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How an Accidental Invention Changed What Americans Eat for Breakfast

August 2, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

It started with some moldy dough.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Americans woke up to a new kind of breakfast. Poured from a box into a bowl and doused with milk, cold cereals like Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes, Grape-Nuts and Shredded Wheat were not only lighter and easier to digest than more traditional breakfast staples like steak and eggs, hash, sausage, bacon and flapjacks. They also offered a previously unimaginable level of convenience to men, women and children whose schedules were adjusting to the quicker pace of an industrialized, rapidly urbanizing nation.

What breakfast was like before cereal

Details of a 1920s advertisement for Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes.

“In the colonial period, people—especially ordinary working class people—had a tendency to eat either porridge or leftovers from the night before,” says culinary historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson. But as the new nation grew wealthier, she explains, breakfasts got bigger. “There’s a trend that started with the European aristocracy, to have this giant breakfast buffet with cold smoked tongue, ham, sausage and egg dishes and things like that.”

In the 19th century, however, large breakfast spreads became commonplace, especially after the industrialization of beef and pork production in Midwestern cities like Chicago and Cincinnati. This was particularly true in rural areas, where large, meat-heavy morning meals fueled farmers and laborers for their days of work.

Then came the , tracing the exact origins of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is difficult, due to the many competing versions of the story. Kellogg’s wife, Ella, and his brother, Will, who worked as his assistant (and did much of the administrative work necessary to run the sanitarium), worked alongside him in the kitchen, and both lay claim to playing a role in the flakes’ invention—as do several other family members and Sanitarium employees. What seems clear is that one night around 1894, a batch of corn-based cereal dough was accidentally left out for an extended period of time, causing it to ferment. When rolled out into thin sheets, the slightly moldy dough produced perfect large, thin flakes that became crispy and tasty in the oven.

Patients at the “San” loved the new cereal flakes, which Dr. Kellogg called Granose (a combination of “grain” and the scientific suffix “ose,”or metabolism). Will Kellogg, meanwhile, saw the opportunity to market the flakes to ordinary people looking for a light, healthy breakfast.

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