The history cook: ‘What to Get for Breakfast’

What to Get for Breakfast, by Miss Colbrath, 1882, Boston, United States

That breakfast is important is not a new idea. In her stout, attractively etched 1882 book What to Get for Breakfast, American author Miss Colbrath explains that a good nutritious start “lightens the spirits, clears the thought and gives moral force”, while the person who is “badly and scantily fed in the morning has not the moral safeguard throughout the day”.

Like many of her contemporaries Colbrath was in the Temperance Movement and believed a full stomach at breakfast could combat the lure of the bar and bottle. “This land,” she explains, “is flowing with whiskey and lager” and “the saloons become an easy resort for eking out a poor breakfast.”

Starting in the late 17th century and becoming a mass movement by the end of the 19th, the American Temperance Movement was inextricably connected to the Great Awakenings of the period. These religious revivals, with their dietary adherence to scripture, temperance and no cooking on a Sabbath, saw the spread of Evangelical Protestantism throughout America. Diet was closely linked to the work of the Evangelicals – it was the job of believers, and especially women, to cleanse the country of its problems. Good dietary habits would, it was believed, lead to the restoration of physical health and the purification of the nation as a whole. Colbrath quotes from the Bible to describe “wholesome animals” and “unwholesome animals”, and her Sunday Breakfasts set out the “necessary preparations” to be conducted on a Saturday for “keeping no one from church”. What to Get for Breakfast was not just a cookery book, it was a manual for national restoration.

Colbrath claims What to Get for Breakfast is the first American “directory for the morning” and suggests breakfast “seems to embarrass” the housekeeper “more than to arrange two or three dinners”. Too frequently, “in this country this meal consists of … tea, coffee and a small proportion of bread and butter”, which is “insufficient for those going to embark on muscular exertion”. Colbrath’s solution is 119 breakfast menus divided into 13 chapters.

Breakfast No. 4, for instance, is for cracked wheat, beefsteak, fried hasty pudding (boiled cornmeal, baked in a mould then fried on a griddle) and tomato sauce with coffee and ripe fruit. Breakfast No. 84 is for oatmeal mush, oven-broiled beefsteak, parker-house biscuit and green corn on the cob with coffee and fresh fruit.

The breakfasts are the result of local ingredients and traditions. Hominy (dried maize), Colbrath tells readers, “is an old time preparation which should not be forgotten … if we wish to preserve the vigour of our race”. Trial and error marked the first settlers’ attempts to grow wheat, rye, barley and oats, so they incorporated native foods into their diets. By the mid-19th century maize (corn), a North American Indian staple, had been fully adopted. Colbrath has recipes for corn bread, corn oysters, cornmeal raised muffins, cornmeal crumpets and hasty pudding. Though Americans drank tea in large quantities in the 19th century, coffee was preferred. Only two menus in What to Get for Breakfast include tea and there is a lengthy description of how to make “delicious and perfect” coffee (Java and Mocha mix, careful bean roasting, fresh grinding, clean pot and “good cream”). At the end of the book a chapter on “Ancestral Breakfasts” includes recipes for “Pan-Dowdy” (“a homely, yet hearty” apple pie with the crust stirred into the apple), “Scrapple” (“a stirling dish” that came from the Mayflower made of beef, beef tea and hasty pudding) and “Indian Suet Cake” (a baked cake made from “Indian meal” mixed with flour, sugar, buttermilk and suet).

With recipes for Huckleberry muffins and raised waffles, What to Get for Breakfast is unmistakably American and strikingly familiar. Breakfast, more than any other meal, marks us as belonging to a particular culture or country – we are resistant to culinary adventure when we have just rolled out of bed.

Writing some 20 years before Colbrath, British cookery legend Mrs Beeton advised that breakfast comprise of potted meats or fish, cold game or poultry, veal and ham pies, cold ham and tongue, mutton chops, broiled sheep’s kidneys, sausages, bacon, poached eggs, plain eggs, toast, marmalade and butter. Compared with this, the fare suggested by Colbrath is restrained, plain and wholesome – more Little House on the Prairie than Downton Abbey, and none the worse for it.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘What to Get for Breakfast’ by kind permission of the British Library collection

Huckleberry muffins

Just three and a half cups of sifted flour

Just half a cup of Indian meal

One teaspoonful of soda

One teaspoonful of salt

One heaping spoonful of butter

Half a cup of white sugar

Two eggs

Two cups of nicely soured milk

One pint and a half of berries

● Mix soda and salt with flour and meal, cream the butter, beat the eggs, and with the sugar add to the flour. Mix all together till smooth. When mixed, carefully add the berries without mashing. Bake in muffin-pans.

Squash biscuit

One and a half cups of sifted squash

Half a teacup of sugar

Half a teaspoon of salt

One heaping spoonful of butter, creamed

One cupful of scalded milk

Half a cake of compressed yeast

Flour enough to make a bread batter

● Mix these ingredients, and add the yeast, which has been dissolved in a scant cup of warm water. Stir in flour enough to make a soft dough. Knead 20 minutes. In the morning, knead the second time, make into flat biscuit and rise one hour. Bake half an hour.

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