Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They seem so universal…so logical, don’t they?
But the fact is, the timing (and content!) of meals have varied throughout history, and our three-meal system of early morning breakfast, a light meal at mid-day, and a hearty one in the early evening is, relatively speaking, a newfangled invention. Today, as you might have guessed, I’m going to talk about breakfast.
The history of eating a meal upon waking up or shortly thereafter is a varied one. Often it was considered a meal to be eaten only by people who worked at farming or other hard labor, while gentlemen (who weren't going to be doing any labor much harder than coining witticisms) contented themselves with one substantial meal at about 11:00 am and another in the evening. But by the 18th and early 19th centuries breakfast was back in fashion, usually eaten sometime between 9am and 11am. What was served at it, though, varied. Earlier on, hearty foods were favored: pork chops with mustard are mentioned as a breakfast item in one Jane Austen novel, and a beefsteak washed down with ale was also popular. Yes, ale for breakfast…but don’t forget that the ale of the time was lower in alcohol content than today’s—and in an era when drinking plain water was considered possibly injurious to one’s health, beer, wine, and ale were what everyone drank until tea gradually replaced them.
Others preferred something similar to what we call a “continental” breakfast today: toast and/or other breads, cakes, or rolls with butter and perhaps marmalade; tea, chocolate, or coffee; and, season permitting, fruit. This lighter breakfast might be taken in the privacy of one’s bedchamber or in a small dining parlor called, amazingly, a breakfast room; in general, the mood was quiet and informal, and it was perfectly permissable to ignore other breakfasters and read the newspaper instead.
Later on, by mid-century, a more substantial meal was enjoyed by those who could afford it—and with the growth of the middle classes in England, more could. Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, suggests cold meat, ham, potted meat or fish (a sort of seasoned paste), cold fowl, game or meat pies, broiled fish or mutton chops, steaks, kidneys, sausages, bacon, ham, boiled or poached eggs, omelettes, toast, butter, and marmalade. Later in the century, they could get even more elaborate: here’s a suggested breakfast menu for 1881 from Things a Lady Would Like to Know by Henry Southgate: broiled haddock, potted ham, sheeps’ tongues, pig’s cheek, cold roast fowl, ham, cold grouse, rolled tongue, cold partridges, scalloped cod, kippered salmon, tea, coffee, or cocoa, bread and butter, milk and cream.
Gulp. Pass the cornflakes, will you?