The Origins of Your Favorite Breakfast Foods

January 16, 2015

breakfastMaybe you eat cold pizza and Twinkies for breakfast.  Those are not on the this list, but other popular breakfast foods are.  I bet you’ve heard of all of them and you’ll soon know where the particular food you’re eating came from.  Now doesn’t everyone want to process that information in the early hours of the morning?

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, at least from what they told me in health class, but we haven’t always eaten what we we’ve eaten.  A hundred years ago people wouldn’t even be able to fathom the thought of a Nutri-Grain bar or liquid eggs in a carton.  Here’s a few of the more common items you might have seen on your breakfast table, and the fascinating journey they took to get there.


pancakesAhhh, who doesn’t love themselves a stack of pancakes.  There are millions of ways to fix them, cook them, mix them; the options are endless.  But how long have pancakes been around?  It seems it’s been a long time, though you might not have recognized them in the old days.  The pancake spans the globe and can be found almost everywhere, though the name may not be what you think.  It’s not really known who truly made the first pancake.  One school of thought is that the making of the pancake could have developed from the Christian tradition of “Fat Tuesday”, also known as “Pancake Day”, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lent season.  It may have been used as a way to use up cooking fats before they spoiled prior to the days of Lent.  The first known mention of pancakes in English comes from a culinary book of the 1430’s.

The process of adding butter and syrup to the top is likely a modern affair with its origins coming from the recipe for crepes Suzette that was brought to the U.S. by a French maitre d’ in the 1930’s.  Crepes Suzette has a sauce of caramelized sugar, citrus juice, and liqueur that may have started a fad to embellish pancakes with other substances.

Orange Juice

orange juice 67556 640Orange juice had a simple origin but came about because of a problem.  In the mid 1910’s, there was an overproduction of citrus fruits in the groves of California.  The only option the orange growers could find was to destroy 30% of the trees to control the problem.  Orange juice would only last for a few days, so shipping the liquid anywhere would have resulted in spoilage.  Luckily, pasteurization came to the rescue and was discovered.  It, along with the national railway system being in place, allowed orange juice to be shipped across the country, pleasing orange juice drinkers nationwide.


Wheaties cheerleaders
Ancheta Wis/Wikimedia

I think I’ve had only one bowl of Wheaties in my life, mainly because I was busy eating too many Fruit Loops, but the story behind them is pretty good.  In 1922, a worker for the Washburn Crosby Company, which would later become General Mills, accidentally spilled a wheat bran mixture on a hot stove.  Yup, that’s it, and I wonder who took the first taste to see if it tasted like anything.  It took 36 attempts to get the flakes strong enough to survive packaging, and by 1924 they had done it.  The name was originally Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes (sounds yummy) but was changed to Wheaties after a employee contest to name the product.

It’s first association with the sporting world began in 1927 at a minor league baseball park in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  A new slogan was written by Knox Reeves, from a Minneapolis ad agency, and he came up with the words, “Wheaties-Breakfast of Champion”.  In the 1930’s, athlete testimonials spurred the cereal on and the company began using them on the packaging.  Michael Jordan has appeared on the Wheaties box the most at 18 times, with Tiger Woods second at 14.


Strawberry Pop Tarts

Kellogg Pop-Tarts are as American as apple pie.  Whether you love ’em or hate ’em, they are a breakfast food force.  They’re even popular during hurricanes.  When Hurricane Frances moved toward the Florida coast in 2004, Wal-Mart used what it calls “predictive technology” and discovered that the top selling items ahead of a hurricane were beer (which is the top seller) and strawberry Pop-Tarts (which sell 7x greater than normal). They used this info to ship extras to Wal-Marts in the storm’s path.

Beer and Pop-Tarts are a wonderful mix, but how did they get their start?  The company that really started it was Post, the cereal maker.  In 1963, Post had found a way to keep fruit filling fresh without a refrigerator, and they were set to dominate the breakfast food market.  But they made a grave error, they announced the product before it was ready to be sold.  Kellogg swooped in and took the idea and ran with it in under six months.  They had it placed in the baking aisle, strategically away from the cereals, and named it Pop-Tart, a ode to the pop art movement.  The original flavors were strawberry, apple-currant, blueberry, and brown sugar cinnamon.  The frosted versions didn’t arrive for three years as Kellogg had to get the frosting to stay on the tart.  Kellogg has released 29 other versions of Pop-Tarts since that time.  Which is your favorite?


coffee 400049 640Okay, so coffee in itself has a been around for a really long time.  Its origins can be traced to around 800 A.D. in Ethiopia and an interesting legend about an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi.  Coffee is said to have gotten its real start in Arabia where beans were roasted around 1000 A.D. and where no coffee beans were have said to leave the area until the 1600’s.  It next spread to Europe where it was introduced in Venice in 1615.

But everyone wanted in on the coffee game.  The Dutch managed to smuggle a plant into Europe, and not just the beans, in 1616.  They later set up their own coffee estate in colonial Java, which is now part of Indonesia.  The French came up next around 1714, and due to a French naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu De Clieu, who was able to get clippings from King Louis XIV’s coffee tree, (without his permission of course), set sail with them for Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean.  After a storm, pirates, and an overall horrible journey, De Clieu managed to plant his cutting in Martinique.  That single plant ended up yielding about 18 million trees in about 50 years.  That plants offspring would make up the coffee plants that would eventually spread around Latin America.

In 1727, it was Brazil’s turn, and they performed another bit of coffee hi-jinx.   Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta of Brazil went on a mission to smuggle coffee seeds from French Guiana.  He somehow got the governor’s wife to give him some seeds, which were cleverly disguised in a bouquet that she had presented to him at a farewell dinner.  These few seeds made Brazil into a coffee empire by the 1800’s, allowing coffee to be enjoyed by the masses.

Doughnuts or Donuts (whichever you prefer)

doughnut 380212 640The origin of the doughnut can be traced in one form or another to prehistoric Native American times, but its real origins are murky.  The doughnut is believed to have appeared in New Amsterdam, a Dutch settlement which is now Manhattan, in the 1800’s and were known as “oily cakes”, or “olykoeks”.  But since the most distinct portion of a doughnut is its hole, where did that come from?  Again history is slightly murky on the subject, but an American named Hanson Gregory claimed credit for putting the hole in the doughnut.  His mother is believed to have come up with the name doughnut when she made a pastry treat for him, and the ship’s crew he was with, to eat during long voyages.  She made them a deep-fried dough that had walnuts or hazelnuts in the center.  Gregory was said to have put the hole there by using the top of a round tin pepper box, pushing the contents from the center.

So if Gregory reportedly made the hole, how did they end up becoming so popular?  That can be traced to World War I, where American soldiers (also known as doughboys, but that didn’t have anything to do with doughnuts.  It came from the Civil War) fought in the trenches.  They were served doughnuts by women volunteers who had brought them to give the soldiers a taste of home.  When those soldiers returned home, they had a hankering for the fried treat.  In 1920 doughnut making hit its stride when a refugee from Russia named Adolph Levitt built the first doughnut making machine.  Levitt’s doughnut machines ended up making him $25 million a year, and by the time of the 1934 Chicago’s World’s Fair, doughnuts were known as the “food hit of the Century of Progress”.  Doughnuts were being consumed by the masses, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

It was also in the 30’s when Joe LeBeau, a Frenchman, sold his secret recipe to Ishmael Armstrong, a store owner in Paducah, Kentucky.  That recipe and the name that went with it was called Krispy Kreme.  Other entrepreneurs started on their path to the doughnut fortune as Krispy Kreme grew.  Dunkin’ Donuts started in 1950 in Quincy, Massachusetts and today has stores in 37 countries, as well as having double the amount of stores in the U.S. as Krispy Kreme.  Doughnuts are far from losing any steam in popularity.  It’s estimated that overall production of doughnuts in the U.S. is around 10 billion doughnuts every year.


Toaster waffles with maple syrup

These frozen waffles were invented in San Jose, California in 1953 by three brothers, Tony, Sam, and Frank Dorsa.  They were originally known as “Froffles”, a concocted name from “frozen waffles”.  People began to refer to them as Eggos due to their eggy taste, and the brothers changed their name to the Eggo Brothers.  Kellogg bought their company in 1968 and were the ones to come up with the popular, “L’eggo my Eggo,” advertising campaign.

Egg McMuffin

McD Egg McMuffinIn 1970, Jim Delligatti, a McDonald’s franchisee who had developed the Big Mac, was looking for additional ways he could bring in more patrons for breakfast to his restaurant.  He began by selling the usual early morning items of coffee and doughnuts.  He later added pancakes and sausage.  While Delligatti was doing well during his morning hours, other McDonald’s operators didn’t have the same wish to open earlier for breakfast, unless there was something that could really rocket sales.

In 1971, a new franchisee named Herb Peterson, also saw the opportunity that serving breakfast could bring.  He decided to come up with a product that was like other products on the McDonald’s menu and one that could be eaten by hand.  He came up with a cluster of six rings that formed an egg into the shape of an English muffin.  He then added a piece of Canadian bacon to finish it off.  Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, signed off on the new product almost as soon as he had tasted it.  By 1976, McDonald’s had finely tuned their breakfast menu, way before others jumped on the breakfast bandwagon in the mid 1980’s.

So before you chomp down on your next breakfast, take a little time to think where it came from.  It took many events to happen so we can have the breakfast we know today.  Now go enjoy your piece of cold pizza.

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About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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