Breakfast at Leisure: A Vanishing Meal

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AT 7 a.m. on a winter Monday, as sleepy commuters begin another week, the scene on the road gets comical. During the 11 miles, 20 stoplights, and 25 minutes of my commute, I count four drivers drinking from spill-proof thermal mugs and one eating a Danish pastry. I also pass five pedestrians carrying takeout cups of coffee, one sipping a carton of juice, and three toting bags of donuts.

Welcome to breakfast in the late 20th century - definitely movable, though hardly a feast. What was once a substantial, leisurely meal has turned into a snack on the run as schedules, rather than eggs, get scrambled in the morning.

Trend-watchers spent much of the 1980s bemoaning the disappearance of the family dinner - a meal now showing signs of renewed strength as more families make an effort to eat together in the evening. Yet nobody seems to have registered the extent to which that other traditional family meal - breakfast - also faces the threat of near-extinction.

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Most of the conspiracies against a relaxed, sit-down breakfast involve lack of time. Women, traditionally the cooks, now have other demands in the morning as they dress for work and race out the door to deliver children to day-care centers. High school classes that once started at 8 o'clock now often begin at 7:30, forcing students to leave home earlier. And as congestion on the road worsens, commuters must spend more time behind the wheel and less time at the kitchen table. Even the much-vaunted "power breakfasts" of the past decade have scattered families in the morning as businessmen and women get an early start on the workday, filling restaurant tables with legal pads, calculators, and spreadsheets.

A second conspiracy against a traditional breakfast ironically involves nutrition. Ever since "dietary alarmists," as Julia Child has dubbed them, declared war on cholesterol and fat, everything that used to be considered part of a standard morning menu has become a no-no. Goodbye eggs, bacon, sausage, and butter. Hello yogurt, dry toast, and cereal - lots of cereal.

No fewer than 130 cereal choices crowd the shelves of our suburban supermarket. For those who want a hot meal but can't spare the five minutes it takes to cook "old-fashioned" oatmeal, prepackaged oatmeal-in-a-cup ("Nothing to add!") can be zapped in a microwave in 60 seconds. From instant breakfast drinks and instant grits to frozen waffle sticks with a "syrup dipper," the eat-and-run crowd has never had more choices.

Sadly, even that abundance of quick-and-easy food isn't enough to keep millions of children from showing up at school unfed. To help at least some of the 14 million American children living in poverty, nearly 50,000 schools offered federally subsidized breakfasts last year. They served more than 4 million poor children who would otherwise start the day hungry.

Just how much breakfast has changed for everyone can be measured by a popular 1950s radio program in Chicago, "Listen to Cliff." Every weekday morning, Cliff and Luella Johnson and their five children gathered around the breakfast table in their suburban Oak Park home. As a local newspaper of the time described it, the unrehearsed program took listeners into the kitchen of "a typically American family as it gets ready for the day ahead, as it talks over what happened yesterday, as a couple of typical par ents guide and advise their children." Even the milkman - remember milkmen? - occasionally dropped in.

For many of us who listened to the program before leaving for school, the Johnsons' morning routines typified our own.

Nostalgia for the '50s won't change the social patterns of the '90s. But the loss of breakfast involves more than the loss of what nutrition experts regard as the most important meal. It also represents the loss of a ritual, a calm, orderly way of easing into the new day. A transition needs to take place between the time the head leaves the pillow and the feet leave the house.

Beyond all the arguments of nutritionists and others, those who eat and run for breakfast are missing out on an old forgotten pleasure. Nathaniel Hawthorne summed it up perfectly a century and a half ago when he observed, "Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly arranged and well provisioned breakfast-table."

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