Breakfast. In this day and age it can consist of anything from a cup of coffee or a piece of toast to a full fry up. We eat it on the run (guilty!), over the newspaper (or smartphone, increasingly), at the table, in a café, in front of the television or at work. Often, we don’t eat it at all. We are told that it’s the most important meal of the day, yet for those of us who do eat breakfast, it can sometimes feel more like a chore, a meal without much variety (how many of you eat the same thing every morning?) and undeserving of much time or effort (except in the weekends!). Modern living often means that we don’t have the time, money or energy to devote to elaborate meals in the morning. In this, as with so much of what and how we eat, our breakfasts are a product of our social, cultural and economic environment as much as they are an indication of our personal tastes.
It was no different in the past. The history of breakfast in the Victorian era is a study in contrasts between the recommended or encouraged bill of fare and the realities of individual or household wealth and time, much like today, really (White 1994: 4-16). Cookbooks like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) and The Breakfast Book (1865) suggest a massive range of appropriate breakfast foods, ranging from elaborate dishes like game pies, curries and devilled bones (ew!) to more recognisable fare such as porridge, eggs, bacon, bread and marmalade. One 1884 book, Breakfast Dishes for Every Morning of Three Months, suggests a Sunday breakfast menu of: fried skate and shrimp sauce, curried pigs feet, breakfast cakes, potted anchovy (so much ew!), devilled hot meat, hot buttered toast and jam.
Other records, however, indicate that most households stuck to simpler meals for their breakfast, often including a combination of bacon, sausages or mutton chops, eggs, bread, porridge, cocoa, coffee and tea. Some families ate rehashed leftovers from the day before, hot or cold (White 1994: 20). One historian writes that Victorian cookery authors objected to this simplicity and were constantly encouraging their readers to “choose more than bacon and eggs” (White 1994: 9). Which, frankly, makes me empathise more with the readers than the authors. Bacon and eggs is a perfectly acceptable choice.
Whatever the contrast between the suggested ingredients for a Victorian breakfast and the realities of the meal, there definitely seems to be a greater emphasis on savoury breakfast foods during the 19th century, and a greater quantity of food consumed in the morning than is eaten today. Contemporary accounts emphasise the importance of a good breakfast (although then, as now, people skipped it altogether; Timaru Herald 25/11/1876:3, Star 12/07/1871: 3, 23/11/1898: 1). Many of the accounts of 19th century breakfasts include meat of some kind, from bacon to fish. Cakes are mentioned, as are spreads like marmalade, and fruits, but sweeter foods seem to be far less common than their savoury counterparts (Oxford Observer 19/04/1892:4, White 1994: 9-20).
Perhaps the most glaring difference between then and now is the absence of cereal which, in the form that we know it today, wasn’t invented until the late 19th and early 20th century. As a strange, yet interesting aside, Cornflakes, created by the Kellogg brothers in the 1890s, were used as an anti-libido food by John Harvey Kellogg, who believed firmly in sexual abstinence and spent a substantial part of his life trying to get people to stop wanting sex (Kellogg 1888). Something to think about next time you eat cornflakes, huh?
Archaeologically, evidence for the nature of breakfast foods and rituals is scarce. Many of the objects involved in the meal, such as teacups, saucers, plates and serving dishes, are not specifically breakfast related, but representative of food service and consumption in general. As we’ve discussed before, our evidence for food types in the past is limited by what survives in the archaeological record, specifically items like bones, shells and embossed or labelled food containers. Even then, if the historical accounts are anything to go by, much of what we do recover may not be attributable to a certain meal: mutton chops are a prime example. It’s interesting to think about this from a modern perspective, as well: how much of what we eat for breakfast is exclusively breakfast food? Would a future archaeologist be able to determine your breakfast ritual from the foods and objects you use?
That’s not to say that breakfast is invisible in the archaeological record. Occasionally, we do come across items that, if not exclusively breakfast related, do have a much, much higher probability of being used or eaten during the morning meal. Eggs, for example, seem to have been one of the absolute staples of the Victorian breakfast menu, whether poached, fried, boiled or scrambled (Star 12/07/1871:3). We’ve found several egg cups during excavations in Christchurch, some of them better made than others, which would have been used at the breakfast table to eat boiled eggs (sadly, evidence of fried, poached and scrambled eggs is slightly harder to come by…). According to contemporary sources, how a person took their boiled eggs ‘betrayed’ their nationality (Star 17/04/1897: 3): a quick survey of the office tells me that we’ve got people of French habits, English habits and the not mentioned method of “peeling the egg and just eating it.”
Another breakfast food that we’ve found evidence for is marmalade, which seems to have been both a slightly higher class of breakfast food in some places as well as a particularly Scottish one (Star 13/05/1899: 7, White 1994: 20). In a survey of breakfast fare amongst different classes of Victorian families in Britain, it was the servant-owning families (household incomes over 26 shillings a week) who included marmalade as part of their morning meal, although it’s unclear how this applied to New Zealand. Marmalade was also a Scottish product, (likely) originating in Dundee in the late 18th century, and eventually becoming a characteristic of the Scottish breakfast (Star 13/05/1899: 7). It was also, apparently, the cause of religious fights and a title of nobility in 1850s Haiti, along with other “dignities of the jam-pot.” Who knew.
It’s a curious thing, food. So basic and yet, so complicated. One of the most interesting things to think about, I find, in regard to breakfast and how it has changed over the last century and a half is how those changes reflect transformations in our cultures and societies. Why do we eat what we do and how we do? What does it say about our lives, about the world around us? Food is never just sustenance, not really. The ritual (or non-ritual, as the case may be) of eating, the foods we eat, even the packaging of that food, is all tied into a much wider representation of who we are and how we behave, collectively and individually.
Kellogg, J. H., 1888. “Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects.” In Plain Facts for Old and Young. Ayer Publishing. [online] Available at Project Gutenberg
Oxford Observer. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Timaru Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
White, E., 1994. First things first: the great British breakfast. In C. A. Wilson, ed. Luncheon, Nuncheon and Other Meals: Eating with the Victorians. Sutton Publishing Ltd.