The year is 1952. Marilyn Monroe is in bed, the plain white sheets barely covering her body. Her makeup is precise, her hair done, her right foot arched just so. Next to her is a steel tray bearing a broad lace doily and a glass of warm milk, into which Marilyn is cracking a raw egg. In one version of the photo—the one that appeared in Pageant magazine—her attention is directed squarely at the egg, with two more on deck. (“I’ve been told that my eating habits are absolutely bizarre,” she says in a caption, “but I don’t think so.”) In another, she smiles joyfully into Andre de Dienes’s camera—the girl next door, unself-consciously undressed. In yet another, she’s reading a script and munching a carrot, its frilly greens a dark counterpart to the actress’ golden curls.
Whichever version you look at, though, the message is the same: This is the breakfast in bed of your dreams. An anonymous hotel room. Marilyn. The complex, crumb-free virgin-whore seduction of the warm milk and raw egg. I am there.
The photograph is, like all photographs, a lie. But it’s not just a lie in the usual sense—an unattainable fantasy of intimacy with a movie star. No, it’s a lie that our culture has bought into for about two centuries now, which is that breakfast in bed is ever actually in any way a good thing. It is not. Breakfast in bed is not only terrible, it has always been terrible, and yet, throughout its history, we’ve told ourselves—lied to ourselves—again and again that breakfast in bed is the ne plus ultra of meals.
In reality, breakfast in bed is a panic attack of crumbs, a stress test of balance, the phobia of unseen drips and high-temp spills, the cardiac awkwardness of simple movement, the complete inability to relax throughout a meal that is supposed to be all about unhurried relaxation. If you are a mother or father, you can add this to the misery list: On the one day of the year you’re entitled/required to receive breakfast in bed, it will be made by your kids, whose culinary ineptitude makes the Swedish Chef look like Julia Child.
If breakfast in bed has any redeeming qualities, it’s that its terribleness reveals to us the fascinating ways in which we project upon breakfast all of our hopes and fantasies about who we imagine ourselves to be.
Frankly, that’s a lot to fit on a single breakfast tray, to be propped precariously among unsteady sheets and pillows, so let’s begin at the beginning. Or, well, pretty far back: medieval Europe—the Dark Ages of breakfast.
“As with most basic human pleasures,” writes Heather Arndt Anderson in her lovely 2013 book Breakfast: A History, “gluttony and other indulgences of the flesh were frowned upon during the Middle Ages and fasting was de rigeur [sic]. Proper medieval moralists did not need any more sustenance than was provided in the day’s two meals—a light, midday dinner and a more substantial supper for the evening meal; hence, breakfast was considered crass and boorish by the Catholic Church.”
Two groups, however, continued to eat breakfast in the face of this anhedonic diktat: the monarchy—who “could squander entire days around the table,” Anderson points out—and the poor, who needed calories ASAP to begin their daily labor. If, however, you were lucky/unlucky enough to exist between these two states, it would likely be hours after you awoke before you ate.
Except… Human beings have long had a habit of ignoring religious authorities. As the Middle Ages waned, people began eating breakfast again, often in their bedchambers. What they ate was, writes Anderson, simple: a “posset pot”—a two-handled teapot-like thing—that was kept next to one’s bed and contained warm, spiced ale (which you’d drink through the spout) and curdled cream and eggs (which you’d eat with a spoon). By the 18th century, breakfast was back on a big way, especially in America, where the upper classes would enjoy “matutinal feasts of mutton chops, bacon, eggs, corn cakes, and muffins—even pie.”
Still, even in the face of this new, widespread indulgence, a bit of the old moralizing remained. Into the Victorian era, Anderson told me by phone from Portland, Oregon, “It was mostly just married women were the only ones allowed to have breakfast in bed. And unmarried women were not allowed to enjoy that luxury—only the married. Luxuriating in the bedroom was never something that unmarried women were allowed to do.”
The thing is, despite the coveted status that breakfast in bed conferred, it was—and this is me speaking on behalf of history—always a terrible experience, and early on recognized as such. Take this epic plaint, from the anonymous author of the 1846 book The Greatest Plague of Life, Or, The Adventures of a Lady in Search of a Good Servant:
And this was an upper-class woman who had servants to shake her sheets! And but it’s not even about having someone to clean up after your guaranteed-to-be-crumby breakfast in bed. It’s about those crumbs, the fearful inevitability of them, the way that they instantly ruin any chance you have of relaxing, of enjoying the privilege—common for the wealthy of times past, rare for us 21st-century folk—of not needing to get out of bed in the morning or, really, ever.
Look, I get it: Breakfast in bed is an appealing idea. The past century has seen Western life accelerate at a pace that has degraded breakfast bit by bit. World War I decimated the nobility who expected bedchamber meals as their birthright. The advancements of capitalism substituted DayGlo cereals and drive-thru wraps for home fries, ham steaks, omelets, and slow-cooked steel-cut oatmeal. We have jobs to get to (sometimes), Bikram classes or rock-climbing lessons, children to deliver to inadequate institutions. Most days I’m lucky to eat a piece of toast with my coffee before I’m out the door. And if I spend any extra time in bed, it’s to catch up on sleep.
Breakfast in bed lets us dream of a genteel life, where meals appear at the ringing of a bell, uninterrupted by crumbs, stains, toddlers. Breakfast has that power, more than any other meal. Think of the way it evokes time and space and experience. The breakfast nook! A whole, sunlit section of your home in which, in your dream life, you do nothing but eat your morning meal. Continental breakfast! A transmutation of mere coffee and pastries into signifiers of European sophistication. Dinner doesn’t do this, nor does lunch, perhaps because we actually eat dinners and lunches of various sorts, while our breakfasts remain uniformly hurried, unromantic, overlooked.
But for that dream to succeed as a dream, an inspiration, it must remain a dream! To actually eat breakfast in bed is to run smack into the messy realities that bring it down to earth. It’s like the Mile-High Club: Sex at 37,000 feet sounds like the ultimate thrill—until you find yourself in the toilets or (yeesh) in the middle seat, and suddenly the smells, the geometries, the sheer difficult unpleasantness of the situation overwhelm you. Yeah, you’re now the type of person who’s cool enough to have sex on a jet, but is that really an experience you’d want to repeat? (Unless you can afford one of those $23,000 Singapore Air suites, in which case you can go fuck yourself—mid-flight, if you prefer.)
So it goes with that other pants-off activity you perform in the wrong room. Of course I want to be seen as the kind of person with the leisure and panache to have breakfast in bed, just as I want to be seen as someone who’s OMG obviously a member of the Mile-High Club. We all do. But the very last thing I want is to eat breakfast in bed or have sex on a plane. Those are not dreams I want to come true, or a life I really want to lead (at least not until I can afford a Singapore Air suite).
Just to make absolutely sure, though, I recently attempted to eat breakfast in bed. It was going to be perfect. My wife and I were staying in a hotel—a nice hotel!—where our two daughters bounced from bed to bed and we gazed out a 17th-floor window at downtown Pittsburgh. It was our last morning there, a Saturday, with a noon checkout and nothing pressing. At 7:30, I made the call to room service.
For the kids, French-toast popsicles! For my wife, ham and eggs! And for me, pastries, a bagel, a bowl of berries, O.J., and a pot of coffee—what the menu called a “Deluxe Continental Breakfast” (oh, those evocative words!). It would be, I thought, the ideal meal for eating while wrapped in white hotel blankets.
Half an hour later, a knock came at the door, and I pulled on my jeans to answer it. (We had, it turned out, only one fluffy robe, which my wife had already claimed.) In rolled the cart I’d been expecting, with table flaps that opened right over the edge of the bed. I lifted the stainless-steel dome off the kids’ pancakes. Perfect! I did likewise for my wife’s eggs—cooked just how she liked them, over medium. I lifted another cover, only to find… a bagel. Where were the pastries? The berries? Had I just spent $26 on a single bagel, a few chunks of honeydew melon, and a couple of beverages?
Thus began a series of phone calls that, while politely handled by the hotel staff—who had to parse “Assorted pastries, toast or bagel, bowl of fresh fruits and berries” like copy editors sparring with Oxford commas—culminated in utter disappointment. When, around 9 a.m., the hotel finally delivered my assorted pastries, they were the kind of soft, flavorless baked goods that have clearly never seen the inside of any oven but a microwave. I nibbled the flaccid croissant and cracked open the blueberry muffin and realized, to my horror, that I was eating this ostensibly “deluxe” breakfast, sitting on one corner of the bed, above the covers, with my pants on. The horror, the horror.
For a moment, I considered removing them, just for show, but it was too late. I was awake, I was up, breakfast was done, Marilyn Monroe had died in 1962, and I had other, better meals to look forward to.