Your breakfast table: A little history

You never hear much about Henry VIII’s granola or Julius Caesar’s bowl of flakes, do you? There are one or two very good reasons for this. For one thing, the stomach contents of great historical leaders are not really the sort of thing most historians pay much attention to. For another, these things simply didn’t exist then!

Yes, strangely enough, people throughout history have not always eaten the same things in the morning. In fact, your modern breakfast table with its cereals, its granola and its muesli, perfect though it may seem to you, would probably appear extremely odd to most people from history.

A step back in time

Though simple grain-based dishes have provided the core of most of history’s breakfasts, our toasted grains and milk format is a very recent idea. In fact, it only developed towards the end of the nineteenth century. Even then, because of the sugary nature of most early cereals, they were mainly marketed as treats for children and large-scale consumption came later. Granola – even though it was first created late in the nineteenth century – is really an even later development. When cereals were directed more at children, granola was simply not marketed effectively and was almost forgotten until the health food movement of the 1960s.

People have not even always eaten breakfast. The ‘three square meals a day’ format we’ve all been taught doesn’t really hold up throughout history if you look carefully enough. It seems the ancient Egyptians certainly didn’t hold to this idea. Peasants seem to have eaten one large daily meal, most likely taken in the morning. In ancient Rome, while soldiers had to eat breakfast (porridge or pulmentus) to keep their strength up, there is evidence to suggest others in Roman society frowned on breakfast. It seems many considered the consumption of more than one meal a day gluttony, and encouraged one large meal at around noon.

While at least two square meals a day seem to have been eaten by much of Medieval Europe, in this period most people again saw eating early as a form of gluttony. Though breakfast was allowed to the weak – the very young and the very old – and working men who needed their strength, most seem to have only eaten after midday. Nevertheless, it was in this time that the term breakfast entered the language, meaning ‘to break the fast of the night’. It was only in the Renaissance period that tracts detailing the importance and health benefits of breakfast first began to appear.

Now, of course, we all know the health benefits of a good, filling breakfast which is why it has become a staple meal of the day!


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