American Breakfast Through the Decades
Illustrations by Lucas Adams
Honestly so much bacon
As with everything in this fast-paced, fleeting world, the average American breakfast has evolved over time. One hundred and ten years ago, that kale-and-almond-butter smoothie you’re clutching in your Soul Cycle-sweaty claw would be replaced with a filigreed silver table fork, perhaps spearing a wiggly lump of jellied veal.
Or, 42 years ago, you might have been choking down something called Crab Imperial Chesapeake in between slurps of Tab. Or, 31 years ago, you could have been double-dipping between bowls of Rainbow Brite and Mr. T novelty cereals. (I hope you ’80s kids know how good you had it.)
And as with every trend, the popular dishes and products gracing American breakfast tables over the years were influenced by a number of factors: the socio-economic and political landscape (like food rationing during the World Wars), breakthroughs in technology (welcome to the 1930s, refrigerators!), and the advent and evolution of pop culture (hello, 1950s “teen-agers”!).
But some trends proved lasting—even during the Great Depression, families still managed to fry up a plate of bacon and brew a pot of coffee.
1900s: Rice, cold meat, and jellied veal
In the days before refrigeration, home cooks prepared only regional, seasonal foods. Many upper-class families had the time to enjoy three lavish meals a day, and breakfast was no exception.
In Mother’s Cook Book: Containing Recipes for Every Day in the Week (1902), author Marion Harland offers a handful of heavy, complicated breakfast recipes. There’s chicken in jelly, hashed cold meat, jellied veal, rice-and-meat croquettes, and something Harland calls “A Nice Breakfast Dish.” A sample recipe:
“Chopped cold meat well seasoned; wet with gravy, if convenient, put it on a platter; then take cold rice made moist with milk and one egg, seasoned with pepper and salt; if not sufficient rice, add powdered bread-crumbs; place this around the platter quite thick; set in oven to heat and brown.”
Notable breakthroughs: In 1906 the Kellogg Company debuts their Toasted Corn Flakes, and the electric toaster is invented in 1908.
1910s: Canned fruit, fried hominy, and coffee
Soon after the US entered the Great War in 1917, the government urged citizens to monitor their food intake in an effort to conserve staple food items, such as meat and wheat, to ship to US troops and their allies. This meant that the pig-trotters-in-aspic-laden breakfast tables of yore were replaced with canned fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, and butterless/eggless/milkless (a.k.a. proto-vegan) baked goods.
But following a food conservation program apparently didn’t mean totally skimping. The classic Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1918) by Fannie Farmer includes this sample breakfast menu: Fried hominy, maple syrup, raised biscuits, sliced peaches, and coffee.
Not too shabby, World War I.
Notable breakthroughs: Refrigerators for home use are invented in 1914, but don’t become available until after the war.
1920s: Codfish and bacon
Home refrigeration changed the game in the 1920s; for those with access to money and electricity, safe food storage meant increased creativity in the kitchen. Codfish cakes, anyone? In this post-food-rationing era, people once again welcomed cushy breakfast spreads. This is the era of Gatsby, after all. Cocktails, fruit or otherwise, abound. As does bacon. Bacon all the time.
In a 1922 edition of Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries, a sample breakfast menu included: grapefruit, codfish cakes, bacon muffins, and coffee.
Notable breakthroughs: Quaker Quick Oats are introduced in 1922, packaged bacon makes its triumphant debut in 1924, and Kellogg’s Rice Krispies appear in 1928.
1930s: Toast, coffee, and Bisquick
For the “average” American family that wasn’t totally fucked over by the crash, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 didn’t result in deprivation or starvation. Rather, it marked the arrival of what would become an integral philosophy driving the modern American lifestyle: finding cheaper alternatives. This aligned nicely with the introduction of readymade food, which required only one purchase in the place of several.
A regular breakfast circa 1935, as outlined in Ida Bailey Allen’s Cooking, Menus, Service, might include: Pears, cracked wheat, top milk, creamed codfish on toast, coffee, and milk.
Notable breakthroughs: Bird’s Eye frozen foods appear in 1930, Bisquick pancake mix in 1931, and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle and Cream of Mushroom canned soups in 1933.
1940s: Mint, orange juice, and apple butter
Another war, another round of food rationing. Between 1942 and 1947, the government urged families to plant “victory gardens” in order to cultivate their own produce, to can their own food, and to cut down on the good stuff like sugar, butter, and meat.
However, the sample breakfast menus offered in a 1944 issue of the Good Housekeeping Cook Book still include staples like bacon, eggs, and something called “waffles de luxe,” which really doesn’t sound so bad. A sample brunch menu includes: orange juice topped with mint, creamed ham and mushrooms, waffles de luxe, maple syrup, apple butter, coffee, and milk.
Notable breakthroughs: General Mills rolls out CheeriOats in 1941; the name is changed to Cheerios in 1945.
1950s: Casseroles, ham and eggs, and cocoa
Frozen foods, casseroles, “exotic” ingredients (think pineapple, ham, and pineapple-and-ham casseroles), TV dinners, bomb-shelter pantries, and the rise of the ideal housewife: Welcome to the 1950s.
The June 1954 issue of Good Housekeeping includes recipes to arm the aforementioned ideal housewife for an onslaught of weekend occasions, including an unexpected visit from the neighbors, a heat wave, a picnic, “entertaining teen-agers,” and a nuclear attack (that last one I made up).
Breakfast menus include: “Pineapple juice, baked ham-and-egg sandwiches, quick-fried apple rings, coffee, and cocoa” for the teens; and “Orange juice, help-yourself cereal tray (assorted ready-to-eat cereals and milk); Gen’s ham and eggs, buttered toast, and coffee” for guests.
Notable breakthroughs: Dunkin’ Donuts is founded in 1950 and IHOP shows up in 1958; Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are introduced in 1952, Eggo frozen waffles in 1953, General Mills’ Trix in 1954 and Cocoa Puffs in 1958.
1960s: Bacon strip pancakes and corn Lorraine
Enter the junk-food boom. Sugary cereals stake their claim as the breakfast of choice in most American households. Fast food drive-throughs also emerge, as do inventive breakfast recipes advertised by big brands like Aunt Jemima, Post, and Kraft, many of which include bacon. Like Aunt Jemima’s bacon-strip pancakes.
If you’re not yet convinced of this decade’s reckless use of bacon and cheese, check out Del Monte’s 1962 recipe for Corn Lorraine, a horrifying spin on the classic quiche Lorraine involving canned creamed corn and evaporated milk plopped into a pie shell and topped with Swiss and a pound of pork.
Notable breakthroughs: The nation’s first Wendy’s restaurant appears in 1969; Kellogg’s Fruit Loops and Quaker Oats Cap’n Crunch become available in 1963, Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms in 1964, Yoplait in 1965, Quaker’s instant oatmeal in 1966, and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats in 1969.
1970s: Chicken livers and Egg McMuffins
The 1970s saw the emergence of a farm-to-table/locally sourced food movement. Coupled with the decade’s passion for fondue, booze, muumuus, and all things funky and foreign, this resulted in some interesting food trends.
Case in point: In 1974, the food editors at Family Circle Cookbook offered their ideal “Party Brunch” menus, including: pineapple-orange shrub, Crab Imperial Chesapeake, chicken livers, stroganoff, fluffy boiled rice, cherry tomatoes, coffee or tea.
Notable breakthroughs: Post’s Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles appear in 1971, Starbucks is founded in 1971, and Honey Nut Cheerios go on sale in 1979.
Fast food breakfast sandwiches, like McDonald’s Egg McMuffin in 1972 and Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast in 1977, become popular. The first soy-based bacon appears in 1974. (Thanks, hippies!)
1980s: Diet Food, breakfast on the go, and more bacon
Oh, hey, chemicals and additives! Welcome to the average American breakfast table. In the ’80s, novelty cereals, frozen breakfasts, and diet/lite/lo-cal everything became the sustenance of choice for a shoulder-padded army of Jane Fonda-worshipping working gals (and guys, probably).
If an office-goer had time to eat breakfast at all, she might opt for portable food, like a muffin or quiche, so she could stash her breakfast right alongside her kitten-heeled work pumps and her Rolodex.
Betty Crocker’s Working Woman’s Cookbook, published in 1982, offers an ideal weekend brunch menu for the titular Working Woman: eggs-stuffing casserole, bacon or sausage, broccoli spears, fruit and spinach salad, spiced coffee
Notable breakthroughs: Tofutti hits the shelves in 1981, Pillsbury Toaster Strudels in 1985, Snapple in 1987, and Healthy Choice frozen meals in 1989.
1990s: Novelty cereal and fun yogurt
Everyone loves the ’90s, probably because you were watching cartoons on a sugar high. TV-show-inspired cereals like Reptar Crunch, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cereal, Jurassic Park Crunch, and Batman Returns Cereal arrived on grocery store shelves; YoCrunch encouraged you to put candy in your yogurt; and thanks to the Bagel Bites theme song, pizza for breakfast was a totally legit choice.
A typical Saturday morning of binge watching Recess may have included a bowl of Trix and a blue-raspberry Go-Gurt.
Notable breakthroughs: Berry Berry Kix appear in 1992, Trix Yogurt in 1992, Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs in 1994, French Toast Crunch Cereal in 1995, Oreo O’s in 1998, and Go-Gurt in 1999.
2000s and beyond: Kale, cupcakes, and more bacon
In the early-aughts, kale, smoothies, kale smoothies, low-carb everything, and cupcakes became pop culture-fueled food trends. This is also when the organic/farm-to-table/fair-trade/small-batch revolution (Part 2) began, hence the kale smoothies.
Also, if you were at least semi-conscious and a meat-eater in the 2000s, you probably ingested a bacon doughnut, a bacon martini, a bacon milkshake, and/or Baconnaise. That’s because bacon was in everything.
To relive the confused, cupcake-obsessed, bacon-slinging, health-conscious aughts, have a bacon breakfast cupcake and a smoothie. (Best enjoyed while wearing a Von Dutch hat and watching The O.C.)
Notable breakthroughs: General Mills’ Milk n’ Cereal bars appear in 2000, making cereals like Honey Nut Cheerios and Cinnamon Toast Crunch a portable treat thanks to a “milk” frosting. Heinz rolls out purple EZ Squirt ketchup in 2001.
The moral of the story here, kids? Coffee and bacon are forever.