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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The sandwich story most of us know involves the time John Montagu, Lord of the Admiralty, was hungry but too busy to stop what he was doing to sit down for a meal. He sent a servant for a piece of meat to gnaw on and asked that it be put between two slices of bread so he wouldn’t get his hands greasy. Like so many such “invention” stories, this is surely not the first time bread and meat got together to make a hand-held meal. But the English do so love anything having to do with royalty.

We’ve been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day for so long that most of us believe it

It was certainly true in the days before the Industrial Revolution when most of us performed the physical labor required for farming, hunting, carrying water, and chopping firewood. Americans needed three square meals a day, all full, well-balanced, and hearty. They’d eat breakfast before sunup, work until lunch, load up on calories again, and work until sundown when they ate a big dinner and went to bed. 

The harder the work, the bigger the meal needed to fuel the machine

This is especially true in the morning when laborers would awaken from a night’s sleep and break (the night’s) fast. Big meals were the break-fast norm — ham, bacon, sausage, potatoes, eggs, pancakes, bread, biscuits, and lots of each.

Please, sir, I want some more

Gruel is the thin and watery version of porridge and what Oliver wanted more of. Porridge is made by grinding up grains of oats or wheat and boiling them until they’re soft and mushy. Quaker Oats was the first trademarked cereal when oats were still sold in bulk out of open barrels in general stores. The name was suggested by the owners because it was a symbol of good quality and honest value. The Quakers got their name because they “trembled at the word of God.” Richard Nixon was a Quaker. A Quick Oats version appeared in 1922, and instant oatmeal arrived in 1966, followed soon after by flavored oatmeal.

Other popular hot cereals included Cream of Wheat, Cream of Rice, Malt-O-Meal, and Maypo

Pancakes and waffles

Both of these batter-based breakfast items began as handheld foods. Pancakes were easy to make on any flat surface, but waffles needed a special griddle. You poured the batter into the waffle iron and closed the lid to make the waffle’s distinctively-shaped surfaces by cooking both sides at once.

Waffles got even more popular when frozen versions appeared in stores

Now you could pop them in your toaster instead of needing a separate appliance. This led to a horde of toaster pastries, thin rectangles containing sweet, gooey filling and often covered with icing.

John Kellogg discovered cornflakes in 1894

He was distracted while boiling a pot of wheat and the wheat was overcooked. Left to cool off, each grain dried out and became a separate flake. Mashed.com says Dr. Kellogg promoted his cornflakes as a way to curb sexual desires, especially among young masturbators. Did you know Sylvester Graham was also a believer in using whole grains to curb sexual appetites? In his case, the way to do so was by eating his crackers. A Presbyterian minister, Graham also advocated hard mattresses, cold showers, and homemade bread.

Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist, took over a church-owned health institute in Michigan 

He turned it into a medical spa and resort called the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Back in those days, sanitariums/sanitaria were places people would go to for treatments, recuperation, and convalescence. Far ahead of the dietary times, Kellogg was an advocate of low-fat, vegetarian diets and he served his special breakfast to everyone.

The inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was a fervent believer in frequent enemas

Three of the sanitarium’s buildings had basement rooms devoted to “rectal and bowel applications.” His patients were ordered to eat a pint of yogurt a day, followed by a yogurt enema.

Kellogg’s fascination with enemas came about after he discovered gorillas had four or five daily bowel movements. Among Kellogg’s famous patients were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, and J.C. Penney.

One of Kellogg’s patients was a man named Post

A Fort Worth businessman, C.W. Post had a nervous breakdown. His wife took him to the Battle Creek Sanitarium where he was cured by Dr. Kellogg’s prescribed vegetarian diet, daily enemas, and abstention from sex.  

C.W. liked breakfast cereals so much that he began to make his own. His Grape-Nuts were made from flour, salt, and dried yeast. There are no grapes or nuts in Grape-Nuts, just as there are no nuts in Chock full o’Nuts coffee.

The Battle Creek Sanitarium closed its doors with the onset of the Great Depression 

It was converted into an Army Hospital and named after Colonel Percy Jones, the Army surgeon who developed the modern system of battlefield ambulance evacuation. Perhaps you recognize some of the ambulance drivers of World War One on this short list: Burger mogul Ray Kroc, composer Maurice Ravel, cartoonist Walt Disney, conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and writers Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Gertrude Stein, and her life-long companion, Alice B. Toklas.

Cold cereals became very popular

What could be simpler than opening a box, pouring dry cereal into a bowl, and adding milk? Corn Flakes, Grape-Nuts, Shredded Wheat, and other cold cereals were also lighter and easier to digest than breakfast meats, pancakes, fried potatoes, and eggs.

Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Breakfast: A History, says another part of the success of breakfast cereals was due to how advertisers convinced mothers that cereals were a healthy choice. Even more appealing to busy mothers was how kids could easily feed themselves safely because there was no need to turn on a hot stove.

Because they didn’t require cooking, cold cereals were quick and easy to prepare, especially for those in a hurry

Competition was heavy because cold cereals were cheap and easy to make, with excellent profit margins. In an effort to stand out, manufacturers started adding the sugar Americans love, especially children. The sweetening race continues to this day, with most of the kiddie cereals on your grocery shelves having as much sugar as many desserts.

Are the ready-to-eat cereals that make health claims actually healthier?

That’s the question posed by nutritional epidemiologists. Their conclusions are that nearly all products claiming to be healthy are instead unhealthily high in sugar and salt — despite the messages designed to dupe consumers. The worst offenders are cereals especially created for and marketed to children.


The first doughnuts were bits of dough fried in hot oil and they were a big hit with soldiers in World War One. It would seem the term doughboys (slang for soldiers) would have come from that time, but according to some, it dates back to the Civil War, while others trace it to The Mexican-American War and even to the Revolutionary War.  

The hole

The center of this thick handful of dough didn’t cook as thoroughly as the outside. Thespruceeats.com says American ship captain Hansen Gregory invented the donut hole. Adding a hole in the center increased the surface area so the entire donut was evenly cooked. One version of the story says the idea of the shape was brought to him in a dream by angels.

Adolph Levitt is credited with creating the world’s first automated donut-making machine

  • The Lower Manhattan Historical Association says Levitt called it The Wonderful Almost Human Automatic Doughnut Machine when he invented it in 1920.
  • The New Yorker, in an article called Glorifying the Doughnut, said Levitt’s machine “has taken the doughnut out of the mire of prejudice that surrounded the heavy, grease-soaked product of the old open kettle and made it into a light, puffy product.”
  • the doughnuts “float dreamily through a grease canal in a glass-enclosed machine, walk dreamily up a moving ramp, and tumble dreamily into an outgoing basket.”
  • After millions of Americans saw his mechanical wonder at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, the doughnut became a huge hit across the country. Levitt earned $25 million a year manufacturing and selling his almost-human machines.

Krispy Kreme

Paducah, Kentucky resident Joe LeBeau sold his secret doughnut recipe and its name to Vernon Rudolph, who improved on Levitt’s machine and sold his doughnuts to local grocery stores. When Vernon came back from the First World War, he started a chain of Krispy Kreme donut stores. Today’s machines make nearly 10,000 doughnuts an hour, still using the original recipe.

Not all fried breads are round

Have you ever had the beignets at the Cafe Du Monde?

Americans love convenience almost as much as they love eating

  • Americans use drive-thrus six million times a day.
  • The clear majority of fast food sales in the U.S. comes via drive-thru windows.

Want to know who invented the drive-thru window (it’s not who you think it was) and why it’s drive-thru and not drive-through? Click here to read it.

The average drive-thru wait time is said to be five minutes

Don’t be fooled by this deliberately misleading statistic. Like all averages, it ignores the highs and lows. A five-minute wait time underreports the lengthier waits behind long lines of cars at lunch and breakfast when most people visit fast food drive-thrus. People routinely sit for more than 15 minutes in line during peak times. The industry is in a tizzy.*

The Breakfast Sandwich

The Tasting Table has an excellent article called The Evolution of the Breakfast Sandwich Throughout History, and it is well worth the read. Breads and fillings differed from region to region, but most breakfast sandwiches included some combination of eggs with bacon, sausage, or ham.

The Egg McMuffin

Its creation in 1972 is said to be the result of a McDonald’s franchisee making a portable version of the classic Eggs Benedict, but without the hollandaise sauce. Herb Peterson poached an egg inside a metal ring. The round egg sat neatly atop a round slice of Canadian bacon, which sat on a round English muffin and was topped with a square of melted cheese. Capping it off with a second English muffin turned it into a sandwich. Peterson took his idea to Ray Kroc, who thought it was great.

Huffpost says Southern California’s Jack in the Box was selling an egg, meat, and cheese sandwich on an English muffin three years earlier

Peterson, the McDonald’s franchisee, was also located in Southern California and very likely to have kept close tabs on what competitors were up to. Whether he invented the idea or not, the Egg McMuffin is the most well-known breakfast sandwich in America.

The Egg McMuffin was such a hit that McDonald’s began to serve breakfast all day long

All-Day Breakfast was the pet project of then-president Steve Easterbrook. After severe backlash from franchise owners who said it was an inefficiency nightmare, it was dumped by the parent company and only a few locations still serve it. You can read more about the fiasco here.


  1. Back in the 13th Century, philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas considered breaking fast before morning mass to be committing the sin of gluttony. He may have been right, after all (see #2).
  2. Worldwide, one in every three humans is overweight. That’s an alarming statistic, but in the U.S., it’s twice as bad: Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, the most in the world.
  3. Americans spend $80 billion a year on diet products, yet U.S. obesity rates have tripled since fast food restaurants began installing drive-thru windows, which now account for nearly three out of four sales.
  4. The 200,000 fast food businesses in the U.S. had $300 billion in U.S. sales last year.
  5. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that those who eat while driving increase their chances of being in an accident by 80%. 
  6. I once thought The Alice B. Toklas’ Cookbook contained a recipe for marijuana brownies, but in research for this article, I learned it was actually for “Haschich Fudge.”

*Essay question (200-400 words)

What will be the new drive-thru concept that works so well the entire fast-food industry will be forced to follow along? 

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