The ‘sexiest meal’: what a character’s breakfast reveals about them
From James Bond’s boiled eggs to Queequeg’s beefsteak, the first bite of the day is one of literature’s less celebrated themes
In fiction, breakfast is far from omnipresent. We generally assume that it must be happening but, like a character going to the loo or scratching their knee, off-camera. When the American poet Anne Sexton declared that breakfast is “the sexiest meal of the day”, she may as well have been saying “it’s another of those things we don’t talk about”.
When we do witness breakfast, it is usually because the author is trying to tell us something about the person eating it. Breakfast is the most habitual meal of the day, a routine so key to inner wellbeing that Hunter S Thompson called it a “psychic anchor”, drawing, uncharacteristically, on an image of weighty predictability. If somebody is having toast with marmalade this morning (or, in the case of Thompson, “four bloody marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half pound of either sausage, bacon or corned-beef hash with diced chillis” plus quite a few other things), it is a safe guess that they had it yesterday and that they will have it tomorrow as well.
For this reason, breakfast is the ideal barometer of normalcy, the meal that tells us who a person really is. An example: in the fifth chapter of Moby Dick (simply called “Breakfast”), Melville offers a morning scene at a bar-room in a whaling town, as a way of painting us a picture of Queequeg, a Pacific islander who “eschewed coffee and hot rolls” – savagery! – and “applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare”. And in The Hobbit, Tolkein reveals much about the implicitly decadent nature of Hobbithood when he has Bilbo Baggins consume a second breakfast – an occurrence that has somehow become one of the most recounted parts of the entire book.
Meticulous breakfast prep often signals violent tendencies, providing a bracing (or perhaps, for the breakfaster, soothing) contrast, an ultra-domesticity to balance out the brutality to come. James Bond is a pedant at the morning meal (“his favourite meal of the day”). His routine when stationed in London, as detailed in From Russia with Love, always comprises “very strong coffee from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex, of which he drank two large cups, black and without sugar”. Foodwise it is a speckled brown egg from a French Marans hen, boiled for exactly three and a third minutes (“it amused him to think there was such a thing as a perfect boiled egg”). It is always served with wholewheat toast and a selection of preserves and a “pat of deep yellow Jersey butter”. Such fussiness conceals a deadlier truth. “I know all about you,” Miranda Frost warns him in the most memorable line of Die Another Day. “Sex for dinner, death for breakfast. Well, it’s not going to work with me.”
Patrick Bateman, the investment banker in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho exhibits his psychopathic tendencies, sure, by murdering several people in horrific fashion – but also in the creepy and ultra-detailed way that he describes the breakfasts of his yuppiedom:
“Standing at the island in the kitchen I eat kiwifruit and a sliced Japanese apple-pear (they cost four dollars each at Gristedes) out of aluminium storage boxes that were designed in West Germany. I take a bran muffin, a decaffeinated herbal tea bag and a box of oat-bran cereal from one of the large glass-front cabinets… I eat half of the bran muffin after it’s been microwaved and lightly covered with a small helping of apple butter…” and so on, and so on.
In Ulysses, James Joyce’s attempt to account for every detail of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, he gives us all the off-camera stuff: Bloom does go to the loo (“asquat on the cuckstool”), and the disruptive event that sends him off on his walk around Dublin is a quest for a breakfast that will sate his hankering for “the inner organs of beasts and fowls”. This he finds at the butcher’s shop (“a kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last”). But high tension ensues as he stands in a queue behind a woman who may or may not be interested in buying the morsel for herself. Few sentences in literature have the same primal breakfasty satisfaction as the one in which “his hand accepted the moist tender gland and slid it into a sidepocket”.
Another one-ingredient breakfast occurs in Albert Camus‘s novel L’Etranger, in which the antihero Meursault demonstrates his commitment to free will in the face of a meaningless existence with the following: “Je me suis fait cuire des œufs et je les ai mangés à même le plat” – “I cooked some eggs and ate them out of the pan.”
Simple breakfasts say a lot, but nothing is quite as eccentric as refusing breakfast altogether. Bertie Wooster was deeply alarmed by such behaviour, noting disapprovingly of one refusenik: “She spoke as if she belonged to an anti-sausage league, or a league for the suppression of eggs.”
Perhaps, however, the lack of breakfast is not a laughing matter. Walter Benjamin wrote an alarming pro-breakfast short essay, “Breakfast Room”, warning us of the dangers of, among other things, discussing dreams sans breakfast: “The person who does so, still half in thrall to the world of dream, betrays that world in his words and must expect it to seek vengeance.”
Breakfast is not love, or war, or death, or life. It is not one of the great themes of literature. But still, it lurks there in the background, a daily heartbeat, telling us what that character does when they are not experiencing the disruptions that drive great stories. More often than not, all that character wants is the freedom and happiness of which the ability to breakfast as they wish is a symptom.
In the words of JB Priestley, “We plan, we toil, we suffer – in the hope of what? A camel load of idols’ eyes? The title deeds of Radio City? The empire of Asia? A trip to the moon? No, no, no, no. Simply to wake up just in time to smell coffee and bacon and eggs.”
The Breakfast Bible by Seb Emina and Malcolm Eggs is published this week by Bloomsbury. To order it for £12.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop