TMKW: What is a traditional American breakfast?

Cereal has been an American breakfast staple for 120 years. Photo by Emily Ryan
Cereal has been an American breakfast staple for 120 years. Photo by Emily Ryan

The traditional American breakfast is a heaping bowl of cereal. At least, it has been for the past 120 years. What did Americans eat for breakfast before Henry Perky debuted Shredded Wheat (smashed wheat berries) at the World Columbian Expo in 1893?

The early American settlers and wagon train pioneers considered beans a fast and easy breakfast. During the day, dried beans were soaked in a canteen or pot of water. When the travelers made camp for the night, they dug a bean hole and started a fire in it. When the fire reduced to coals, a cast iron Dutch oven was filled with beans, water, and any meat and spices on hand. The pot was covered with dirt, and left to bake all night. In the morning, the settlers uncovered the pot, and breakfast was served.

The Iroquois and Susquehannock Indians who lived in this area before the 1800s also enjoyed beans for breakfast. They primarily ate dried corn, small squash, beans and whatever meat they could catch. They didnt have specific breakfast foods, but ate whatever was available. The closest thing they ate to cereal was parched corn. They let their corn dry on the stalk and then shucked it. The kernels were lightly roasted in a clay pot over the fire or on a hot stone. They then ground the roasted corn into a coarse meal. It was usually eaten without cooking, washed down with water. Sometimes the poached corn was mixed into a cup of water and drank. Maple syrup was added in season.

In contrast to the fast breakfast of the wagon train pioneers, in her book Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes a typical working mans breakfast consisting of fried potatoes, pancakes, sausage and gravy, donuts, apple pie and oatmeal topped with fresh cream and maple sugar.


Immigrants arriving in the 1800s and 1900s introduced America to a wide variety of pancakes, bacon and sausages, pasties (hand pies), egg dishes, porridges and other breakfast fare. Oatmeal was a popular breakfast option among Americans of European descent. Oats were soaked overnight and then cooked for around an hour in the morning to make an oatmeal porridge. In the 1850s, a German immigrant named Ferdinand Schumacher created rolled oats, and instant oatmeal became a popular breakfast food.

Using steel-cut oats will give you the porridge experience without the cook time. Try this recipe for Oatmeal Porridge: Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Stir in 1 cup of steel-cut oats and 1/4 tsp salt. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve topped with brown sugar, maple syrup, cream, butter or milk. Makes 3-4 servings.

Slapjacks were one popular form of pancakes in the 1800s. This recipe is from The Old Confederacy Receipt Book printed in 1863: Take flour, little sugar and water, mix with or without a little yeast, the latter better if at hand, mix into paste and fry the same as fritters in clean fat. Serve with butter and maple syrup.