On her long and ultimately doomed slog to become president, Hillary Clinton started most days in the same way: with scrambled egg whites and vegetables that she would perk up with some fresh jalapeños, if available. Failing that, the hot sauce she carried with her at all times and some salsa did the trick. For any other meal, such repeat behaviour would seem weird, at least in a rich country where a glut of dining options is available. Yet breakfast is the one meal where a thoroughly unadventurous spirit is acceptable.
Some, like Clinton, opt for an almost-identical breakfast each day. Others cycle between a few predetermined options. Many keep returning to what they ate growing up. Even those brave enough to sample every new flavour when travelling often choose to start their day with something familiar. Hotels in Vietnam cook bacon and eggs for American tourists; in Hawaii sushi and miso soup are available for Japanese visitors. The reticence runs both ways, says Paul French, an expert on China. After more than two decades living there, he, like most expats, could not abide congee, a savoury porridge served in the morning.
The conservatism of breakfast is all the more striking given the way in which people devour foreign dishes at other times of day. Countries such as Britain and America have embraced cooking imported by a wealth of migrant groups. Londoners eat Japanese sushi for lunch, Indian (or more probably Bangladeshi) curries for dinner and Turkish kebabs when drunk and ravenous; New Yorkers devour everything from ferocious Laotian larb to Ethiopian injera. At home, too, their cooking has globalised. Pasta is such a staple now that it barely even seems foreign. Middle-class Western foodies can whip up a plate of tahini-laced, pomegranate-sprinkled, coriander-flecked aubergine inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi. But most are less hungry for foreign flavours early in the day.
This reluctance is found all around the world. But few unifying rules govern what you will get for breakfast. Every country has its own staples: pho in Vietnam; miso soup and grilled fish in Japan; waffles or cereal in America; chocolate rice pudding topped with dried salted fish in the Philippines. It may be plentiful or scanty. The English pride themselves on the heartiness of their fry-ups. The French dismiss breakfast as petit déjeuner, literally “little lunch”, says Seb Emina, the British author of “The Breakfast Bible” who now lives in Paris. Some of the most sophisticated cuisines have surprisingly boring breakfasts. Contrast the bounty and glory of Italy’s food with the pitiful cookies and coffee with which most Italians start the day.
Nonetheless, within any single country, the rules dictating what constitutes an appropriate breakfast are far clearer than those that define lunch or dinner. Mention bacon and eggs in Britain and few will doubt that you are describing breakfast. Cover a slice of bread with chocolate sprinkles in the Netherlands and it is obvious which meal you have prepared. A French person would sneer at the thought of eating a croissant at any time other than morning.
Our lack of variety on the breakfast plate is partly practical. “Breakfast is a functional meal,” says Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “you’re tooling up for the day.” People are in a hurry. It may be eaten undressed, even unwashed. Many consume it in silence. Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy dress and location, outside Tiffany’s, might be unconventional, but approach to breakfast – an early morning pastry, eaten alone and on the go – is thoroughly common.
The particular social context of most breakfasts – in a private space or at home – mean that there are fewer opportunities to encounter different flavours, argues Rebecca Earle, a food historian. Without the peer pressure of friends suggesting new foods to try, or alcohol to lessen the fear of the unfamiliar, people are more timid.
But there are psychological reasons for the reluctance to taste new foods for breakfast that lie beyond the faff of early-morning culinary creativity. People are at their most vulnerable first thing; the day has not yet properly begun and breakfast needs to be safe and reassuring. It is the most conservative meal of the day in all cultures, says Kaori O’Connor, an anthropologist who has written a book about the English breakfast. “We have fusion global food. But in all cultures there remains breakfast. It’s a sacrament with which you begin the day. You can go wacko later,” she continues, “but you want to start ‘right’ whatever that may be. You want to gird your loins; you’re emerging from sleep…You want to know that you’re getting a good start.”
In the admittedly slow-moving history of breakfasts, there is one moment of radical transformation that changed the meal for ever. For most of the 19th century, Americans ate astonishingly hearty breakfasts. Besides tea, coffee, cold ham and beef, these included “hot fish, sausages, beefsteaks, broiled fowls, fried and stewed oysters, preserved fruits, &c. &c. &c.”, according to one English traveller in the 1820s. This abundant start to the day may have been appropriate when people spent their days toiling in fields. But as they moved to office-jobs in cities, gobbling such rich food before rushing to their desks contributed to what one historian called “the great American stomach ache”.
The answer was breakfast cereals. The first example was created in 1863 by James Jackson, a doctor and disciple of Sylvester Graham (he of cracker fame). He concocted “granula”, twice-baked whole-wheat crackers, broken into small chunks. But it was John Harvey Kellogg who began the true revolution of Western breakfasts. A poverty-stricken medical student, he was annoyed at the time it took him to prepare a bowl of hot porridge: grains such as oats and buckwheat required hours of boiling and cooking to become a palatable mush. Why could he not buy cooked and ready-to-eat cereals at the grocery store?
By the 1880s, he was running the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, a world-renowned medical centre, spa and hotel. Celebrities came for Kellogg’s treatments: in the 1920s Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimming champion and later star in the Tarzan films, was a regular visitor to the sanitarium.
Kellogg was an enthusiastic and early proponent of “wellness”, a concept familiar to anyone who has grimaced their way through a juice “detox”. He encouraged “biologic living”, the notion that a healthy mind, body and spirit would stave off illness and lead to a longer life. As part of their regime, patients started meals by chewing rusk-like double-baked zwieback bread. For the most part they hated it. After one woman apparently complained that she broke a tooth, Kellogg created a version that was broken into crumbs that became known as granola.
But breakfast cereals’ dominance really began when Kellogg discovered in August 1894 that stale wheat dough, when forced through rollers, turned into flakes that could be toasted and eaten. Corn worked even better. By 1896 he had secured a patent for flaking cereals.
The invention of cold, prepared cereals came at an auspicious time. The advent of refrigeration had made fresh milk readily available. A national system of transportation, in the form of both roads and railways, allowed the easy delivery of grain to factories and packets of cereal to consumers. Cereals appealed to the swelling population of city dwellers, who had more limited access to kitchens and more rigid schedules, and to growing numbers of working women. Children could pour a bowlful and make their own breakfast. Cereals also had a long shelf life.
The rapid commercialisation of cereals, however, is largely thanks to Kellogg’s brother, Will. Where John viewed cornflakes as a way to improve people’s health, Will saw a business opportunity. He added salt, malt and sugar (much to John’s outrage) which made cornflakes tastier and less prone to spoiling. He then embarked on an ambitious and inventive national advertising campaign. The rest is cereal history. In April 1906, the Kellogg brothers were producing 100 cases of cornflakes a day. Within three years they were selling 120,000.
Flaked, popped, puffed, shredded, frosted – today cereals are crunched in countries far beyond America, a rare example of a breakfast that has transcended borders. But even their practicality is not always able to overcome local sensibilities. Consumption of milk has increased in China in recent years, most notably among rich, well-educated people in cities. But cereal for breakfast there is still fairly uncommon, despite the best efforts of Western cereal companies. “Cereal is something Western brands have been trying to promote for years and failed…Chinese people hate cold milk and while the consumption of cows’ milk is growing, it’s not in cereal but in coffee and is nearly always hot,” explains Michael Zee, a British author of a book about breakfast who now lives in Shanghai. At a Best of British trade show he attended, a stand promoting Weetabix was forced to think of alternative ways to eat it, such as using it as a cracker, served with olives and parma ham.
Cereal is beginning to lose ground in its heartland too. Mintel, a market-research company, reckons that sales of cold cereal (as opposed to porridge) which make up 87% of the market, have declined 11% over the last five years, to a little over $9bn in 2017. Some people are worried about the sugar content. Others now find even cereals too much work. In 2015 almost 40% of millennials surveyed by Mintel dismissed cereal as an inconvenient breakfast choice because it involved cleaning up – preferring prefabricated protein bars, smoothies and breakfast sandwiches.
They are, however, increasingly keen to eat breakfast outside the home, a shift that is arguably the latest significant change for the meal. According to OpenTable, a restaurant reservation website, bookings in London for breakfast increased by 275% between 2013 and 2017. In New York (where the idea of breakfast meetings started earlier) they were up 102% over the same period. Reservations for brunch were up 363% and 127% respectively.
In London a decade ago, you could get breakfast or brunch at hotels, says Adrian Valeriano of OpenTable, or you could go to a greasy-spoon café. Those in the know would eat at the Wolseley, a European-style grand café, for their eggs Benedict. But other options were limited. Today restaurants of every variety start serving first thing in the morning.
The shift marks the transformation of breakfast into a business meeting or a social meal, particularly in the form of brunch. And eating out brings with it opportunities – and social pressures – to try unfamiliar foods.
Nonetheless those trying to stretch people’s taste at breakfast understandably tread carefully. Take the bacon sandwich, a dependable British breakfast option. Go to St John Bread and Wine in east London, a restaurant that celebrates British food, and you will be served one that is a testament to tradition. The bread is thick and white, lightly charred and heavily buttered. The bacon is unsmoked and savoury; the ketchup fruity and sharp. Round the corner, at Dishoom, an Indian restaurant inspired by the cafés of Mumbai, tradition takes a hit. The bacon comes wrapped in naan bread, puffy and scorched, smeared with cream cheese and chilli jam and garlanded with coriander. It is delicious. Just close enough to the norm of a bacon sandwich to be recognisable, just far enough to feel exciting.
It is a balance that the restaurant’s founders considered carefully. Shamil Thakrar makes no pretence that the bacon naan is authentically Indian. But it is familiar enough to draw people in for breakfast. Served with an egg, it is their bestselling item. The popularity of their breakfast offerings thus far (about 20% of their customers come for them) has inspired Thakrar to greater adventurousness; he is thinking about putting scrambled eggs mixed with brains on the menu. But he has been cautious. In India, nalli nihari, a spiced lamb curry that can be served with brains, is a breakfast dish; at Dishoom it is only on the menu after noon.
A rare few breakfasters are becoming more adventurous at home. Zee is the creator of SymmetryBreakfast, an Instagram account and spin-off book, which chronicles the identical spreads he has prepared each morning for himself and his husband, Mark, since 2013. In the early days of his project the breakfasts make comforting sense, at least to someone from Britain. Granola accompanies yogurt; bacon keeps company with eggs. They have become increasingly elaborate. Homemade sourdough pretzels are dipped in white chocolate, pistachios and smoked salt. Then the odd surprise pops up: a saffron syrup-soaked jalebi (a deep-fried swirl of dough from India); a teriyaki Scotch egg. And these days, since the move to Shanghai, Zee posts pictures of wonton soup laced with Sichuan chilli and a slug of sesame oil; or a vivid Sri Lankan curry, studded with boiled eggs that have been rolled in turmeric and fried.
The responses he gets from some of his followers suggests that his daring is still unusual. After publishing a picture of a noodle dish, Zee received a message from an Italian, blustering that it “wasn’t breakfast”. “Not for him,” he squawks, “but it is for a billion other people.” Zee grew up eating cereal (preferably Weetabix) in the morning, with a fry-up at the weekend. Before he met his husband and started his breakfast project, his morning routine had consisted of making a large flask of coffee and rolling five cigarettes, to be consumed on the way to work. That he now eats empanadas filled with spicy Sichuan rabbit or Indonesian chicken congee, topped with pungent onions, is proof that even at breakfast, tastes can change.
There is safety in “the usual”, as Hillary Clinton might have thought when ordering her election-trail breakfast. But the evidence from meals at every other time of day suggests that even the wariest diner can eventually find delight in the unfamiliar. And given the limited number of meals anyone can eat over the course of a day, making breakfast as exciting as dinner is surely worth the risk.