How Alexander Hamilton Did Breakfast
It's all about the dining room where it happened
Alexander Hamilton—who you’ve probably heard a lot more about recently, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s media-consuming Broadway hit of the same name—was an insatiable social climber, revolutionary thinker, and voracious writer. He achieved a lot before his untimely death at 47 at the hand of Aaron Burr. After immigrating from the Caribbean, Hamilton served as George Washington’s right hand man in the Continental Congress, wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, and set up a national bank and the foundations of America’s modern day financial system, to list just a few of his accomplishments. But even with Hamilton fever sweeping the theater community (and beyond), there’s very little record of some aspects of the man’s life was like. Including what he ate for breakfast.
In the 1700s, when Alexander Hamilton was eating his morning meals, breakfast was an underemphasized, underwhelming meal. For the country’s founding fathers, The day’s main repast was dinner, served around noon, bookended by breakfast and supper, smaller meals meant to keep people satiated before and after the large afternoon feast.“Breakfast was generally not thought of as a distinct meal in the way that dinner [what we today think of as lunch] was in the Revolutionary Era,” said culinary historian Megan Elias, “People in North American Anglo communities tended to just grab something left over from the night before.”
The piecemeal breakfasts commonly included porridges made from cornmeal mixed with milk and butter, leftover pieces of ham or bacon, bread (often stale), chocolate (an early ancestor of hot chocolate, laden with more fat and cream), and Johnnycakes, cornmeal fashioned into a sort of thick, fried pancake.
“You don’t see [early American] cookbooks describing breakfast recipes,” Frank Clark, Master of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg said. “If [Hamilton was] dining like most 18th century people, they’re going to be having real basic breakfasts.“No big piles of bacon and eggs, but more…what we might think of as a continental breakfast.”
Though many of these foods—like pancakes—have evolved into 21st century breakfast fare, another colonial favorite now lost to time was brewis, a precursor to modern cereal. Brewis was a warmed mix of dried or stale bread broken up in a bowl with milk or cream and butter added (no brightly colored, flavored varieties or small prizes at the bottom of the box). Really makes you rethink the appeal of cornflakes.
Historians speculate that according to his class, Hamilton would have eaten some mix of these foods and more expensive items like meat, butter, and sugar, often used for extra flavoring. Perhaps the most interesting element of the Colonial breakfast, and one in which we can make educated guesses about Hamilton’s proclivities, was the beverages consumed. “Beer and cider were probably the most common beverage in America in the 1800s,” Clark said. At the time beer was regarded as a healthy, nutritious beverage because of its proven ability to make the drinker fat.
Evidence suggests that Hamilton may not have actually indulged first thing in the morning as he wasn’t a big drinker. Dr. Joanne Freeman, Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University and editor of Alexander Hamilton: Writings described him as a slight, small man who was not known to hold his liquor well. John Adams, one of Hamilton’s most ardent critics, described him as, “an insolent coxcomb who rarely dined in good company, where there was good wine, without getting silly and vaporing about his administration like a young girl about her brilliants and trinkets.” He may have established our financial system, but apparently Hamilton couldn’t handle that third glass of wine.
Hamilton did have a penchant for a beverage of another kind. When describing how he was able to be so productive, Hamilton’s friend William Sullivan wrote that Hamilton would sit down to work, “…and when he had gone through this labor, he retired to sleep, without regard to the hour of the night, and having slept six or seven hours, he rose, and having taken strong coffee, seated himself at his table, where he would remain six, seven, or eight hours…”.
Though his odd work hours make it hard to view this anecdote as evidence of Hamilton’s breakfast habits, the concept of waking up and drinking coffee was still largely foreign in the Colonial Era. “[Coffee] was still expensive and largely regarded as a business drink, something to be consumed in coffeehouses as merchants talked over deals,” explained Elias. So it seems that perhaps once again Hamilton was a man ahead of his time, foreseeing that the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup. Fueling his day with caffeine, based upon this historical evidence, we may surmise that were he alive today Hamilton would still not be one to “throw away his shot” …of espresso.
We can make some solid guesses about what Alexander Hamilton would have eaten, and it’s not too far away from what many of us dine on today: lots of coffee, sometimes cereal, sometimes pancakes. But to really figure out what Hamilton ate? Well, you had to be in the room where it happened.