This isn't your grandmother's breakfast—but it may have been her mom's
It might be tough to imagine a world before avocado toast, Pop-Tarts, and lattes of all stripes, but somehow, our forebears managed to feed themselves in the morning. Some of the everyday and extravagant breakfast foods that were the toast of the town at the beginning of the 20th century are all but lost these days. Some companies shuttered their factories, other dishes and ingredients fell out of favor, and still more just proved too labor-intensive to produce. Extra Crispy pored through a trove of menus, periodicals, and cookbooks of the era to find 10 foods that have earned their place on history's breakfast plate.
The word snowflake has taken on a derisive connotation in recent years, but in the 1890s and early 1900s, it was all the rage in the health-nut set. Menus for the Kellogg family's Battle Creek Sanitarium and several cookbooks of the era (including one penned by the very experimental Mrs. Ella Ervilla Kellogg, who ran the kitchen at the facility) touted a zwieback Snowflake Toast topped with a frothy mixture of eggs, flour, milk, and salt. It likely wasn't nearly as picture-perfect as the Unicorn Toast of a century and change later, but frankly, it sounds much cooler.
Heat to boiling a quart of milk to which a half cup of cream, and a little salt have been added. Thicken with a tablespoonful of flour rubbed smooth in a little cold milk. Have ready the whites of two eggs beaten to a stiff froth; and when the sauce is well cooked, turn a cupful of it on the beaten egg, stirring well meanwhile so that it will form a light, frothy mixture, to which add the remainder of the sauce. If the sauce is not sufficiently hot to coagulate the albumen, it may be heated again almost to the boiling point, but should not be allowed to boil. The sauce should be of a light, frothy consistency throughout. Serve as dressing on nicely moistened slices of zwieback. —Science in the Kitchen by Mrs. E. E. Kellogg (1893)
Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have referred to the signature preserve of Bar-le-Duc, France, as "a ray of sunshine in a jar." By the early 20th century, it was still co-starring alongside grape and berry spreads on plenty of menus, but its renown has since faded. It's not that the jam wasn't delicious, but the labor required to make it was so intense and expensive that after World War II, the required resources ust weren't feasible. To make it, using a goose quill, skilled workers must individually de-seed currants, leaving the fruit otherwise intact so it retains a caviar-like pop. The pulp-filled fruit is added to boiling syrup, then decanted into little faceted glass jars. Lovely, yes. Practical—much less so.
Prunes get a bum rap in modern cuisine, most likely because many of us so closely associate the dried plums as a cure suggested by our elder relatives to deal with constipation. But back when they (or more likely, their parents) were kids, Scandinavian-style prunes simmered in water or cream were a staple on hotel and steamship menus. Presumably the plumbing was up to snuff.
On some menus of the early 1900s, there was a premium charged for "Boston coffee," and it's not because it was roasted and shipped down from Beantown. Boston-style coffee just means that it's made with extra cream, which may be poured into the cup before the brew. From time to time, you might still hear someone ordering that way out of habit (likely picked up from a much-older relative along the way), and see a very confused barista wondering what the heck they mean.
Do ya like kidneys, kid? You're in luck, or at least you would have been way back when they were a fixture on just about every breakfast menu. They might be beef, pork, or lamb kidneys, sauteed with a side or mushrooms, or stewed in water and served on toast, or presented as Eggs Meyerbeer—broiled and served with shirred eggs topped with a rich wine laced, truffle-laden Sauce Perigueux. No kidding.
Old Philadelphia Stewed Kidney
Wash and dry the kidney and cut into inch pieces; put on to boil in a pot of cold water; as soon as boiling point is reached, remove from the fire, turn in colander and drain, rinse in cold water and dry. Dust lightly with flour; put three tablespoons of shortening in a pot; when hot toss in the kidney, browning carefully; then add two cups of water, which must be boiling, and cook until the kidney is tender. Then season with salt and pepper, five tablespoons of catsup, three tablespoons of vinegar; add one tablespoon each of grated onion and fine chopped parsley. Serve on toast for breakfast. —Mrs. Wilson's Cook Book: Numerous New Recipes Based on Present Economic Conditions (1920)
An Indiana man named Joseph Gent patented machinery and processes to mass-produce flaked Indian corn, based on a discovery by mill worker James Vannoy where close contact between the rollers forced the corn to come out in flakes. (When Vannoy told Gent about his discovery, he was to he was neglecting his duties and to get back to work. Gent later applied for the patent himself.) By 1880, Gaff, Gent, & Thomas Co. set up shop in Columbus, Indiana, to make Cerealine Flakes. According to their marketing materials, they were "made from pure white Maize, contains, by the exactest chemical analysis, more actual nourishment than any other preparation of the cereals, and this nourishment is, by the exactest test, more digestible than that of any other farinaceous food known." This precursor to cold breakfast cereals was soluble in liquids, meaning that it was especially appealing to home cooks seeking a quick meal solution. Read "Before There Was Cereal There Was Cerealine"
This porridge-like dish has amassed a new wave of fans due to a revival at Heston Blumenthal's London restaurant Dinner, but as a breakfast food, it's been around since at least the 14th century. More recently, though (OK, a century ago, but just go with me), this dish made of newly-cut, cracked, and soaked wheat that was cooked for at least 12 hours, then boiled with milk, flour, raisins, and currants just before serving. Blumenthal's version skews more toward the traditionally fancier preparation—with a sliceable polenta-like texture, paired with octopus, lobster, and sea vegetables in a smoky broth.
Wash well a pint of best wheat, and soak for twenty-four hours in water just sufficient to cover. Put the soaked wheat in a covered earthen baking pot or jar, cover well with water, and let it cook in a very slow oven for twelve hours. This may be done the day before it is wanted, or if one has a coal range in which a fire may be kept all night, or an Aladdin oven, the grain may be started in the evening and cooked at night. When desired for use, put in a saucepan with three pints of milk, a cupful of well-washed Zante currants, and one cup of seeded raisins. Boil together for a few minutes, thicken with four tablespoonfuls of flour rubbed smooth in a little cold milk, and serve. —Science in the Kitchen by Mrs. E. E. Kellogg (1893)
Pettijohn's Breakfast Food
"Some people labor under the delusion that a cereal must taste like bran to be hygienic. Other people eat mushy, tasteless cereals because they think them healthful. There's no sense in this. Pettijohn's Breakfast Food is the most healthful, strength-giving cereal made, and at the same time, it is the most deliciously appetizing cereal. It is delicate, and yet there is true depth in its taste that only the full, white wheat can give. It is distinctly good to eat." So claims the side of a Pettijohn's Breakfast Food package from 1900, and who are we modern folks to question it? The "flaked breakfast food" was so ubiquitous on menus of the era, it was listed simply as "Pettijohn's."
Brains and Eggs
Before you turn up your snout at this classic Southern dish, note that culinary legend James Beard and the authors of The Joy of Cooking and The Boston Cooking School Cook Book all saw fit to include this heady harvest-time recipe to their collections. As food historian Adrian Miller notes, "Though scrambled eggs and brains were eaten in every nook and corner of our country, at any time of the day, at some point the dish became known as a special breakfast in the American South. No one is specifically credited with creating scrambled eggs and brains, but the person who first did so probably figured that the two ingredients went well together because they have a similar texture when cooked." Read "Scrambled Eggs and Brains Are Coming Back from the Dead"
Italian composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini was singing with the heavenly choir by the end of 1868, but apparently he was held in such high esteem that as late as 1917, shirred eggs a la Rossini could be found on the occasional menu. Then again, the man had good—or at least luxurious—taste. Not only are Tournedos Rossini (a voluptuous preparation of filets mignon, foie gras, demi-glace, truffles, and Madeira) named for the famous gourmand; his signature egg preparation deploys multiple chicken livers and a garnish of lavishly buttered mushrooms.