By Jenn Salcido
While I’m not by any means a morning person, one of the things I’ve noticed, as I get older, is that I wake up earlier than I used to. I guess it goes along with all the other subtleties of maturation—your life changes, your schedule changes, and eventually your palate changes too. In the case of breakfast, what you once found totally nauseating and could only stomach at the ungodly hour of (gasp) seven AM, were it neon colored and covered in sugar, is now something you can savor, appreciate, and truly understand. Or at least, I’ve found, I do. In fact, I find that I look forward to breakfast now, particularly when I have a moment to make it. Because no matter how much I hate mornings, I have always loved breakfast.
So it was with particular delight that after a few cups of strong coffee I cracked open the egg of Andrew Dalby’s The Breakfast Book ($30, Reaktion Books). After reading Dalby’s bio and the first few pages of the prologue, I knew he would be more Plato than Pollan, billed more as a “food historian” than food writer. The Breakfast Book is as much an anthropological excavation through the history of breakfast as it is about porridge and toast toppings. From the very start, Dalby brings his erudition to bear by tracing the origins of the day’s first meal using shadowy references in mythical, classical, and biblical texts, building from this foundation toward the Neolithic revolution, which he suggests is the start of this whole breakfast business.
As with any respectable scientific inquiry, Dalby lays out some concrete questions that we, his dear readers, will discover with him as we munch and crunch our way through the various cereals, relishes, and routines that make up breakfast across space and time (his words, I should say). He asks, with all the seriousness of the breakfasting philosophers before him—if breakfast is truly different than other meals, if breakfast foods are distinct from other foods, has breakfast changed its size and shape over the history of recorded time? Ultimately, “(a)ccepting, as the odd anthropologist quite possibly does, that meals have a meaning, does breakfast have a meaning?”
I’m a lover of the examined life as well as jellies and jams, so these questions intrigued me. Through smartly captioned photos (a Rembrandt reproduced in these pages is read by Dalby as “capturing the surprise that is typical of breakfast”), first-hand accounts courtesy of texts both factious and fictitious, and with a sense of humor more dry than the driest rye, I knew that Dalby would navigate these waters smoothly. As the book unfolded, I was moved to mark nearly every other page with a post-it, trying to mine out the most delicious nuggets to present to you here, in gilded little egg-cups that a Victorian Queen might have employed. But, just as with variations within breakfast itself (puddings made of pigs blood in England, fried fish spotting banana leaves with their grease, salt pork in Steinbeck, a chicken breakfast for the Marchioness of Montferrat) there were too many revelatory moments to count.
The one fact that stuck out for me again and again, however, was the sheer amount of alcohol imbibed as part of these various breakfast rituals. I don’t know about you, but now starting into my thirties (here we are with age again), if I take a beer at lunch, I am out cold for the rest of the afternoon. Such low tolerance would be unheard of in the historical breakfasts Dalby unearths, and not just those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who, come on, obviously. The Egyptians, for example, had a word for their early breakfast: “ja.w-r’”, meaning, “mouth cleansing” — in this case, with a piece of bread soaked in wine. Wine with bread seems a very popular choice throughout Dalby’s investigations, but beers, ales, and wines on their own—without the bread, out of chalices and cups amply filled—seem to take center stage as the choice beverage. Breakfast whiskey even makes an appearance. Suddenly, sugary cereal doesn’t seem so bad, by comparison. Actually, the two might pair nicely.
Jenn Salcido is a writer and editor based in Rhode Island. She’s more of a French toast person than a pancake person, but if that’s really all you have around, that will be fine. More of her work can be seen at www.jennsalcido.com.