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Though crispy items were present in French food before the contemporary period (what with bread, cakes, fresh or dried fruits), they have recently played a more important part as breakfast underwent a series of changes. The aim of this article is to make an historical analysis of the emergence and spread of crispy food in the French breakfast. The influence of foreign and more especially Anglo-Saxon models contributed to increasing its importance. Those who advocated these new breakfasts at the beginning of the XXth century were convinced to fight also against “degeneracy” which they thought was a threat to modern society. I shall first briefly explain how the French breakfast was born, then I shall focus on the influence and impact of foreign models.

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1Breakfast as we know it has not always existed. Its history begins in the XVIIIth century when the custom of drinking coffee and coffee with milk served with toast, spread in the cities. The French term petit déjeuner was coined at the end of the nineteenth century when the current three meals pattern was set up. A campaign for the reform of breakfast was outlined to promote different types of abundant and balanced breakfasts, especially the combination of cereals and fruits. All those new breakfasts, which introduced some crispy food into the American diet succeeded first in Anglo-Saxon countries and was then exported abroad. Those who advocated these changes not only wanted to promote vegetarianism but to reform lifestyle to struggle against “degeneracy” which they thought was a threat to modern society.As they spread in France throughout the XXth century those foreign models contributed to the emergence of crispy food. However they did not succeed in supplanting the “French breakfast” which consequently remains a landmark of national identity.

The petit déjeuner à la française or French breakfast

2During the Ancien Regime neither the time for the first lunch nor its constitutive elements were set, as shown by the breakfasts King Louis XIII used to have, as described by the King’s physician Heroard in his diary (Foisil,1989). Breakfast or first lunch was the meal of children or workers and the working class. So it was not endowed with the prestige of the other meals –lunch or dinner and even supper- more typical of the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy. Under these conditions it is not surprising that cooking books intended for the bourgeoisie generally ignored breakfast. In the traditional rural society that survived in France until the Second World War, farmers and field hands generally had a cup of black coffee on waking, then a bowl of soup and a few hours later a morning snack called casse-croûte, consisting of a loaf of bread with pieces of cheese or pork meat and wine1. The crust had to be broken, and already there, crispy food was actually linked with the morning snack.

3Was the emergence of coffee with milk or white coffee a sufficient cause for the decline of the workers’ substantial lunch and their afternoon snack (goûter)? Or was white coffee a mere substitute for the morning glass of wine the Paris cloth shearers used to drink back in the fourteenth century? Or did it take over from the soup farmers used to have before working in the fields and which was followed by a morning snack (casse-croûte)? There is one thing sure: drinking white coffee was an already widespread habit in many layers of the society of the second half of the eighteenth century. In time black and white coffee gradually spread from towns through women and children2 and became part of people’s habits throughout the twentieth century.

The battle for breakfast at the turn of the twentieth century

4There can be no understanding of the emergence of breakfast as a substantial, balanced meal at the end of the nineteenth century without reference to the rising influence of eugenics, a word coined by Sir Francis Galton (1883) and defined as: “the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating but which, especially in the case of man takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had”3.

5As a matter of fact, by reforming the breakfast, its proponents and advocates - either hygienists or eugenicists- aimed at fighting against “degeneracy” and for “the improvement of the human race”. Surveys on food consumption were carried out at that time. They showed that numerous workers and pupils went to work or school on an empty stomach. Such was the case in France as Professor Landouzy and Marcel Labbé’s survey presented at the 1905 International Conference on Tuberculosis put it: “ Half of the workers did not eat anything for breakfast or at least nothing substantial and replaced food, which is necessary before going to work, by wine and spirits, that it to say by stimulants and poisons… As for women, a little less than half of them did not eat anything for breakfast either; but very few used to drink white wine or other spirits at the wine merchant’s”. Such surveys also underlined the part played by tiredness in industrial injuries at the time when the principle of employer’s responsibility was instituted in France by the 1898 Act. In those days breakfast became the central issue of a battle waged on both sides of the Atlantic. All sorts of diets implied changes in breakfast consumption. Among others one can mention the advocates of a breakfast-free diet, the vegetarians, the fruitarians, the Fletcherians and the proponents of cereals such as Maximilian Oskar Bircher –Benner (1867-1939) who invented the “muesli” (Wirtz, 1993) or John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943)4 and his brother Will Keith (1860- 1951) who were to found the company bearing the same name – Kellogg’s - with a great many advertisements. Most of the new diets came into being in England and in the United States, where vegetarian societies were already fifty years old and where vegetarianism was inseparable from the religious concerns of its followers. One must not forget that is was vegetarians – the Seven Day Adventists- who were responsible for the creation of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the temple dedicated to health founded in 1866 in Michigan. John Harvey Kellogg became its medical superintendent in 1876. As a vegetarian, Kellogg attacked all meat-based diets and particularly the one known as Salisbury’s diet prescribing the absorption of three pounds of lean meat, one pound of fish and six pints of hot water during two weeks. He specially blamed it for causing rheumatism, neuralgia and headache. He condemned also raw food because he believed that “raw fruit, if ripe, requires no digestion, simply disintegrative solution and absorption” but warned that since humans lacked the means to dissolve uncooked cellulose, raw vegetable matter was indigestible. The body would treat raw cabbage “as much foreign matter, like sawdust or shavings”5. While he was looking for easily assimilated cereals for his patients, after several attempts John Harvey Kellogg eventually adopted the pre-cooked cereal recipe and that for the blending of crispy cereals – oats, corn and wheat- first called “Granola” then “Granose”. Other crispy products were designed in his laboratories and named after the various ingredients they contained: Granuto, Protose, Nuttose, Bromose. “Gran” stood for cereals, “Proto” for proteins, “Nut” for nuts, “Bro” for sweets made of honey and nuts. Kellogg’s corn flakes were created in 1906 when his brother Keith came up with the idea of adding sugar to cereal flakes. The same year the Toasted Corn Flakes Company of Battle Creek was founded. He thus combined two different and opposed products. These crispy products are quite appreciated in the United States as R. Barthes (1970) noticed almost one hundred years later when he wrote that the crispy is going further than the physical aspect of the food product, “the crispy […] has an almost magic virtue, some power of reawakening, shrillness, opposed to the thickening and dull texture of sweet food”. This symbolic and magical value is easy to combine with the first meal of the day, when we really need to wake up. By the 1890s Kellogg had many competitors among them Henry Perky who devised shredded wheat, while other innovations and ready-made preparations were created at the same time, such as Nestlé’s instant milk flour, sweetened condensed milk, powdered milk. While the Corn Flakes company emerged in USA, Charles Heudebert (baker in Nanterre nearby Paris) created the French rusks (biscottes), another crispy cereal product. To save money he had the idea of toasting unsold sandwich bread, which was consequently baked twice (hence the term biscotte)6. The crunchy biscotte has remained quite popular in the French breakfast, both because of its cheap price and because of its healthy image. The health aspect was then a major argument whereas in the United States the vegetarian movement was so pervasive that serving vegetarian dishes became fashionable, up to President’s Taft dinners in 1909. As for Swiss physician Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, he stood in favour of raw food and devised a blending of fruits and cereals called “muesli”. The original recipe was made of apples, cut and grated but unpeeled and with their stones, a variety of nuts, oats, lemon juice and cold milk. It was supposed to be either breakfast or first dish or dinner but never dessert or snack because the main ingredients of muesli are crispy fruit which must be eaten only on en empty stomach in order to deliver their beneficial action and because it takes longer to digest raw food. This is also the reason why muesli should take place preferably at breakfast or after many hours without eating. Made of fresh fruits the first kind of muesli had to be a last minute preparation. When cereals were later added, the very nature of the product changed and led to a rapid development of the production that no longer remained home-made.

6In France, in the years preceding the First World War, a new kind of breakfast food appeared which was to achieve extraordinary fame by appealing to people’s mind through three major concepts –exoticism, strength and health. Pierre- François Lardet created in 1912 a flavouring product based on “highly nourishing” banana flour with “delicious, aromatic” cocoa, “refreshing, rich- phosphorin –acid” barley cream and sugar, “which allows one to use it with milk or water”: Banania7.

7Even though the influence of nutritionists remained limited until the Second World War and even though they provoked both attraction and repulsion, the foreign models and examples played an essential part in the changing face of breakfast.

The influence of foreign models

8During the First World War the diet of the French was much criticized especially by vegetarian and naturopath doctors. Among them one can mention Paul Carton (Drouard, 1998), A. Merrheim, so called Mono, Gaston and André Durville, and Albert Monteuuis. Thus Merrheim, the creator of a diet known as Mono diet, wrote: “Bergonié has shown in his studies that the main meal must be the morning meal. Hundreds of thousands of young men have been left without anything to eat until 10 o’ clock with nothing else than a cup of insipid coffee, that is to say a poisonous drink that produces uric acid in their bodies, and though they will be fully developed only at 25 and though they have no physiological resources they were asked to make considerable physical efforts” (Merrheim, 1917). At the same time many vegetarians and naturopaths showed hostility to foreign breakfasts. Doctors Gaston and André Durville blamed the English breakfast consisting of bacon and eggs for being too high in protein: “The English breakfast with ham, bacon and eggs is nonsense even for a cold and wet country such as England and to a greater extent for France” (Durville, s.d.).

9In spite of this, foreign models of breakfasts arrived in France before the Second World War. Bengamin Gayelord Hauser relied on his experience as a famous Hollywood doctor to stress the importance of breakfast based on fruit juice and cereals (Hauser, 1937). Later he gave further details on the composition of “a substantial, balanced breakfast”: “First have something fresh: fruit or fruit juice. Secondly, have something high in protein, preferably an egg as long as it is not fried or half a cup of whole cereals. If you do not like eggs, choose any item on the following list (each product being as rich as an egg): half a cup of soft white cheese, a yoghurt, a glass of skimmed milk, a slice of liver, a mutton chop, three slices of lean bacon or lamb kidney. Thirdly, have something containing carbohydrate, such as a slice of wholemeal bread or enriched bread. Fourthly, have something fat – some butter or margarine on a piece of toast, no more than a teaspoon full of it that you just spread on the bread and then take off. For your pleasure and for the sake of getting an extra supply of protein, you can have a hot drink, preferably a cup of coffee with half cream. The man who is engaged in high physical activity should double the quantity of protein at breakfast”. (Hauser, 1955).

10Other foreign references played a part in the evolution of breakfast. The “Oslo breakfast” was very successful in Scandinavia before being introduced in France by Dr Jean Sutter (Sutter, 1945) and the Nutrition Team of the French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems (Drouard, 1992). Professor Schiötz, a specialist in hygiene at the University of Oslo has devised a type of breakfast composed of:

  • a pint of fresh milk, neither boiled nor pasteurized

  • two French rusks (biscottes) made of unbolted flour

  • an ounce of margarine and an ounce of cooked goat’s cheese

  • slices of rye bread (two ounces each) forming a sandwich with an ounce of margarine

11The meal finishes with a raw carrot, half an apple, half an orange or half a banana, many crunchy products. Still today Norwegian people usually associate the sound of the crunchy fruit and crispy dry bread with health and well-being.

12After the Second World War, the functions attributed to breakfast were twofold. It was meant to be instrumental in the fight against the nutritional deficiencies and growth delays recorded during the war, as shown in the surveys carried out by the National Institute of Hygiene under the supervision of Jean Trémolières (1913-1976)8.

13It was also meant to contribute to the improvement of the French people’s diet. A lecturer at the School for Dietetics and former Head of School Meals Department at the Carrel Foundation, Raymond Paumier created the first restaurant for children, called La Roseraie, opening in 1945 in Montgeron in a former nursery. The Oslo breakfast was experimented with there, but a problem of timetable soon appeared: being served at ten in the morning, breakfast was an obstacle to midday lunch and was abandoned. This did not prevent the idea from gaining ground, since foreign models, especially Anglo-Saxon breakfasts based on milk and crispy cereals, continued to spread more or less regularly.

14The distribution of milk had already taken place before the Second World War, but each time the experiments had been limited9.

15In the same time, the campaign for the distribution of milk at school initiated by Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France at the end of 1954 came up against the opposition of politically influential home distillers who laid the blame on “the milk drinker”. But there were also practical problems due to the nature of a delicate product at a time when sterilization was not wide spread.

16In the wake of milk, all kind of crispy cereals (corn flakes, toasts, rusks, biscuits) appeared in France in the eighties and spread gradually until today.

Today’s situation

17While certain studies stress the permanence of the three meals pattern, others insist on the changes that occurred in eating habits: nowadays people have a tendency to eat more often, to eat out and to nibble. A recent study conducted by the CREDOC (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie) on the evolution of the diet of the French from 1998 to 2000 showed that 30% of the children had snacks at school and 57% of them at home which is followed by an increased consumption of biscuits, pastries and sugar products.

18Physicians and nutritionists are getting concerned by the consequences of these new habits. The same study, which meant to be reassuring, recalled that the French still supported the three meals model and spent more time at table especially for their week end’s breakfast (34 minutes in 2000 compared to 21 minutes in 1998).

19A few years ago a 1995 survey on breakfast consumption showed also that the three-meal pattern is still prevalent and that the majority of the population have a breakfast mainly made of coffee and slices of bread and butter. (Kellogg’s, 1995).

20Another survey drawing the same conclusions was that carried out at the INRA (National Institute of Agronomical Research)10, focusing on a nationwide sample of students. Students were reported to be respectful of mealtimes – they had breakfast around eight. Over the week, breakfast time is more fluctuating, but the fact remains that one student out of two has breakfast between seven and eight. Besides, breakfast was not so often polished off as it was said - a quarter of an hour in average-’ (Grignon, 1987).

21The composition of the breakfast that students had is quite close to that of today’s standard breakfast. More than 80% of students had coffee, white coffee, hot chocolate or tea; three quarters of them had slices of bread and butter and / or jam; none of them had wine; none of them had soup; none or almost none had pork meat. Snack bars are mentioned in only one breakfast out of one hundred. Students from the upper classes were the most keen on innovation and the most easily impressed by the prestige of the Anglo-Saxon models. Although they were responsive to the criticism of the “insufficiency” of the French breakfast, they took from the English breakfast only the elements that blend in with their culture of origin, such as tea (essentially among girls and the students from the upper classes) and orange juice, along with cereals eaten with milk. On the contrary, solid, hot, salty, and cooked dishes were still rejected, for they were thought to abolish the specificity of the breakfast as compared to lunch.

22Ten years later the situation has not changed, as the latest surveys focusing on students made it clear. The 1995 study carried out on a sample of students at the INA (National Institute of Agronomy) showed that: “Only three students out of ten keep to French breakfast (slices of bread and butter and jam with coffee or hot chocolate). Four out of ten include Anglo Saxon elements (cereals, fruit, fruit juice or tea), while keeping to the characteristics of the “classical” breakfast (coffee and slices of bread and butter). Finally, three out of ten have abandoned the features of the traditional breakfast (slices of bread and butter have been replaced by cereals, fruit, fruit juice or dairy products; coffee or hot chocolate have been replaced by tea). But no student eats hot and / or salty dishes, such as eggs or pork meat” (Birlouez, 1996). Three recent surveys with similar results draw the same conclusion: breakfast, as a meal high in glucides, is still conceived as a “continental” meal for 80% of respondents (Louis Sylvestre, 1997), and the crunchy is then still more present in the sound of the crust or the rusk than in cereals.


23Such a rapid survey shows that the fight over breakfast is far from over. Two models are standing face to face – the traditional French breakfast, consisting of white coffee and slices of bread, and the Anglo-Saxon breakfast, which is a genuine meal. Even though some elements of the Anglo-Saxon model (especially fruit juice and cereals) have already been adopted by various age groups, its victory is still far ahead inasmuch as the Anglo-Saxon breakfast represents more a model than anything else. The fight goes on and the issue is uncertain. White coffee along with slices of bread and butter have thus become landmarks of the French national identity, so that France, as far as breakfast eating habits are concerned, can still be distinguished from countries of Northern Europe as well as from those of Southern Europe, even if the crispy fresh baguette is sometimes accompanied by crunchy cereals.

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BARTHES R., 1970, “Pour une psycho-sociologie de l’alimentation contemporaine” in Pour une histoire de l’alimentation, Cahiers des Annales, 28, pp. 307-315

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1 The French expression “casser la croûte” (“to break the crust”) recalls the time when the large, several pound bread had a thick crust one had to break in order to eat it. Breaking the crust with someone meant to have a simple meal made of bread, delicatessen, cheese with a glass of wine. Others verbs and familiar phrases recall the crispy texture. That is why eating can be referred to as “croûter” (“to crust”) or even “casser la graine” (“to break the seed”).
2 In his Nouvelle théorie du déjeuner Balzac (1830) evokes the spread of white coffee in urban, working class milieu since he refers to it as “mob mixture” simply meant for “janitors”.
3 Since its origins at the end of the XIXth century eugenics spread in more than thirty countries and its history is far from being written. When considering the elements which are invariably present one can define eugenics as a form of “scientific ideology” that is to say a doctrine which combines heterogeneous proposals and elements: some inspired by the science of heredity or relating to it and others arbitrary concerning the”fits” and the “unfits”, the “superior” and the “inferior”, the “feeble minded”, the “degenerate people”. As an ideology eugenics aims at a global explanation of modern society, of its “degeneracy” caused by the end of “natural selection” and its possible regeneration. Finally it overlaps with other doctrines such as social Darwinism, racism and social hygiene but without ever being absorbed by them. A applied science social hygiene which merges with eugenics aims at fighting against “social evils” (alcoholism, tuberculosis and venereal diseases) and stresses the necessity of improving the standards of life (housing, nutrition, health).
4 A well-known hygienist and eugenicist John Harvey Kellogg was the publisher of the review Good Health since 1873. He founded also the “Race Betterment Foundation” he gifted with the benefits of the Corn flakes Company.
5 John Harvey Kellogg, “The Raw Diet Question”, Good Health, XXXVI, (1901), 204.
6 The word “biscotte” comes from the Italian “biscotto” coined at the beginning of the XIXth century after the medieval latin word “biscotum” meaning biscuit. In both cases (biscotto or biscuit) the term refers to a double baking.
7 During the 14 July 1913 military parade, the Senegalese soldiers “the black force” as General Mangin put it- were acclaimed. It may be on that day that Lardet had the idea of using the gallant soldiers for advertising purposes, for they combined the candour of children, the strength of warriors and the exoticism of Africa.
The myth was consolidated during the First World War. The legend has it that in the first months of the war, one of these courageous Senegalese soldiers wounded in the forehead was brought away from the battlefield and was hired at the Banania factory in Courbevoie. There he tasted the famous beverage; he loved it and with a broad smile on his face, showing his beautiful white teeth, he exclaimed: “Yummy”! Combining the myths of healthy child, the victorious soldier and the noble Savage, Banania presented France as a daring enterprising country.
8 A physician and a biologist Jean Trémolières was a pionner of human nutrition in France after World War II.
9 On November 16, 1937, the Deputy for the Eure department, Pierre Mendès-France proposed a private member’s bill to foster the distribution of milk at school by all means. After World War II the influence of the communist party was very strong in France. When the Cold War began hostilities against Americans became more numerous. This is the reason why though American powdered milk was distributed, many teachers and communist city councils showed hostility to it.
10 Grignon C., L’alimentation des étudiants, Paris, INRA CNOUS, 1987.
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Electronic reference

Alain Drouard, “Crispy in the french breakfast”Anthropology of food [Online], 1 | September 2003, Online since 01 September 2003, connection on 22 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Alain Drouard

UMR 8596 du Cnrs, Paris

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