Food Facts & Lore

Breakfast, from Rome to America

a brief history of breakfast

The Romans. It always goes back to the Romans, doesn’t it? In movies, they are depicted as gluttons. In truth, we are told by historians, they were very much concerned with proper diet and digestion and adhered to a strong belief in the one-meal-a-day philosophy. Might as well make it worthwhile.

Ask anyone around you to describe what comes to mind when they hear the name, “Roman,” and the majority will describe a great hall filled with statesmen in togas and sandals stuffing themselves with mountains of fruits, meats and breads, extending a hand in between bites for an attentive servant to replenish the wine. The Roman army was a remarkable machine of perfection, yet it is the joie de vivre and abundance that most mark the imagination. Conquests must be celebrated, after all. And this tendency to relate to the good times may be a hopeful sign of our innate desire for peace; something worthwhile to discuss over breakfast, for sure.

The single-meal philosophy survived into Europe’s Middle Ages, but not for the same reasons espoused by the Romans. As people’s lives revolved more and more around the expectations and schedule of the church, so did their perception of such pragmatic activities as eating. Refraining from all pleasures of the flesh, including nourishment, were seen as a commitment to, and evidence of, a righteous life. Eating too early in the day, before mass especially, was a sure sign of gluttony, a deadly sin. Note that this is not meant as a commentary regarding such beliefs. We are merely presenting historical fact.

It is from this time period that we get the word, “breakfast.” Also, it is interesting to note that it was permissible for the elderly, infirm and weak to consume an early meal (though not a very elaborate one by today’s standards) to maintain their strength. Laborers enjoyed this privilege as well.

In Europe, and probably the entire world, the three meals model was far from anyone’s concept of daily nourishment for centuries. The poor scrambled what they could (no breakfast pun intended), when they could; and most of the world was poor. This begins to change in the 17th century, when wealthy Europeans start importing coffee. It is at this time that such dishes as scrambled eggs become a customary addition to the day’s first meal spread. In fact, those who could afford it even set aside a “breakfast room” in their homes. Today, we are concerned with managing to gather the family around the same table at the same time for dinner. Back then, breakfast was the gathering hub.

Breakfast became evermore popular with the Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) and its factory workers. Except for church days, it was assumed and expected that “everyone” would consume an early meal before going to work. Daily newspapers were just beginning to be “a thing,” and publishers soon took advantage of the growing morning meal trend by suggesting breakfast around the table as the ideal time to catch up on the newly printed stories of the day.

Post and Kellogg’s morning cereal revolution (beginning circa 1906) gave breakfast a fresh and modern appeal by virtually eliminating preparation time and by bringing the concept of health benefits to our food culture. At the same time, women were joining the workplace in greater numbers, even more so during the War years of the late 1930’s. The shift to a cereal-based breakfast might have been complete if not for the invention of the toaster, also in the early 1900s. The ability to bring stale bread back to life with a delectable crisp and a bit of butter soon revived our love of the complete breakfast, egg and all.

Since the advent of family cars, breakfast out is the thing. In fact, every meal out is the thing. Family travels on US highways opened the road to new adventures, new diner experiences and an insatiable search for the best breakfast. Once found, well, there’s no going back to search; there’s only going back for more.

Explore 158 Main’s BREAKFAST Menu & BRUNCH Menu.