set aside. Bring a small, deep pot of water to boil; add eggs, then cook 6 to 7 minutes, to preferred doneness. Rinse and peel soft-cooked eggs under cold water; set aside. Eggs can also be poached or cooked sunny side up. Put greens in a large bowl; drizzle in dressing, as needed, then toss to mix. Divide salad between two serving plates. Put half the cooked quinoa on each salad. Sprinkle with pomegranate, nuts, then add goat cheese and bacon, if used. Place an egg on each plate; cut in half; add seasoning. Serves 2.
Pumpkin Bran Muffins
Grab one of these moist, tasty muffins on a busy morning. They keep well several days — if they last. Sometimes I include ½ cup chopped dates and serve the warm muffins upside-down drizzled with homemade caramel sauce for dessert.
½ cup rolled oats
1 cup Raisin Bran cereal with cranberries and raisins
¾ cup whole buttermilk
½ cup mashed, cooked pumpkin
½ cup light brown sugar
⅓ cup light olive oil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon each salt, ground cinnamon, allspice, and ginger
½ cup all-purpose flour or white whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a nonstick, 12-cup muffin tin. In a large bowl, combine oats and cereal. Stir in buttermilk well, then mix in pumpkin, brown sugar, oil, and egg. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining dry ingredients 30 seconds. Stir into cereal mixture just until moistened. Scoop batter into muffin cups. Bake 15 to 18 minutes or until the muffins test done. Cool, then remove from the pan. Makes about 9 muffins. Adapted from Cooking with Grains by Price, Stern, Sloan by Susan Slack.
Variation: Pumpkin Cranberry Bran Muffins
Omit Raisin Bran with cranberries; use a bran flakes cereal with raisins. Divide 1 cup fresh cranberries; stir ¾ cup into the batter; use the rest to decorate muffin tops before baking. Optional: Sprinkle with chopped nuts. Bake as instructed.
Frozen fruit gives smoothies a thick, frosty consistency. In place of syrup or honey, substitute 2 or 3 pitted Medjool dates, coarsely chopped. You can add 2 to 3 teaspoons grated, fresh ginger root. Pumpkin Spice Greek Yogurt (Chobani) can be used when in season. I painted a ribbon of yogurt inside the glass before pouring in the smoothie, then spooned a tablespoon of homemade Nutty Granola on top (recipe below).
½ cup almond or coconut milk (more, if needed)
1 small frozen, sliced banana
1 cup frozen mango chunks
½ cup plain pumpkin puree
½ cup organic, plain low-fat yogurt, such as Stonyfield brand
½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
2 or 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup or honey, to taste
Process all the ingredients in a high-speed blender 2 to 3 minutes until thick and smooth.
If needed, add a little more almond milk to make blending easier. Pour into 2 chilled glasses, then top with Nutty Granola. Serves 2.
Bacon and Swiss Cheese Strata (Overnight Casserole)
Nathalie Dupree calls this recipe “strata’s answer to quiche.” She says, “Think of it as a bacon and eggs breakfast. It can be baked as soon as it is assembled but it is best when mixed a day before baking. The baked casserole may be made ahead and reheated, or frozen.” She shares another useful entertaining tip: the mixture can be baked in individual ramekins or big muffin cups. Serve the strata with seasonal fresh fruit on the side.
2 to 3 tablespoons (⅓ stick) butter
¼ cup finely chopped shallots
10 slices white bread
2 ½ cups shredded Swiss cheese
9 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups milk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (plain or whole grain)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish or two shallow 1½-quart casserole dishes. In a skillet or microwave, cook the bacon until crisp. Drain it and let cool. Break the bacon into 1-inch pieces and put into a large zip-type plastic bag. In a small skillet, melt the butter; add the shallots, and saute. Set aside to cool slightly. Trim the crusts from the bread slices and cut the slices into 1-inch pieces. Add to the plastic bag. Add the cooked shallots and the cheese to the plastic bag and shake to combine. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, mustard, and thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour the egg mixture into the plastic bag and seal, carefully squeezing out the excess air. For safety, slide this bag, zipper end first, into a second zip-type plastic bag and seal. If possible, refrigerate overnight. An hour before serving, pour the mixture into the baking dish or casseroles and spread evenly. Bake, covered with a lid or foil for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes. Serves 6 to 8. From Nathalie Dupree’s Comfortable Entertaining.
Sprinkle on top of smoothies, yogurt, fruit salads, oatmeal, or fruit compotes before baking.
2 cups rolled oats
½ cup sliced almonds
1 cup pecan or walnut pieces
½ cup roasted pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or sunflower kernels
2 tablespoons light olive oil or safflower oil
3 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup, to taste
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon each: cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup dried fruit such as cranberries, cherries, raisins, or chopped apricots
Preheat oven to 300 F. In a large bowl, combine oats, almonds, pecans, and pepitas. In a small bowl, blend oil, maple syrup, vanilla, and spice; stir into oat mixture to coat well. Spread granola over a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake about 40 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times or until aromatic and crispy. Remove from the oven; stir in dried fruit. Cool, then store in an airtight container. Makes about 5 cups.