The Breakfast Table

This is the forth article in June of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on June 27, 1909, and is an article on the breakfast table. Specifically, Marion Harland talks about how breakfast is not normally anyone’s favourite meal but that needs changing! To help she outlines some rules to brighten up the table.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

The Breakfast Table

IN all my long life I have heard not more than half a dozen persons say that they really enjoyed breakfast. The consensus of popular opinion is to the effect that the meal is a duty, not a pleasure, and that it is grudgingly performed. In France it is never a family function. Each member of the household, if he or she does not “mourn apart,” sulks in the solitude of the bed chamber over the compulsory task of disposing of rolls and coffee. “Only that and nothing more!” At noon, when they have become measurably reconciled to the fact of continued existence in a world that does not pay the expenses of running it, men and women meet about a civilized table for the “dejeuner a la fourchette,” which corresponds to our luncheon.

The English breakfast, never served before 9 or 10 o’clock, except in the hunting season, is a ponderous affair. Tea and coffee, boiled eggs, muffins, toast, and on the sideboard rounds and joints of cold meat, not to mention larded sweetbreads, deviled kidneys and “broiled bones,” await the robust appetite of family and guests. For, be it known, the English are not early risers as a rule. In America we growl at the laziness of the shopkeeper who does not open his doors and raise the window blinds by 7 o’clock on summer mornings, whereas when we cross the ocean we have to submit to the inconvenient custom of a 9 o’clock “opening” in town and country. It strikes the unsophisticated tourist as what Miss Ophelia, in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” calls “dreadfully shiftless.” Yet the British are not a shiftless nation.

The American breakfast is distinctively a national institution. It is served at what nine-tenths of the eaters would condemn as an ungodly hour; it is a heavy meal; it is a family meal, and in a shamefully large percentage of homes, the homes of Christian citizens, the least social and the most uncomfortable repast of the day.

Not a Pleasant Picture.

Gentlewomen and gentlemen of high and low degree confess, with never a touch of shame, that they “are not responsible beings until after breakfast.” Peter familias veils his somber face with the morning paper and the mother bids the children “be quiet!” for she has “a curl headache.” Even the babiest of the group is cross under the teasing of her biggest brother, and the others snap at one another as dogs snarl over their trenchers.

Do I exaggerate the evil? Let those whose experience has been more fortunate and whose observations have been made in sunnier weather arise to dispute the picture. In how many so-called happy homes is not “father’s breakfast grouch” a terror and a bywords? To how many tables does the mother bring a brow furrowed by the coming cares of the new day and a critical spirit totally unlike her tender, kindly self as her children know her for the rest of the 24 hours?

The oddest part of the exhibition is that nobody is humiliated by the recollection of his morning mood. The man who “wishes” his gentle wife “would mind her own business” when she ventures a timid query as to the morning news over which he is scowling, and tosses his carfare to his son with a savage, “You children are forever begging for money!” laughs at the recollection in his afternoon chat. “What else is to be expected of a fellow at breakfast? He is hardly an accountable creature.”

Much-Needed Grace.

We learn at our mother’s knees to pray, “Give us day by day our daily bread,” and we do well to carry the prayer in our hearts all our life long. Who of us asks in true humility and earnestness, “Give us this day our breakfast grace?”

I believe I have said that before somewhere, but let it stand! Heaven (and our families) know how sorely the petition is needed.

Yet reason and common sense would unite in declaring that the breakfast mood should be blithe and hopeful. Mind, nerves and muscle have been rested and refreshed by sleep. The freshness of the young day; the bath and toilet that have clad the body in fresh raiment; the anticipation of renewed opportunities for usefulness and of enjoyment opening to the imagination with the rising of the sun upon a rejuvenated earth, should combine to exalt the spirit and tone up the system.

I made up my mind fifty years and more ago that the influences of the early morning are distinctly depressing to the average human being. At the same time I made up my mind as strenuously that to yield to these is a sin and a disgrace to decent Christians. As a result the breakfast hour is cheerful in one household, at least in outward seeming. It is reckoned a personal duty that may not, be shirked to stimulate it when it does not come of itself. In time the effort brings the rich reward of the real grace. The “breakfast grace” comes for the asking.

Don’t grumble at the length of the sermon! If you knew how much more bubbles up to my lips and pleads for expression you would be grateful for my forbearance.

Now for the application! Make the breakfast table attractive to every sense. Let the silver be bright, the glass clear, the breakfast cloth spotless and the napkins clean. If you have flowers for but one meal per day, let them brighten the breakfast table about which the family is gathered after the night of darkness and helplessness. Make the whole array of equipage and eaters a visible expression of gratitude for the “blessings of the light.” I like the way the old hymnal puts that! One good man whose life was full of the best things the Father bestows upon His children—love, joy and peace—used always. In asking a blessing upon the first meal of the day, to thank God for “the rest of the night and the light and happiness of the new day which Thou hast made for us.” It was an inspiring thought, that of a new creation, and our very own.

A Few Set Rules.

I have talked once and again with the members of the Exchange of the hygienic value of the lighter breakfast now generally approved by our wisest dietitians above the heavy meal we copied from our English progenitors. In the weekly bills-of-family-fare that go with these very familiar chats with our housemothers I sketch the plan of the meal. In my own home the same line is pursued throughout the year. Fruit; a cereal, hot or cold, and varied from day to day, but always served with cream; eggs or fish, or a light meat, usually broiled bacon; bread and butter; invariably freshly made toast, brought in crisp and hot from the kitchen during the meal; tea, coffee and, for the younger eaters, digestible cocoa.

A dish of apples is on the table as long as apples are to be had, and most of us conclude the meal with one, or a section if the apple be large. If affords a pretext for lingering over the table when the rest of the breakfast has been cleared away. The morning paper is a regular visitor, but he who reads it during the meal must share the news with the family. May I say, furthermore, that in the other households that are the branches of this vine the same rules prevail, to the comfort of all concerned?

In contrast, I may hint at homes, otherwise worthy of the name, where not a word is spoken during the progress of breakfast, except what is connected with the business of the hour or half hour. There is no lingering over that gloomy altar of sacrifice to physical needs.

It is a cogent argument in support of the light breakfast—that excludes potatoes, steak, pork and chops, and for most of the week hot breads—that the American goes forth to his daily toil at an hour when the foreigner has not left his pillow. To set out upon the arduous round directly after swallowing a solid meal is highly prejudicial to health. Henry Ward Beecher changed the hour of the second service in his church from afternoon to evening because everybody has an early dinner on Sunday. And he “would not preach to roast beef and plum pudding.” The brain worker appreciates the force of the objection. The average American is a brain worker, let his calling be what it may.

Whatever you eat at the meal that breaks your fast after hours or rest for the hard-worked stomach, eat it slowly. I verily believe that the alarming increase in the number of deaths by apoplexy and the more marked suburban popular are largely the direct consequence of the “bolt-and-jump” habit inseparable from the commuter’s daily practice. Better eat ten mouthfuls slowly, reducing each to the digestible paste the alimentary organs demand, than choke or stoke down a hundred with nerves and muscles strained and ears alert for “the train.”

Forego that last delicious doze and eat your breakfast deliberately. It is sound policy in the long run, which will be the longer for your obedience to this law.

Marion Harland

Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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