Breakfast in literature

cookie crisp

As you can see from the book I chose to read last week, I am really in a breakfast mood at the moment. And even if it isn’t always as exciting as a bowl of Cookie Crisp, breakfast will always be my favourite meal of the day.

In Breakfast: A History, author Heather Arndt Anderson has a chapter about breakfast in the arts, specifically painting & drawing, photography, cinema, television, and music. But the section I was most interested in was the one about breakfast in literature. I love a well-written food scene in a novel, but off the top of my head I couldn’t think of many that revolved around breakfast. Maybe it’s because, as this Guardian article puts it, while we can assume that breakfast is a regular occurrence in the lives of our favourite characters, we only see it happen when the author is trying to tell us something about the person eating it.

Take chapter five of Moby-Dick. “Breakfast” gives us a closer look at Queequeg through his manners (or lack thereof) at the breakfast table. This short but effective scene lets us in on his savage nature:

“But as for Queequeg—why, Queequeg sat there among them—at the head of the table, too, it so chanced; as cool as an icicle. To be sure I cannot say much for his breeding. His greatest admirer could not have cordially justified his bringing his harpoon into breakfast with him, and using it there without ceremony; reaching over the table with it, to the imminent jeopardy of many heads, and grappling the beefsteaks towards him. But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people’s estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.

We will not speak of all Queequeg’s peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare. Enough, that when breakfast was over he withdrew like the rest into the public room, lighted his tomahawk-pipe, and was sitting there quietly digesting and smoking with his inseparable hat on, when I sallied out for a stroll.”

In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis gives us a detailed look at Patrick Bateman’s psychotic tendencies. Even his breakfast routine is creepy:

“I check the neon clock that hangs over the refrigerator to make sure I have enough time to eat breakfast unhurriedly. Standing at the island in the kitchen I eat kiwifruit and a sliced Japanese apple-pear (they cost four dollars each at Gristede’s) out of aluminum storage boxes that were designed in West Germany. I take a bran muffin, a decaffeinated herbal tea bag and a box of oat-bran cereal from one of the large glass-front cabinets that make up most of an entire wall in the kitchen; complete with stainless-steel shelves and sandblasted wire glass, it is framed in a metallic dark gray-blue. I eat half of the bran muffin after it’s been microwaved and lightly covered with a small helping of apple butter. A bowl of oat-bran cereal with wheat germ and soy milk follows; another bottle of Evian water and a small cup of decaf tea after that.”

There are, of course, other examples of breakfast scenes and themes in books, like the well-referenced second breakfast in The Hobbit. But when you really think about it, the most important meal of the day doesn’t necessarily play such an important role in the books we read. However, what we choose to eat for breakfast, whether it’s bacon & eggs, plain oatmeal, or just black coffee, says a lot about the kind of person we are. Think of Holly Golightly’s coffee & pastry, Rocky Balboa’s raw eggs, or Buddy the Elf’s spaghetti & syrup. All amazingly rich details that tell us something about these characters. So whether we see it happening or not, the importance of breakfast should not be overlooked, in literature or in real life.

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