The Actual Reasons American Breakfasts Are Like That
When you think of American breakfast food, what comes to mind? For many, it's likely things like cereal and milk, toast, eggs, and coffee. On weekends, there might be more elaborate dishes like French toast or pancakes accompanied by a tall glass of orange juice.
When we step foot in a diner, we know what the menu will look like - to the point we might even tell the host we don't need to see one. But what is less known is how American breakfast food came to be. Though few ever stop to ask, there are actual reasons we eat the food we eat at breakfast, and you'll find them below.
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The Boston Tea Party And The Civil War Helped Make Americans Coffee Drinkers
As far as breakfast beverages go, tea was once as central to American life as it was in Britain. Both upper and middle-class colonists drank tea throughout the day, both for its purported benefits and as a social activity. However, it was partly because tea was so synonymous with British life that coffee became the American breakfast drink of choice.
When Britain passed the Stamp Act imposing a series of taxes on goods, tea was among them. Protesting this measure went beyond the Boston Tea Party; some colonists boycotted the beverage altogether and turned to alternatives instead - like coffee.
During the Civil War, coffee consumption in America increased dramatically. Soldiers were given coffee rather than the standard rum and brandy to improve their focus and endurance. As more and more coffee was imported for the soldiers, demand for the drink expanded beyond the battlefield and into American homes.
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The Romans Toasted Bread To Preserve It, And Electric Toasters Made It A Modern Breakfast Staple
Humans have been eating bread for about 10,000 years, but the invention of toasted bread is credited to the Romans, who toasted stale bread in order to preserve it. Toast remained a staple fare throughout the centuries, but found its permanent place on American breakfast plates in the 19th century when the Seventh-day Adventist Church promoted it as a healthy, quick, and affordable breakfast.
Throughout the early 20th century, several technological advancements led to the invention of the automatic pop-up toaster in 1919. Prior to this, people made toast by holding it on a fork or in a frame by a fire or stove. In 1893, the “Eclipse Toaster” was introduced as the world’s first electric toaster. While it was a huge step forward, you still had to manually flip the bread as the machine toasted only one side at a time.
The aforementioned 1919 invention of the automatic pop-up toaster, followed by the 1928 invention of pre-sliced bread, made toast easily accessible nationwide. However, the inventions alone didn’t make toast a breakfast staple. In the early 20th century, the working and middle classes no longer had time for the elaborate breakfast spreads of eras past. So, rather than cook a full meal that required extensive preparations and cleaning all for a family that likely didn’t have time to enjoy it, homemakers prepared breakfasts that were simple and quick. With the new inventions, toast was a natural fit.
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Milk Was Used To Soften Practically Inedible 19th Century Cereal
Before cereal, Americans ate full, hearty breakfasts of the same type of foods they’d eat at dinner. As time went on, Americans began experiencing frequent indigestion (which they called dyspepsia), and health experts quickly blamed breakfast as the cause. These experts then argued for lighter, more nutrient-rich breakfasts, and cereal came to be.
In the 1870s, James Caleb Jackson introduced granula - twice-baked pebbles of flour - to the US. The only problem? Eating granula on its own was impossible; the pebbles were rock-hard and an emergency dental trip just waiting to happen. As a solution, Jackson’s mother, Lucretia Edgerton Jackson (who is also credited with contributing to the recipe), suggested soaking the granula in milk or warm water to make it edible.
When John Harvey Kellogg’s version, which he called granola, started to take off, the idea of soaking it in milk stuck. Today, cereal is much softer and, crucially, edible all on its own, but the practice of pouring milk over cereal persists.
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The 'Acidosis Scare' Caused An Orange Juice Boom In The 1920s
Today, orange juice is the classic breakfast beverage of choice (along with coffee), but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, biochemist Elmer McCollum kick-started America’s obsession with vitamins by touting their healing properties. From there, Sunkist began marketing daily doses of its canned orange juice as all the vitamins and nutrients a person needs.
McCollum then switched gears and introduced America to "acidosis," which he claimed was a buildup of acid in the bloodstream that caused fatigue. To prevent this condition, McCollum suggested, counterintuitively, people eat citrus fruits and lettuce. Naturally, Sunkist latched onto the acidosis scare to heavily promote its orange juice.
Though the purported health benefits of orange juice go back to the 1920s, the drink’s popularity at the breakfast table really picked up after World War II, when the government needed a way to provide soldiers with vitamin C. By the 1950s, mass-produced fresh-frozen orange juice was a staple in the American housewife’s pantry as an affordable, healthy breakfast beverage - despite its touted health benefits being dubious at best.
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French Toast Was Never Really French
Like many dishes, French toast doesn’t have a single origin; rather, various versions cropped up all throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and it may even be traceable back to ancient Rome. French toast as we know it was merely a way to make use of stale bread. It also wasn’t a luxurious dish reserved for the rich; it was popular for its thriftiness.
In the US, French toast wasn’t always called French toast. Sometimes it was called German toast or Spanish toast. There's a story that the term 'German toast' was dropped after World War I for patriotic reasons, but this may be apocryphal.
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Bagels Were Brought To America By Jewish Immigrants From Poland
Bagels in their simplest form - round rolls with a hole in the center - have been dated back to ancient Egypt. However, the bagel as we know it can be traced directly to 14th century Poland. As German immigrants moved into the region, they brought pretzels with them. Over time, those pretzels morphed into the traditional bagel shape. When Jadwiga of Poland chose to eat bagels during Lent, they began to gain popularity among the nobility.
As Germans were migrating to Poland, Jewish immigrants were, too. At the time, Christians banned the Jewish from making bread in many regions due to its connection to Jesus Christ and Christianity. Poland was the first to allow Jews to bake and sell bread, including bagels.
Bagels didn’t come to America until Jewish immigrants brought them in the late 19th century. Even then, they didn’t really gain popularity in the broader US until the 1970s, when Lender's began marketing frozen bagels across the country.