It’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it’s not hard to see why people have that view. After all, breakfast gets you going in the morning. Breakfast is also a really useful meal for fiction writers.
For one thing, breakfast is a very culturally contextual meal (they all are, really). In some cultures, and contexts, a heavier breakfast is the custom. In others, one eats a light breakfast, and then a heavier lunch or dinner. What’s more, the foods that one eats for breakfast vary by culture.
Breakfast is also a very individual sort of habit. Each of us is a bit different with respect to what and how much we eat in the morning. For the writer, this means that breakfast can be a very effective way to show what a character is like, both culturally and as an individual.
Breakfast can be the setting for effective scenes, too. Those scenes can add to the tension of a story, or to the portraits of the characters. So it’s little wonder that breakfast is woven into a lot of crime fiction.
Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her Hercule Poirot is a chocolate-and-croissant sort of breakfast eater. He’s not much of a one for the traditional, larger ‘Englishman’s breakfast.’ Just that simple fact about him shows readers something of his cultural background.
Christie uses breakfast scenes quite frequently to build story contexts, too. For example, the first chapter of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is titled, Dr. Sheppard at the Breakfast Table. In it, Dr. James Sheppard, who is the local GP for the village of King’s Abbot, comes home after a very early call. His sister Caroline, who keeps house for him, joins him for a traditional eggs-and-bacon breakfast. At that time, and in that place, breakfast wasn’t a matter of grabbing a protein bar. As the two are talking, we learn about the death of one of the village’s residents, Mrs. Ferrars. That conversation sets the stage for what’s to come next in the novel – the stabbing death of retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd. There are other Christie novels, too (Dead Man’s Folly comes to my mind) in which a breakfast scene gives readers both context and character development.
Some authors use breakfast places and scenes to build a sense of local culture. That’s what Craig Johnson does in his Walt Longmire series. Longmire lives in the small town of Durant, Wyoming. He lives alone and doesn’t do a lot of cooking for himself. But he doesn’t need to, because Durant is home to the Busy Bee Café, owned and operated by Dorothy Caldwell. The Bee, as it’s called, is where the locals go for pancakes, eggs, and other ‘homestyle’ cooking. And coffee. That sort of breakfast food reflects both the small-town context for this series, and the local culture.
Breakfast choices are also very much reflections of the individual. For instance, in D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories, we learn that Heatherington’s breakfast preference is an almond croissant. That fits well with his lifestyle (he’s not really the ‘outdoors, strenuous exercise’ type) and his age (he’s – erm – no longer twenty). On the other hand, his detective partner Delilah Delibes, who is much younger and more energetic, prefers a fried breakfast. Not only do their breakfast conversations give readers background for the mysteries, but they also show readers a bit of what these two people are like.
There’s also Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans will know, he’s a born-and-bred Yorkshireman who enjoys his food. His personality is reflected in his breakfast choices, too. In Recalled to Life, for instance, Dalziel has gone to the US to follow up on a long-ago murder case that’s stirred up a lot of interest. In this scene, American journalist Linda Steele invites him to breakfast:
‘‘I’ll not quarrel with that. Can I get bacon and eggs? I don’t suppose they do black pudding.’
‘Never mind. I like me bacon crisp enough to shave with, and me eggs like a parrot’s eye.’
Linda Steele translated the order into American and the waitress replied in kind.
‘She wants to know if you want syrup.’
‘No, thanks. Marmalade.’
‘With your eggs?’
‘With my toast! Bloody hell, you’ll be offering me kippers and custard next.’’
This bit not only shows Dalziel’s personality, but it also shows gives an interesting cultural perspective.
People’s breakfast choices often become a part of their daily life, too, so that it’s very hard to change them. For example, in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, we learn that a big change is coming to the Cumbria Constabulary:
‘The senior management team had insisted that the catering franchisee should wipe the Big All Day Breakfast off the menu during summer.’
The idea is that officers should develop healthier eating habits. But that change is certainly not universally accepted. The series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. In this novel, her second-in-command is Nick Lowther, who
‘…still preferred calorie-laden junk food that resembled an exhibit in a long-ago poisoning.’
Scarlett’s friend and fellow DCI Fern Larter isn’t much of a fan of the new healthy eating initiative either. In The Serpent Pool, she and Scarlett agree to meet for breakfast at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar. Larter chooses
‘…eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried bread and black pudding.’
She’s not one to be dictated to by policies.
Breakfast choices can be influenced by generation, too. For example, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t eat a big breakfast as a rule. But his mother Kay sees things differently. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her adult life cooking heavy-duty farm breakfasts with a Ukrainian flair. So when she comes to stay with her son in Flight of Aquavit, there’s an interesting generation clash about what ‘counts’ as breakfast.
There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way that breakfast choices show us what characters and local cultures are like. Some people simply eat cereal (I see you, Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson). Others don’t eat breakfast at all. Still others (you see this in a lot of classic/Golden Age novels) have breakfast served in bed. Sometimes small details like that add depth to characters and contexts to stories in ways that a lot of words wouldn’t. And let’s face it: breakfast resonates with most of us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Ray Davies song.