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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Breakfast Cereal

A Global History

A global history of breakfast cereal, from the first grain porridges to off-brand Cheerios.
Simple, healthy, and comforting, breakfast cereals are a perennially popular way to start the day. This book examines cereal’s long, distinguished, and surprising history—dating back to when, around 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution led people to break their fasts with wheat, rice, and corn porridges. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did entrepreneurs and food reformers create the breakfast cereals we recognize today: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Cheerios, and Quaker Oats, among others. In this entertaining, well-illustrated account, Kathryn Cornell Dolan explores the history of breakfast cereals, including many historical and modern recipes that the reader can try at home.

144 pages | 40 color plates, 20 halftones | 4 3/4 x 7 3/4


Food and Gastronomy

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"An entertaining journey from the earliest accounts of pottages and porridges to the contemporary craze for breakfast bars, this is a must read."

Etta M. Madden, Missouri State University


Let’s start with a question: where did the breakfast cereals we all grew up enjoying – cereals like granola and Cheerios – come from? As I began researching this topic, I noticed the prevalence of breakfast cereals – ready-to-eat as well as warm porridges – throughout history and across the globe. While porridges are truly ancient, cold breakfast cereals are a more recent and decidedly American development, though one that quickly expanded to the rest of the world. The breakfast cereals imagined in the nineteenth century in some ways bear little resemblance to the cereals lining the shelves of grocery stores and supermarkets in the twenty-first century, but they are connected in their deep history.

The story of cereal began around 10,000 years ago, and in several regions of the world, with the advent of agriculture, which centred around grains such as wheat, rice and maize – generally known as corn. The development of ceramic pots allowed grains to be cooked over a fire, revolutionizing how people could prepare their grains and making them much easier to consume. Harvested grains could also be stored safely, and this would have lasting consequences for numerous global cultures. The porridges made from these and other great grains are as storied as the regions and peoples that have been preparing them since antiquity.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, in the United States, a series of entrepreneurs and food reformers – many of whom were connected to religious institutions – created a new kind of cereal: cold breakfast cereal. In the industry’s early days, the diet innovators who went on to develop the cereals we recognize today – Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Post Grape-Nuts (a wheat bran cereal broken into small nuggets) and Quaker Oats, among others – were largely centred in a few small cities in the U.S. Midwest. Since that time, food scientists have worked to improve on these original recipes, developing new flavour combinations and, most notably, adding sugar. Breakfast cereals acquired new shapes and sizes as well, as machines were developed that could ‘puff ’grains. Already a convenient food, cold cereal was made healthier and even more appealing to consumers through the addition of vitamins, discovered in the early twentieth century.

The development of cold breakfast cereal, interestingly, coincided with a trend among world cuisines to increasingly style themselves after the USA, and this movement grew stronger in the second half of the twentieth century. As Rachel Laudan observes: ‘American cuisine now included milk, vegetables, and fruit as well as bread, beef, fat, and sugar. Meals were based on hot or cold cereal for breakfast, soup and a sandwich for lunch, and meat and two vegetables for dinner. U.S. cuisine in general, and breakfast cereal in particular, has been influencing international gastronomic trends ever since.

One example of this cereal-related impact on food cultures and traditions can be seen by looking closely at the development of breakfast foods – including ready-to-eat cereals – in Italy. This nation, famous for its cuisine as well as for being the founding country of the Slow Food movement in the 1980s, started eating more U.S.-styled breakfast cereals in the twentieth century. Originally, Italians ate only two official meals during the day, like many other peoples. Indeed, in Roman times, the majority of the population ate wheat porridges throughout the day, made savoury with the addition of meat if it was available. Eventually, though, there came to be a designated morning ‘breakfast’ meal, colazione. (The Italian word colazione comes from the Latin collationes, meaning ‘compilation’ or ‘collection’, and the meal would be a compilation of available foods.) Prior to Italy’s industrial revolution, most of the middle and working classes would have had some kind of porridge, often polenta, for their colazione, which was really just the first meal of the day and not necessarily what modern Europe would now consider breakfast. Indeed, polenta became as synonymous with Italian gastronomy as grits were with the cuisine of the Southern United States, both iconic versions of porridge based on maize. By the twentieth century Italians had developed a ‘typical’ colazione, or breakfast, of coffee, milk, pastries and cold breakfast cereal. Italy provides one striking example of the introduction of cold breakfast cereal into a traditional cuisine, to some extent replacing a porridge or other customary sustaining food.
The story of cereals’ influence in culture and their evolution through scientific innovation continues into the twenty-first century, as companies and consumers work to imagine the future of breakfast cereal. However influential ready-to-eat cereals have grown, though, porridges are not going to be replaced on the global level any time soon. They are too deeply connected to human civilization itself. Since the earliest development of agriculture, humans have broken their night-time fast through a variety of what we now call ‘break-fast foods’. Perhaps the least processed of the breakfast cereals, porridge remains a popular choice for breakfast around the world. The history of breakfast cereal shows that, ultimately, we return to the classics: traditional porridges as well as familiar cold cereal brands, such as Corn Flakes, Grape-Nuts, Cheerios, Quaker Oats and Weet-Bix. Simple, healthy and relatively cheap and comforting, breakfast cereals are perennially successful. Whether porridge or ready-to-eat, breakfast cereal is a global food.

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