So, What’s for Breakfast?
It’s the most important meal of the day. That’s the line we’ve all been fed since back in the cretaceous era. A few weeks ago I stumbled onto an article on priceonomics.com. As it turns out, the phrase goes back to a 1944 ad campaign by General Mills to sell Grape Nuts cereal. This was during the rise of the cereal industry, which wanted to establish breakfast in the public’s mind as a meal with distinctive foods, processed and ready to eat. The article went on to say we shouldn’t feel the need to eat breakfast if we’re not hungry, which goes without saying. Only weeks before I’d seen another article stating that 40% of Millennials don’t eat breakfast because it’s just too much trouble.
Whenever I think of breakfast, and nuts, I can’t help thinking of the greatest breakfast nut of all, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. He came from a fundamentalist 7th Day Adventist upbringing, and in 1896 took over as administrator of a sanitarium and health spa in Battle Creek, MI. Adventists have always been big on health, and keeping the temple of the body clean. Toxins like alcohol, tobacco, and sugar were frowned upon. The sanitarium had an entire regimen of hot and cold baths, electro-therapy, exercise, massage, and enemas — lots and lots of enemas. Two pints of yogurt daily, one in each end. But Kellogg wasn’t just a would-be breakfast nut, he had some bizarre ideas about sex, which he described as “the sewer drain of a healthy body.” He thought sex was debilitating, warping our precious bodily fluids, or something. He never consummated his marriage, though the couple adopted dozens of children.
Kellogg believed that meat and spicy foods inflamed the sexual appetite, and were therefore to be avoided at all costs and replaced by a plain, bland diet of mainly nuts and grains. If sex was evil, masturbation was even viler. But let him tell it himself: “Neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism.” He claimed to know of many masturbation-related deaths, wherein “such a victim literally dies by his own hand.” I’m not making any of this up; he actually that. “An erection is the flagpole on your grave,” that was another one.
Along with his brother, William Keith or W.K., he worked on developing a cereal product that would among other things, prevent young people from exploring themselves. They called it Granula, but another company already had the name, so they changed it to Granola. Early versions left much to be desired, till by accident they left a thin sheet of wheat dough cool off for a few days. When they tried to run it through the rollers, it crumbled into flakes. But it still tasted like cardboard. W.K. wanted to add sugar, but John would have none of it. In 1907 W.K. bought his brother out, and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes soon hit the market. A close competitor was C.W. Post with his “Post Toasties.” (Post had been a former patient at the sanitarium). The 2009 film “The Road to Wellville” stars Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg, his buck-toothed character chewing up the scenery. In the film there were some accidental deaths, heart attacks and electrocutions, but I could find no firm evidence that Dr. Kellogg was indeed the nation’s first cereal killer.
I couldn’t write a column on breakfast without mentioning Breakfast of Champions, a favorite book by a favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The story’s narrator is Philboyd Studge, a nod to the 1911 satirical short story by Saki (H.H. Munro), “Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped.” In that story an ad man must come up with a successful campaign to sell an unpalatable cereal called Pipenta, in order to win the hand of the boss’ daughter. “It wants a better name,” he decides, and renames it Filboid Studge.
As to breakfast being the most important meal, I dug around and discovered the first usage was not in 1944, but 1917. An article by Lenna Cooper in the magazine Good Health said the same thing, and advised a meal easy to digest, full of nutrient, enjoyed with the family, and not to be above 500 Calories. Incidentally, the magazine’s editor was Dr. Kellogg. Before we dismiss him, let me add that he was one of the very first to emphasize the importance of beneficial intestinal flora; you know, gut bacteria; probiotics. So we should credit him for something that’s widely accepted today.
Breakfast has a long and complicated history, which I won’t detail here. It’s obvious that in most cultures, people would eat something before beginning their day. Heather Arndt Anderson, in Breakfast: a History (2013), writes that in Europe of the kings and monarchs it was looked down upon as gluttony, something the rabble indulged in. Of course the rabble had to indulge in it; they needed energy since they were doing all the work.
Many more Americans lived on farms in the last century, so bacon and eggs were a common way to break one’s fast. That was probably the biggest competitor for the cereal industry. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and the father of manipulating human emotions — advertising — was involved here, too. He took some medical advice completely out of context to spin bacon and eggs as doctors’ endorsement of such a meal as healthy. I should do a piece on Bernays someday, as there’s plenty of good material.
There have been a few recent developments in breakfast technology. General Mills is pushing its latest version of an old favorite, Cheerios. It’s called “Cheerios Protein” and contains among other ingredients, lentils. Yumm. Amongst the Cheerios are little clusters of oats and added protein, some of it being soy and lentil. In taste tests respondents reported the cereal as slightly more robust, but with no off flavors. Maybe I’ll try it; I ate lots of Cheerios as a kid. My personal choice for years, though, is Life, a product of the Quaker Oats Company. I like its texture and slightly sweet flavor. So in that sense at least, you could say I’m strongly pro-Life. But I eat it as an afternoon snack, never for breakfast. I’m not kidding about breakfast technology. Did you know there’s a Quaker Oats Center of Excellence? Their mission is “to further explore the relevance and benefits of oats through science, agricultural sustainability, and innovation.” Whew. Allow me to translate. The industrial food industry strives to come up with just the right combination of sugar, salt, and fat, to achieve what’s known as “mouth feel.” They’re not nearly as concerned about nutrition as they are moving product.
As either serendipity or synchronicity would have it, as I was assembling this piece, there was another new development in breakfast. Kellogg’s NYC, a gourmet cereal café, just opened on July 1st. For $7.50 you can choose from a pretentious menu of items like “Honey Buzz,” a bowl of Honey Smacks with honey, toasted pecans, and banana chips. Another is a bowl of Special K with passion fruit and lemon zest. Puh-leeze. I’d rather sit down to a heaping bowl of pine bark mulch. It keeps the weeds down, is gluten free, and high in fiber, too! Noel Geoffroy, Kellogg’s Senior Vice President and perpetrator of this scam, tells us that “a third of cereal consumption happens outside of breakfast hours.” Hey, that’s me! “The idea is to take everything that’s familiar and make it fun again.” He means make it profitable again. Cereal sales have been dipping for years, as people are eating more fruits, nuts, yogurt, or smoothies, stuff that’s really good for you. Hell, for $7.50 I can buy two boxes of Life.
Slogan or not, I will defend the idea that breakfast is the most important meal. It provides the energy you will need to do whatever you do. I can’t think of a better example than that of my youth. The summer after graduating high school, my friend Ron and I worked for awhile on Bessie Popham’s ranch, way out on the windy prairies of Wyoming. That was over fifty years ago, so the only work I can remember was feeding some animals and baling hay. We’d follow Bessie’s pickup, and with baling hooks we’d hoist each one onto a knee, then into the back. If you were going to do that all day, you needed one of Bessie’s breakfasts, and did she ever whomp one up: eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, fruit, juice, milk, and coffee. That’s the kind of fuel you needed in your furnace. Those breakfasts at Bessie Popham’s are still one of my fondest memories.
Hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper — Francis Bacon (no, really, that’s his name)