The decline of breakfast as a substantial meal in American households can be traced back to a town on the Kalamazoo River in Calhoun County, Michigan.
The town’s name is Battle Creek, the hometown of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg, the tenth son of a broom-maker, grew up in the frontier town, went east to medical school and returned home to take charge of the Western Health Reform Institute. This institution was founded by a Seventh Day Adventist couple, Sister Ellen Gould White and her husband Brother James, to promote the pre-apocalyptic health-giving regimen an angel detailed to Sister White in a vision on June 6, 1863. The angel instructed Sister White to eat two meals a day, to avoid meat, salt, cake, lard, spices, coffee, tea and tobacco, to rely on graham bread, fruits and vegetables, to drink only water, never to pay physicians and to trust in the healing power of God. They were among the country’s first health food nuts.
After Kellogg returned to Battle Creek—his education “back East” had been paid for by the Whites—he renamed the Institute the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium, and soon what had been a modest farmhouse was transformed into a six-story Italian Renaissance structure with a solarium, a gymnasium, half a mile of glassed-in halls containing palm and banana trees and an Acidophilus Milk Bar. Building on the work of Sylvester Graham, father of the graham cracker, and Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who in 1863 came out with a breakfast food made out of broken-up whole wheat bricks called Granula, Kellogg came out with his own cereal. For some unfathomable reason, Kellogg called his concoction Granula as well. Dr. Jackson promptly sued and won judgment against Kellogg. So Kellogg renamed his cereal Granola, which was, admittedly, not much of a stretch.
If nothing else a bold plagiarist, Kellogg did not learn the error of his bravura from this first legal fracas. C.W. Post, a local competitor, and once a patient at the Institute who had taken Kellogg’s cure without success, was eventually healed of his maladies by a Christian Science practitioner who told him to eat what he pleased came. So Post established his own retreat—La Vita Inn—and in 1895 he brought out Postum, a coffee substitute made of wheat, bran and molasses. His first big success was with a product called Grape-Nuts. But when Post came out with Grape-Nuts in 1898, Kellogg promptly came out with Gran-Nuts. Post threatened court action and Gran-Nuts disappeared from the market. By then, though, the ground had been broken, and soon, through their appeal to the health-conscious, their convenience, and their promotion by means of an aggressive, hugely successful marketing, cold cereals came to dominate the American breakfast table.
But before the advent of the cereal kings, America’s Lucullan breakfasts included tea and toast, eggs, fresh fish, ham, sausages, pigeons on toast (probably passenger pigeons, now extinct), and, of course, oysters. Again, here it must be noted that a substantial breakfast was important to a population that largely supported itself by physical labor of some sort. This was especially true in the heavily agricultural South. Even after WWII, when the urbanization of the South really began and more and more white-collar jobs opened up, many if not most Southern households still ate a hot, substantial breakfast. But as more Southern women moved into the workforce, these breakfasts became a thing of the past, and cold cereals or often simply toast and coffee came to dominate the breakfast menu because of their sheer convenience. Breakfast became more of a rural and weekend phenomenon.
The next major blow against breakfast as a prandial mainstay came again under the aegis of healthy eating. The anti-cholesterol craze that started in the 1970’s seems such a heaven-sent blessing for the breakfast cereals industry that a conspiracist might well believe that it’s a plot involving the AMA and Battle Creek. Because of their high saturated fat and cholesterol content, medical science condemned such breakfast staples as eggs, pork and butter as primary villains in the crime of heart disease. Americans were urged to abandon their sinful eating habits and to pursue the righteous path of low-fat cooking. “Low-fat,” “reduced fat,” and “lite” prepared foods proliferated. Cookbooks promoting a low-fat cuisine sold in the millions. Chefs radically altered their recipes to adapt to the changing market. Salt, too, came under attack as a leading factor in the promulgation of hypertension.
Breakfast fared a little better in restaurants. Though outside the metropolitan areas Southerners usually had little opportunity—or inclination, nor means, for that matter—to eat out, every little Southern town supported a diner where you could go to get breakfast and a plate lunch. The breakfasts were of the traditional sort: ham and eggs, sausage, biscuits, red-eye or sawmill gravy and of course grits. These breakfasts were once a meeting-place for people from all walks of life, especially in county seats on court days and in political years, but eventually they came to be largely patronized by blue-collar types: policemen, teamsters, construction and maintenance workers, farmers or cattlemen in town on business and the like. But by the Seventies, breakfasts had largely lost their appeal for diners because they had become more health-conscious and had less and less time for a morning meal.
Soon many if not most Americans came to view a plate of country ham or sausage with fried eggs and buttered grits, lard biscuits and sawmill gravy as something of a cardiac time bomb. A bowl of cold cereal with a piece of whole-wheat toast, a glass of “fresh frozen” orange juice and a cup of decaffeinated coffee seemed an attractive alternative to a population hell-bent toward senility.