iStock
iStock

Why Do Americans Eat What We Eat For Breakfast?

iStock
iStock

Are the reasons we eat Cap'n Crunch really related to our tendency to consider bacon a breakfast meat? It was perhaps a fool's errand to think that there was a clear and concise trajectory to explain how we arrived at the series of unwritten rules surrounding a meal that is at least as old as the country. (There are few, if any, international patterns to be found, and tackling the subject country by country proved prohibitively unwieldy.) And when I asked Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, to help me understand breakfast, she cautioned as much.

"I would hesitate to say there is a universal quality to the foods that become breakfast foods," she said, "except to say that they fit into a morality around breakfast and do so in different ways."

Now that is something. The idea of fitting our foods into a morality construct might take a little getting used to. But then again, given the culture's current rhetoric of juice cleanses, guilty pleasures, sinful treats, and sensible salads—not to mention our country's puritanical origins—maybe it won't.

Prior to the mid-1800s, the apex of the Industrial Revolution in America, there was no such thing as breakfast food whatsoever. In the morning, you ate whatever was around to fuel you for a day on the farm—leftovers from dinner, pie, cheese, hasty pudding (a sort of cornmeal mush). There wasn't much in the way of convention with regards to food or etiquette. Dinner, in the middle of the day, was the main meal, while earlier breakfast and later supper were purely utilitarian.

Whole Wheat: Good for your intestines, good for your soul

During the Industrial Revolution, hordes of people moved to the cities where they adopted more sedentary urban lifestyles, working in factories instead of on farms. But, at first, they didn't change their eating habits. Naturally, this resulted in widespread indigestion, known as dyspepsia.

"People are either suffering from it or they’re scared of suffering from it," Carroll says. "They are trying to figure out how to get better if they have it or how to avoid it. So a lot of advice comes out and not all of it, but a lot of it, ends up centering around breakfast with the big farmer’s breakfast becoming a culprit."

Enterprising social reformers started opening health spas called sanitariums where middle and upper class people could go to be treated for dyspepsia with water cures and vegetarian, grain-based diets. The fiber-rich food did prove beneficial to alleviating indigestion, but people like Sylvester Graham and his cohorts took it a step further. The failed evangelical minister and his "Grahamites" proclaimed their whole wheat "Graham bread" (you may have heard of its cracker descendant, although the two bear only a passing resemblance) and the accompanying bland diet a virtuous panacea that was Biblically sanctioned—not only did it cure whatever ailed you, it was also supposed to repress immoral sexual urges.

Graham advocated strict vegetarianism with no alcohol, tobacco, or even spices to season your food because he thought it would quell masturbation. But even more radical was John Harvey Kellogg, who abstained even from sex with his own wife. As the chief medical officer at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Kellogg was interested in developing new ways to serve whole wheat and in the process he created cornflakes and granola, the first breakfast cereals.

Unsurprisingly, this radical lifestyle failed to find widespread popularity. But the benefits of whole wheat—both moral and bodily—had become ingrained in the public consciousness, which made it prime for capitalizing on.

"Entrepreneurial-minded people realize that there’s a huge profit margin, because grain is really cheap and you can sell that specialized food in a box if you moralize it by saying 'this is what you should eat,'" Carroll explains. One of those entrepreneurs happened to be John Harvey's brother, Will Kellogg, who founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which you probably know better as the Kellogg Company.

But to really solidify cereal as a cure-all in the mind of the average person, it took Charles W. Post, the inventor of Grape Nuts. A chronically-ill Post had first sampled cereal while staying at the Kelloggs' Battle Creek Sanitarium but he was able to transform the health food trend into a mainstream staple through clever marketing. Carroll credits him with inventing modern advertising for his use of testimonials from people who went from being very sick to suddenly better just by eating Grape Nuts.

Even More Breakfast "Shoulds"

By the early 1900s, breakfast became the most "should"-ridden meal. What had started out as suggestions for avoiding indigestion had resulted in a nationwide moralizing rhetoric specific to a single meal. And that opened the door for other dictates.

In the 1910s, an increased understanding of vitamins sparked a new trend among Americans anxious about malnutrition and deficiency diseases. At a time when the lower class often suffered from diet-related ailments, the discovery that certain foods could prevent things like scurvy and rickets was a major development in the way people ate. Milk was the first highly-touted source of vitamins, and that meant more good news for cereal manufacturers.

"Of course milk went perfectly with cereal, so that was natural for breakfast," Carroll explains. "But also I think that because breakfast was already moralized and because it was already about health and what you should and shouldn’t eat, [milk] just sort of naturally grafted on to breakfast." And that logic held true when, soon after, oranges were found to be a good source of Vitamin C, and quickly became a breakfast staple.

"Then there's another 'should' that comes up in the teens and ‘20s, when people are really interested in efficiency and so 'you shouldn’t eat too much for breakfast because it’s going to slow you down; you’re going to get constipated,'" Carroll says. "And so the shoulds start off being about health and then there’s this religious aspect to them and then they become about being an efficient, functional, productive member of society; specifically in a capitalist society cause you’ll be more profitable." The light, fiber-rich whole wheat cereals fit the bill, but as Americans branched out from breakfast cereal, efficiency still ruled.

"People don’t want to spend their time cooking when they could spend their time earning," Carroll explains—an American sentiment if ever there was one. Streamlined mixes bring quick breads and muffins from tea time to breakfast, and even waffles, once a dessert or dinner item, started showing up in the morning after the invention of the modern waffle iron and, shortly thereafter, the frozen toaster waffle.

But What About...

This is hardly the whole picture, because it can't be. A single, simplified timeline can't justify the eating habits of a large nation, so let's look at some exceptions. Bacon and eggs, a classic American breakfast, seems to be the absolute antithesis of the quick, convenient, whole wheat meals proposed above. And that's because it is—but it took advantage of the same public susceptibility.

In the 1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing Company found themselves with a surplus of bacon. To sell it, they created a need within the public to buy bacon. First step was to hire shrewd public relations guru Edward Bernays. Cereal had become a commercial success after whole wheat had been introduced as a healthy alternative to heavy meats, so Bernays just flipped the script. He convinced the company doctor to agree that our farming forefathers had it right along—meat was the right way to start your day. And from there, he found 5000 other doctors to also sign off on the totally un-tested claim. He published their endorsements as if it were a medical study and, just like that, the public started buying bacon. (To be fair, bacon probably took a lot less convincing than Grape Nuts.)

Even though we've mostly moved past a fear that anything other than bland cereal will result in masturbatory urges, advertising has found a way to capitalize on the impulse to start the day off "right." The through-line seems to be less about the evolving ethics of eating one dish or another and more about our susceptibility to moralizing marketing techniques around breakfast.

Additional Source: Heather Arndt Anderson

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios