August 2, 2019
How an Accidental Invention Changed What Americans Eat for BreakfastCulture Watch
tags: Breakfast, Inventions
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Americans woke up to a new kind of breakfast. Poured from a box into a bowl and doused with milk, cold cereals like Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes, Grape-Nuts and Shredded Wheat were not only lighter and easier to digest than more traditional breakfast staples like steak and eggs, hash, sausage, bacon and flapjacks. They also offered a previously unimaginable level of convenience to men, women and children whose schedules were adjusting to the quicker pace of an industrialized, rapidly urbanizing nation.
“In the colonial period, people—especially ordinary working class people—had a tendency to eat either porridge or leftovers from the night before,” says culinary historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson. But as the new nation grew wealthier, she explains, breakfasts got bigger. “There's a trend that started with the European aristocracy, to have this giant breakfast buffet with cold smoked tongue, ham, sausage and egg dishes and things like that.”
In the 19th century, however, large breakfast spreads became commonplace, especially after the industrialization of beef and pork production in Midwestern cities like Chicago and Cincinnati. This was particularly true in rural areas, where large, meat-heavy morning meals fueled farmers and laborers for their days of work.
Then came the Industrial Revolution, which revolutionized the nature of work. More people were laboring in factories, shops or offices, which ran on standardized schedules, leaving less time for food preparation and consumption during the work week.
Increasingly, a heavy morning meal also wasn’t considered ideal for health reasons. Diseases such as tuberculosis (then called consumption) plagued many Americans at the time. So did digestive ailments, likely linked to a typical diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and meat.
“At the turn of the century...especially with the influence of Teddy Roosevelt and his endorsement of what he called the "strenuous life," there's a resurgence of interest in health and athleticism,” Wassberg Johnson says. “We're recovering from the excesses of the Gilded Age, both economically and morally, and in terms of what we eat.”
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, one of America’s first wellness gurus, helped lead the movement toward cleaner living. Raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which believed in the imminent end of the world and the second coming of Christ, Dr. Kellogg had been groomed by the church’s founders to be a leader in the faith. In 1876, he took over a church-founded health institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, which he built into the world-famous medical spa and resort known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Building on Adventist health principles like eating a vegetarian diet and avoiding alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, Kellogg’s philosophy of “biologic living” emphasized regular exercise, massage therapy and drinking plenty of water. He focused particularly on patients’ digestive health, decrying the evils of fatty, greasy, salty or spicy foods—and endorsing regular powerful enemas to clear out one’s digestive tract. Having studied gorillas in zoos, and seeing that they had four to five bowel movements a day, he prescribed his patients to do the same—and tried to serve foods that would help that process along.
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