Sense and Nonsense: On Breakfast

The word “breakfast” obviously means the moment when we break a fast, when we first eat in the day after our night of sleep. The word probably had something to do with the older and perhaps wiser rules about Holy Communion, fasting from midnight before one receives the Sacrament.

To break the fast, with its implicit reminder of self-control and mortification, with the Sacrament of Our Lord has more than a touch of the mystical about it. We are not so robust today either in our faith or in bodily discipline.

One of my brothers has eaten oatmeal for breakfast most every day of his life. He is considerably taller than I am, and I often wondered if this daily habit, not genes, was the reason. Though I didn’t always, I like oatmeal, without being a regular. Frankly, for breakfast, I like croissants, that is, good ones.

The French, thank goodness, no longer have a monopoly on good croissants. That is, they no longer have a corner on civilization.

This topic of breakfast actually came up because a friend of mine told me that Belloc’s Path to Rome is difficult to read. This is almost my favorite book. I am pressed to find another book I like more, though I like many others as well — such as The Four Men and his Hills and the Sea, also books of Belloc. In the Path to Rome, Belloc has a rather amusing discussion of breakfast and its history. “I should very much like to know,” he wrote, “what those who have an answer to everything can say about the food requisite to breakfast.” With that sort of an introduction about those who “have answers for everything,” anyone is brash to pursue the matter. But, as you would expect nothing less of me, I will do it anyhow.

Recalling community breakfast in Rome during my happy time there, I still picture that it consisted of an apple or orange, a fresh roll, perhaps some cheese or cold meat, essentially what we call lunch. At the time, this particular combination always made me wonder why in Rome we had at breakfast what we had for lunch in the States. I should add, such is my rationality, that I practically never had breakfast at home in Rome but usually went to a nearby bar to have a roll and cappuccino with the morning newspaper. The Roman bar at breakfast is one of the world’s great experiences that, when in Rome, not even madmen miss.

Belloc tells us that the reason for his reflection on breakfast had no particularly exalted theoretical origins. Great thoughts usually never do. “The provocation of this inquiry,” Belloc explains, really had to do with a bottle of Brule wine which, in the morning, was most “distasteful.” The problem was that the night before, the same wine was quite delicious and would be so again for dinner. “I thought, in my folly, that I could break my fast on a swig of what had seemed to me, only the night before, the best revivifier and sustenance possible. In the harsh dawn it turned out to be nothing but a bitter and intolerable vinegar.” Belloc confessed that he could make “no attempt to explain” this remarkable situation.

Yet there was a lesson to be drawn from this “heavy disappointment.” It convinced Belloc of a “great truth” that, of all people, “a Politician once let slip in my hearing and that I have never since forgotten.” Recall, of course, that we all eat our breakfasts at the same time and mostly eat the same things, be they kidneys or scones, croissants or oatmeal, huevos rancheros or a “beer at rising tamed with a little bread.” Recall that the same Brule was a fine wine at dinner and a fine wine at lunch, but this revivifier tasted like bitter vinegar at breakfast. This is what the Director of the State said within Belloc’s hearing which he never forgot: “Man is but the creature of circumstance.”

Clearly, this “creature of circumstance” puts the dogs and cats to shame at breakfast. They do not consciously break their fast in the morning as the “creature of circumstance” does as he marches with his regiment, as he wakes at nine to the smell of tea or coffee and fresh rolls, scones, or croissants. Breakfast is a rite in which the “creature of circumstance” fashions how he is to live, and once he has fashioned it, he lives. It is, in this light, not so strange that the Bread is the Sacrament, that Our Lord would take the bread, break it, and tell his apostles, sailors, and fishermen to “do” this as a Memorial of Him, that is, as a circumstance of their day, their daily Bread.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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