From the exhaustive research I’ve conducted over the past couple of hours, it seems that breakfast is a meal that has been consumed since we emerged exhausted, filthy and hungry from the primordial mud. Scientific studies have shown that we tend to wake up hungry after an evolutionary epoch or even after several hours of vigorous sleep.
Our ape-like ancestors ate bananas from dawn to dusk. Lots of bananas. Three, four, sixteen times a day bananas provided them with non-stop potassium highs and immunity from kidney stones. We, as recently evolved people, still eat bananas either as a whole fruit—though not necessarily while hanging from tree limbs—or sliced onto corn flakes, a cereal first introduced as a breakfast food sometime in the middle of the Neolithic Period. That innovation took place in the Fertile Crescent (which I believe is pretty close to Des Moines) around 7,000 B.C. (Dr. Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, took credit for creating this culinary milestone in 1878, patented it under the clever name of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, packaged it in a box with a rooster on the front, and became a zillionaire.)
Breakfast has a curious, if not particularly interesting, history.
In ancient times, Egyptians rolled off their rock futons to enjoy a morning meal of beer, bread and onions. Greeks had bread and wine; for Sunday brunch they ate pancakes with honey, sesame seeds and cheese with their retsina at any number of romantic seaside joints called Zorba’s that featured live bouzouki trios. The Romans were basically eating antipasto to start their days: non-GMO bread, cheese, olives, artisan sausages and aged Chianti.
What we now know is that ancient Greeks danced at breakfast and that there is a long tradition of early morning alcohol consumption. By this, we are further informed that modern Americans are not the first people to want a boilermaker or a Bloody Mary with their French toast.
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th Century theologian who was known for being a bit bratty but was granted Sainthood nonetheless, thought that breakfast was a sign of gluttony, which might lead to wanting a beer before watching the gladiators take to the field. Both gluttony and alcoholism were frowned upon by the Catholic Church, which frowned on many other things as well. There was a time when breakfast was considered a sign of poverty because only those poor enough to have to actually work would need a morning fueling. The privileged could, however, eat breakfast if they were on the road doing whatever it was that rich travelers did in the 15th Century.
By the 16th Century all bets were off and Europeans were allowed to eat whatever they wanted. In celebration, the French created a breakfast of pain au chocolat and café au lait. The Danish created the Danish. The Italians went back to having antipasto. Polish Jews were trying to make donuts but boiled the dough in water rather than deep-frying it in oil and thereby created the bagel. When the Norwegians heard about the bagel, they introduced gravlax, which the Polish Jews thought beat the hell out of gefilte fish. Cream cheese soon followed, coinciding with the coining of the word schmear.
In the meantime, the British concocted a breakfast of rashers, blood pudding, sausage, ham, lamb’s kidneys, eggs, fried potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, stewed fruit and toast with clotted cream and jam whose preparation and eating took the better part of the morning and which subsequently introduced heart disease to the United Kingdom. Before that, British men died in battle, women in childbirth, and children from the boredom that comes with reading Charles Dickens.
The Irish would have black pudding and a fried-in-butter concoction of cabbage and mashed potatoes. This dish was called “Bubble and Squeak” and was clearly the inspiration for the snap-crackle-pop of Rice Krispies.
Almost simultaneously, every country in Eastern Europe developed strudel, a fruit-stuffed pastry with no fewer than thirty-seven spelling variations and an equal number of ways to prepare them.
My father’s family came from Bohemia, a part of what is now called the Czech Republic, where they claim to have invented štrúdl. (Notice that out of the six letters in štrúdl there’s only one vowel!) While most of Eastern Europe was happy stuffing its pastries with sweetened apples and apricots, the Bohemians preferred caraway-spiked sauerkraut, zeli, in theirs.
As much as I like sauerkraut, I am grateful that when I was growing up we did not eat štrúdl with zeli for breakfast. We ate soup. Every now and then we had scrambled eggs and chocolate cake. One time we had oatmeal, which nobody would eat—we just kind of stared at it in disbelief—so we never had it again.
My mother grew up during the Depression in Central Nebraska. At her father’s insistence, she made large vats of soup for the “traveling men” who wandered through the Broken Bow area looking for work. She was a terrible cook but she did make some pretty good soups, which was fortunate because my father grew up eating soup for breakfast that his mother, a terrific cook, made.
Most of my childhood friends ate bacon and eggs or cold cereal with milk for breakfast, which I thought was odd. They all drank orange juice (without champagne!) that appeared as a frozen pulp in a cardboard cylinder that had to be mixed with water. Later, many people switched to Tang, which was easier to mix and made stupid children believe they were astronauts. In the meantime, their parents smoked cigarettes, ate jelly donuts and drank coffee.
There are countless breakfast traditions. James Beard wrote of having sautéed chicken with bacon and a cream sauce poured over biscuits; if they were at the beach they would eat clams and Dungeness crab. My Uncle Joe ate leftover spaghetti fried in butter and washed it down with espresso. College students seem to live on microwaved Top Ramen, unless there’s leftover pizza which they eat cold. Oreo cookies dunked in Bud Light is yet another early morning favorite on the college circuit.
We had soup—always homemade, always warming and nutritious—and warm bread, usually rye. In the summer, we would eat fruit and if we were near a lake we would eat crappies and perch and blue gills, rolled in cornmeal and fried in bacon fat.
My grandmother Liska—my babička—made a garlic soup that called for making a paste of some garlic cloves with salt, pouring hot water over the paste and allowing it to steep for a few minutes. She would then place a slice of stale rye bread in a bowl and pour the soup over it. Her onion soup was prepared the same way, replacing the garlic with onion.
She also made a lung soup that was delicious. I don’t know how she made it, for which I’m sure my family is thankful. My daughter Courtney likes soup for breakfast and is adventurous enough to have once tried tripe in Rome, but even she probably would draw the line at lung soup. Besides, I don’t have the necessary connections to obtain a cow’s lung.
My favorite soup of my grandmother’s was Houbová Polévka s Kroupama. (I can’t pronounce it either.)
Mushroom and Barley Soup
2 Tbs. butter
½ lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
½ c. onion, diced
½ c. celery, diced
½ c. carrot, diced
1 Tbs. flour
3 cups beef stock
½ c. pearled barley
In a 3-quart sauce pan melt butter over medium heat and add onion; cook for 4-5 minutes. Add celery, carrots and mushrooms and continue to cook for about 10 minutes. Stir in the flour and add the stock. Add barley, cover and simmer for about an hour. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the parsley. Serve with warm rye bread. Dobrou chut!
Photography by Courtney A. Liska