March 22nd, 2017
Champions of Breakfast
I don’t think I’ll get a lot of pushback if I suggest that Americans have a singularly weird relationship with food. Until now, I’ve blithely assumed that this was a relatively recent phenomenon, that the weirdness grew from a modern sensibility rooted in a reverence for technology, amplified by leisure and driven to full madness by advertising. But, boy, was I wrong. Or maybe, I’ve just been defining “modern” incorrectly.
The craziness started in the 19th century, and it was, indeed, uniquely American — if you consider the combination of moral fundamentalism, manufacturing savvy and greed as intrinsic to our national DNA. Before then, breakfast had always been a pragmatic meal made up of whatever was around and easy. If what was around and easy was substantial, that wasn’t a problem, because most people did physical labor; indeed, in the first half of the 19th century, most Americans were farmers. But in the second half of the century, modernity began to set in, bringing with it factory jobs and an explosion of office jobs, too.
The burgeoning 19th century metropolis was anything but a healthful place, overcrowded and dirty with scores of industries spewing noisome crap into the water and air. These new cities, seamed through with strata of immigrants, criminals and the nouveau riche, triggered a kind of moral panic in some people. One response was to become a muckraker, determined to expose injustice in the cities. But others were just plain freaked out by a world so suddenly and radically changing. When one’s environment feels out of control, many people become seized with the idea of controlling something, and just as often as not, that something is their body.
Health became the word of the moment, and health was often found in sanitariums, sparkling clean institutions far from urban squalor, filled with light and air, and under the direction of very confident men. The most famous of them was John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the inescapable corn flake. Kellogg was a confounding creature, an MD driven by religious sensibilities and his fascinations and prescriptions read as a bizarre combination of 21st century (he foregrounded what we’d now call the microbiome) and antediluvian (advocating mutilating treatments to “cure” masturbation).
I should probably mention at this point that the corn flake itself was invented as part of Kellogg’s anti-masturbation campaign; he believed that bland (but healthy!) foods helped to prevent any kind of arousal. Cereals were contested terrain in the sanitarium world; Kellogg fell out with his own bother over the rights to recipes, and rival C.W. Post (he of Grapenuts notoriety) was reputed to have stolen the corn flake formula from a safe in Kellogg’s office. Sounds like corn flakes were plenty capable of arousing cupidity.
Out of this hotbed of anti-hotness emerged the template that still dictates breakfast, the one which tells us that breakfast is the most important meal, and that it’s crucial to eat properly in order to ensure a productive day. “Productive” is the interesting part of this formulation and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kellogg’s mothership sanatarium was in the state of Michigan. Today, Michigan conjures images of rust belt decline, but back then it was part of the burgeoning industrial north which had only recently used manufacturing might to crush the Confederacy.
Two years after Kellogg became the superintendant of the Battle Creek sanitarium, another man devoted to productivity began his rise. He was Frederick Taylor, and in 1878, he joined the Midvale Steel Works in another engine of the manufacturing belt, Pennsylvania. Taylor started as a worker bee, but he was quickly elevated to management, where he used his understanding of the shop floor to discern just how much harder the workers could be working.
Taylor’s desire to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the laborers lead to something called “scientific management,” predicated on time and motion studies which discerned the absolute ideal way for any given task to be done. It increased productivity, all right, by making the factory workers behave like machines. The man who took Taylor’s principles and ran with them was, of course, Henry Ford, who built his automotive empire on the foundation of Taylor’s iron fist of data. Are we to be surprised that Ford was one of Dr. Kellogg’s patients?
Ostensibly, Kellogg’s palace of wellness was an antidote to the industrialism beloved by Taylor, but both men shared an adoration of efficiency and productivity and viewed them as close to godliness, absolute moral virtues that needed to be instilled by force of patriarchy/management. Eating right wasn’t just smart, it was the right thing to do, and made you a better, more productive, part of society. A strong laborer needed a strong breakfast to keep him at his station and able to maintain pace with the machines. It was a profound irony, the way that the panicked response to the invasion of society by industrialism was to adopt the tenets that industrialism applied to the bodies of workers, and instead apply them to psychology and morality.
We’re still eating that 19th century breakfast, now supersized to include early industrial food successes such as bacon and eggs, and that message of implicit virtue is still being transmitted, even though the workers are no longer found on the factory floor. Like a demonstration? The lunch menu for my local school district has the following printed on it: “Eating a healthy breakfast is SO important, we shouldn’t let traditional thinking stop us from eating a morning meal.” In other words, don’t let 19th century food propaganda stop you from following the precepts of 19th century food propaganda.
Plus ça change…