"Le dejeuner fait bonne memoire," claimed the 16th-century French novelist Rabelais: "Breakfast makes good memory."
I don't know whether that is true, but I do know that some of the most memorable meals I've had were breakfasts. They weren't great repasts with exotic foods. Quite the opposite. They were simple celebratory meals in the early hours of the new year, and rambunctious times at the table when our family was snowed in, and jolly, spur-of-the-moment gatherings when friends dropped by on Sunday mornings. The menu was often no more than scrambled eggs, toast and coffee.
I've had memorable breakfasts alone, too, including one in bed at an old English inn. Deciding I couldn't face a "full English breakfast," I had ordered tea in my room. It was early spring, gray and cold outside. Promptly at 7:30 a.m., there was a polite tap on the door, and my "tea" arrived, scalding hot and accompanied by fresh orange juice, croissants (crisp on the outside, tender within), marmalade and whole strawberry preserves.
The full English breakfast that I passed up included fruit juice, stewed fruit, porridge, eggs and bacon, grilled tomatoes, sausages and kippers, toast and marmalade, and coffee or tea. However ample, it doesn't compare with the breakfasts that Britons served in earlier centuries. The first meal of the day -- the "break" of the "fast" for a 16th-century landed family -- typically consisted of bread, five or six kinds of fish, several cold meats, cheeses, pates, beer and wine. (Wine was omitted for children in the nursery.)
Colonial American breakfasts incorporated native foods, such as North American game, sweet potatoes, corn and maple syrup, but followed English models. At the time of the American Revolution, a wealthy Southerner was likely to toss back a julep (bourbon, water and sugar, garnished with mint) and then sit down to cold turkey, ham, fried hominy, skillet cakes, cider, bread and butter, tea, coffee and chocolate. New Englanders added fish and meat pies to the menu, and from the settlers in Pennsylvania came scrapple, a loaf made from cornmeal and pork scraps.
Breakfast in the 1800s was only slightly less rich. Sarah Rorer's "Philadelphia Cook Book" (1886) offered menus for "small and less pretentious families." One recommendation was oatmeal mush with whipped cream, broiled steak, stewed potatoes, quick muffins, coffee and fruit.
While average Americans were eating more mush than broiled steak, it wasn't until late in the century that the grain floodgate opened, when J. H. Kellogg, a young Michigan physician caught up in the health-food reform movement, invented something he called granola and perfected a method of flaking grain to give us cornflakes. Henry Perky developed shredded wheat and C. W. Post, grape-nuts. Around the same time, Albert Webster Edgerly attached one of his aliases, Dr. Ralston, to Purina Wheat, and the morning meal was revolutionized. Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries was only a few billion dollars away.
There were good reasons to change what we ate for breakfast, including those of cost, time and health. Historian John Harvey Young calls the 19th century the "dietary dark ages . . . when overeating was a national habit, an evil compounded by a diet stressing starchy dishes, salt-cured meats and fat-fried foods." Yet starting every day with cereal from a box, no matter how rushed we are, isn't an altogether happy alternative. It probably accounts for Henry Beard and Roy McKie, contemporary American descendants of Rabelais, defining breakfast as "a meal without dessert, eaten without wine, and served on a table without a tablecloth. It is best slept through."
Not true. What follows are suggestions for dazzling breakfasts that are healthy, different and delicious.
Smoked salmon and goat cheese strata
This is a new twist on strata, a layered dish that has been around for centuries. Baked in a springform pan, this lusty version is served in wedges.
Makes 8 servings
1/4 cup butter, softened, plus 1 teaspoon
13 slices firm white bread
5 large eggs
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
dash nutmeg and cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried
2 teaspoons capers, drained
1 teaspoon dried, ground green peppercorns
1 cup crumbled, firm goat cheese (about 5 ounces)
1/2 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (dry, not oil-packed)
6 ounces smoked salmon, cut into strips
Use 2 teaspoons softened butter to grease 9-inch springform pan. Lightly spread remaining softened butter (reserving 1 teaspoon) on both sides of bread slices. Cut slices diagonally in half. Line sides of pan with about 9 bread triangles, overlapping them slightly with long edge down. Line bottom of pan with about 8 bread triangles, cutting to fit as necessary. Reserve remaining triangles.
Whisk together 3 eggs, 1/3 cup milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne in small bowl. Drizzle 1/3 of mixture over bread slices in bottom of pan. Set aside remaining mixture.