What Did We Eat for Breakfast Before Cereal? | History Hit

What Did We Eat for Breakfast Before Cereal?

Peta Stamper

07 Apr 2022
Floris van Dyck's breakfast piece, 'Still-Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese'.
Image Credit: The Yorck Project / Wikimedia Commons

From a vital energy boost before we start the working day to a leisurely brunch with friends, for most of us breakfast is a regular part of our daily routine. But what we eat for breakfast has long been a contentious issue, wrapped up in moral and medical anxiety.

While the ancients started the day with a host of hearty options, some of which are still enjoyed today, medieval and early modern religious figures worried that breakfast was a slippery slope to sin. By the 19th century, people were in need of a healthy breakfast that could be prepared quickly and enjoyed by all. The solution? Corn flakes.

But what did people eat before cereal, and when did crunchy mouthfuls of wheat served with cold milk become the norm?

Here’s a brief history of breakfast.

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Ancient breakfasts

Since ancient times, meals have been shaped by wealth and work. In ancient Egypt, peasants and workers would start their day at sunrise with some beer, bread, soup or onions before heading to labour in the pharaoh’s fields.

What we know of ancient Greek breakfasts we can learn from contemporary literature. Homer’s Iliad mentions the first meal of the day, ariston, eaten shortly after dawn. The epic poem describes an exhausted woodsman whose bones ache as he prepares himself a light meal to see him through the day.

However, by the later classical Greek period, ariston had been pushed back to lunchtime and the first meal of the day became known as akratisma. Akratisma would typically consist of bread dipped into wine served alongside figs or olives.

The Greeks were also partial to 2 different types of breakfast pancake: teganites (now written as tiganites) named for the method of cooking them in a frying pan, and staitites which were made with spelt flour. Today, Greeks still indulge in pancakes for breakfast, covering them in cheese and honey as their ancient ancestors did.

A Roman mosaic depicting women eating, displayed at Gaziantep Zeugma Museum.

Image Credit: CC / Dosseman

Across the Mediterranean, the Roman diet similarly reflected markers of work and status. A Roman breakfast was called ientaculum, and for most included bread, fruit, nuts, cheese and cooked meat leftover from the night before. Wealthy citizens, who did not need a meal to see them through a day of labour, could save themselves for the main meal of the day: cena, often eaten after midday.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers woke up to enjoy a hearty breakfast of pulmentus, an Italian polenta-style porridge made with roasted spelt, wheat or barley that was ground and cooked in a cauldron of water.

The sin of breakfast

During the medieval period, breakfast was not only shaped by status but by morality. As with the rest of medieval life, food was heavily connected with ideas of piety and self-control.

In his Summa Theologica, the 13th-century Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas condemned what he called ‘praepropere’, meaning to eat too soon. For Aquinas, praepropere meant committing gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so eating breakfast was considered an affront to God.

Instead, fasting demonstrated one’s strength to refuse the temptations of the flesh. The ideal pious eating schedule therefore featured a light dinner at midday, followed by a generous supper at night. For the wealthy, leisurely mealtimes could go on for hours.

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There were exceptions to Aquinas’ rule for practical reasons. The ill, elderly, children or labourers would likely break fast with a piece of bread or cheese, perhaps washed down by some ale.

This was by no means considered a full meal or social occasion, however, and generally the status of those who were seen to indulge in an early snack was often low down the food chain.

The breakfast revolution

Western Europe’s colonial ventures also shaped early modern attitudes towards breakfast. From the Americas, explorers returned with coffee, tea and chocolate, which were soon popular beverages.

The arrival of these delicious drinks caused such a stir that, in 1662, Cardinal Francis Maria Brancaccio declared liquidum non frangit jejunum, meaning ‘liquid doesn’t break the fast’.

As the Industrial Revolution dawned, breakfast became a priority as more of the population’s mealtimes were determined by the working day. The morning meal had been transformed into a social event, particularly for the wealthy in Britain and the US, involving generous spreads of meats, stews and sweets.

A painting of the Ruspoli family breakfasting in their Italian palazzo, 1807.

Image Credit: CC / Dorotheum

The diarist Samuel Pepys documented a particularly boozy breakfast with his family, “I had for them a barrel of oysters, a dish of neat’s tongues, and a dish of anchovies, wine of all sorts, and Northdown ale. We were very merry till about 11 o’clock.”

Homes of the well-off included rooms designed specifically for breakfast, now considered an important time for the family to gather before separating for the day. Newspapers targeted themselves at the male head of the household to be read at the breakfast table.

It was no surprise, then, that caught between rapid industrialisation and their growling stomachs, society of the 19th century was struck by an epidemic of ‘dyspepsia’, also known as indigestion.

Crackers and corn flakes

Just as the West found its fascination with breakfast, food was once again deployed to monitor morality. Across the US in particular, the 19th-century Temperance Movement aimed to reduce alcohol consumption and advocated a clean, healthy lifestyle.

A keen follower of the movement, the American Presbyterian reverend Sylvester Graham began preaching against indulging in bodily pleasures, much like Aquinas had centuries before.

His preaching inspired the creation of ‘Graham Crackers’. These solemn snacks were made from a simple combination of graham flour, oil or lard, molasses and salt, and after 1898, they were mass produced across the US by the National Biscuit Company.

Like Graham, John Harvey Kellogg was a deeply religious man who advocated a healthy diet. He worked alongside his brother William in a sanitarium for the middle and upper classes in Battle Creek, Michigan.

An advertisement for Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes from August 1919.

Image Credit: CC / The Oregonian

After being called away to work one night in 1894, John left a batch of wheat dough out in the kitchen. Instead of throwing it away the next morning he rolled the dough out to make flakes, which he then baked. Soon the flakes were being packaged and posted to meet the demand of their wealthy guests after they left the hospital.

Providing a nutritious and speedy alternative to cooking pancakes, porridge or eggs, the baked wheat flake revolutionised the modern breakfast. Now people of all ages and statuses could enjoy a convenient breakfast which was good for both body and soul.

Peta Stamper