Poached or scrambled, fried or boiled, tenderly Instagrammed or inhaled via McMuffin, eggs are the undisputed workhorse of the American breakfast. As a kid who wouldn’t touch them—the smell alone made me gag—I spent a lot of time bitterly contemplating this fact while cobbling together strange restaurant meals from the forlorn “sides” section of the menu. Collegiate poverty would eventually cure me of my childish aversion, and I now eat eggs in all forms, but I still wonder sometimes about their automatic association with morning appetites. Why do we eat eggs for breakfast?
The question is best tackled in two parts, and the first is easy. We eat eggs because they are a miracle, one the otherwise sober Oxford Companion to Food gaily describes as the “astonishing and unintentional gift from birds to human beings,” and the acme of food packaging.” People have eaten eggs—whether hen, duck, ostrich, quail, or, in the case of the ancient Egyptians, even pelican—in almost all cultures and eras of human history. Eggs appear in Cro-Magnon cave drawings and on Assyrian cuneiform tablets. The ancestors of today’s domesticated chickens originated in south and Southeast Asia before 7,500 B.C., and the Chinese had built duck egg incubators by 246 B.C. As the editors of Lucky Peach put it in All About Eggs, “eggs are what humans have in common.”
The same can’t be said for breakfast, which is where answering the second part of the question gets complicated. Whereas much of the world has long taken a strictly utilitarian approach to breakfast—in many places the go-to remains a warm (often caffeinated) liquid plus a grain—in parts of the West, whether and what to eat upon waking has been known to occasion a moral panic. Is a substantial breakfast good or bad for body, mind, and spirit? The American iteration of that debate came to center around eggs in particular, and has been shaped by two centuries by ever-evolving attitudes toward health, virtue, and class.
Ancient Romans appear to have begun their day with an energy-boosting meal that involved some combination of bread, cheese, olives, salad, dried fruits, eggs, and cold meat leftover from the night before. But by the Middle Ages, Europeans had downsized from the Romans’ three meals to just two per day, nixing the early morning nibble. St. Thomas Aquinas identified “eating too soon” as one of the six subtypes of gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, and those who indulged in breakfast may have been assumed to nurse other “lusty appetites” as well, Heather Arndt Anderson suggests in Breakfast: A History.
There were some exceptions: Children, the elderly, and sick people got a pass, and laborers who needed calories for the workday would’ve eaten bread, cheese, and ale. But the healthy and well-to-do either abstained or lied about their boorish breakfast habits, possibly getting their fix inside bedchambers with only servants as witnesses.
In time, the prohibition softened. By the late 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I was known to eat a breakfast of ale and oat cakes. Coffee and tea—introduced to Europe through trade in the 17th century—became wildly popular, and the Church ultimately loosened breakfast restrictions most people were already ignoring anyway.
Coincidentally, the 15th and 16th centuries were a boom time for egg recipes, when those who couldn’t afford meat could nonetheless raise hens on very little land, and the Church removed eggs from the list of animal foods not to be eaten during Lent. By 1620, English medical writer Tobias Venner was recommending two poached eggs sprinkled with vinegar as a healthy breakfast—though still with the caveat that this wasn’t strictly necessary for sedentary people, students, or anyone between the ages of 25 and 60.
It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that breakfast really came into its own as a distinct and openly celebrated meal. For factory laborers, sustenance before the grueling workday was more essential than ever, and for the rich—thanks to plentiful household help, easily transported ingredients, new-fangled gadgets, and eventually, electricity—breakfast provided an opportunity to show off newfound wealth. In England and America, the wealthy made omelets and built breakfast parlors—entire elegantly appointed rooms to stage the multi-course meal orchestrated by a bevy of servants. And the brand new middle class imitated those habits with their own attempts at morning excess.
Eggs were useful in that endeavor. In 1875, cookbook author Marion Harland praised them as “elegant and frugal,” advising thrifty housewives to make use of the “nutritious and popular” staple that in the wealthiest homes played second fiddle to costlier meat dishes served to impress. One surprised English visitor to the Midwestern prairie in the 1850s, at the height of this American breakfast golden age, described a particularly extravagant morning feast of “hot and cold bread of different sorts, including corn bread, little seed cakes, pancakes, preserves and blackberry syrup in large soup tureens, hot beef steaks, roast and boiled chickens, and various sorts of cold meat.” This was essentially dinner for breakfast, a spread that would make eggs benedict, invented in New York a few decades later, seem like a light snack by comparison.
A predictable consequence of all that conspicuous breakfast consumption was chronic indigestion, known at the time as “dyspepsia,” Abigail Carroll writes in Three Squares: The Invention of An American Meal. (Given all the complaints of heartburn, belching, and nausea, one wonders what to make of a warning, in the 1899 Dictionary of Dainty Breakfasts, that scrambled eggs “should never taste of Vaseline.”) While popular wisdom held that the condition was caused by eating underbaked bread, some physicians theorized that it could be cured by replacing meats and eggs with a lighter meal of grains. Hence, breakfast cereal was born, and eggs would have to fight for their place at the table like never before.
Luckily, they had public relations pioneer (and nephew of Sigmund Freud) Edward Bernays in their corner. Hired by the Beech-Nut packing company to help deal with a surplus of bacon in the 1920s, he scored a major victory for team fat by rounding up a group of doctors to say just the opposite of what the cereal evangelists had concluded. A heavy breakfast—specifically bacon and eggs—was good for you. The widely publicized “study” helped permanently cement the pairing as the ideal American breakfast.
Eggs had other boosters, too. Between 1850 and 1900, Diane Toops explains in Eggs: A Global History, loosened restrictions on exports from China meant that American farmers could import Asian chickens, leading to the development of new breeds that laid more and tastier eggs. Almost all farmers began raising chickens for eggs to eat or sell, and during World War I patriotic Americans were encouraged to keep backyard hens that would produce extra eggs for soldiers. After World War II, egg production became increasingly mechanized and commercialized, further increasing consumption, and diners may also have contributed to their popularity with 24-hour breakfast menus that emphasized what we now consider iconic egg dishes.
Of course, eggs would later suffer in the great cholesterol scare of the low-fat 1980s and ’90s—only to rise again more recently with the popularity of the Atkins diet and new research linking sugar to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and other 21st-century specters. And so the debate marches on, with scientific experts marshaling the moral authority once held exclusively by institutions like the Church.
Whether we slurp them in secret shame, like medieval nobility, proudly proclaim them a cure-all, like master propagandist Edward Vernays, or resolutely refuse to eat them at all, such public stances only strengthen the link between eggs and breakfast. It’s the intensity of the argument that allows their continued dominance over our mornings.