It is true that America is home to the Luther Burger. It is true that America invented greasy fast food and continues to love its Burgerdonalds and McKings with heart-stirring (and -stopping) patriotic ardor. It is true that our prolonged prosperity in the 20th Century, our early adoption of refrigeration, and our vast continent of cattle-friendly farmland combined to addict our grandparents to unhealthy quantities of red meat and to enduringly define the American dinner as a plate full of starch and flesh, with an unloved ghetto of frozen vegetalia shmushed off to the side. And it is true that several species of indigenous American grub were meant to power farmers through long days manning a plow, or whatever it is that farmers do. (Think the sweet meatballs and hot bacon dressing of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and the classical breakfast poison of flapjacks + syrup + bacon + sausage + eggs + toast + coffee. The coffee, as it happens, is a diuretic, which hamper's the body's ability to eliminate the lethal tonnage of the foregoing ingredients.) It's the last point that I've been thinking about lately: Locating the culprit for my expanding waistline amid breakfast foods.
What put me in mind of breakfast foods was an argument I had with a roommate of mine, the daughter of a ship captain who has grown up internationally, in coastal cities around the world. We were at dinner. She'd eaten mussels. I'd had steak tartar. We both had a sweet tooth. My roommate commented on the absence of doughnuts on American dessert menus. And I said -- as I think a lot of Americans might say, rather thoughtlessly -- "Of course. Doughnuts are a breakfast food."
That we were in a French restaurant made my remark more idiotic than it would otherwise be, French restaurants being the sorts of places where doughnuts really are a dessert food. (Here there was only chocolate pot de'creme.) My roommate gave me a look both incredulous and fearful -- incredulous because, the moment you think about it, it becomes apparent that doughnuts are a horrendous breakfast food; fearful because a few years in the United States had taught her that there is no limit to the grossness of the American palate, and she suspected she was about to learn something ugly.
"Doughnuts," she said slowly, "are sweets. They're for dessert."
"Like cinnamon buns?" I asked. "Chocolate croissants? You frogs have vices too." I patted my belly -- "patting" being the thing one does with a belly that's become too massive to convincingly suck in. "Though it would be nice to have some dessert doughnuts. Let's go find beignets."
My roommate flagged a waitress. "Doughnuts," she said. "Are they a breakfast food?"
"Of course," said our waitress -- it sounded like "Ahv gourse." My roommate was upset.
"Brandon," she whispered, "that's disgusting."
"Nonsense," I said. "It's delicious. You need lots of calories in the morning. It's fuel."
"And what do you do with those calories? You run around for an hour and then you crash. You need a nap. It's absurd. And you're fat."
And I had no response to that, because it was true. I'm not quite 30, and I exercise, get all my nutrients, check all the boxes. But my breakfasts are a suicidal jubilee of fats and sugars -- Pillsbury's "Grand" cinnamon buns, usually, with cream cheese icing, or else English muffins with artificially sweetened jams and a plateful of bacon. Or Cocoa Puffs. And there it is -- despite my otherwise good habits, there's the noontime crash that muddles thoughts, turns sentences sloppy, kills wit and drive and ambition. And then there's the expanding waistline, which this year pushed the first number on my pants size higher than the second. (My closet is still full of yesteryear's 28-32s, and they make me sad.) And I'm not alone in these habits. Americans aren't even alone in these habits. The world's most popular store-bought breakfast food is the foul chocolate grease known as Nutella, and most of its audience is international, residing in places like Senegal, Italy, and Greece.
But there are also many places where Nutella, doughnuts, and cinnamon buns are not popular breakfast foods -- where no sugary confection is a popular breakfast food -- and it's difficult not to notice that these countries are, in the main, doing rather better economically, culturally, socially, and biologically than Senegal, Italy, Greece, and the United States. Many of these countries are in Scandinavia. I spent a month two years ago bopping among Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, and my breakfasts they were never sugary. They were fishy, smoky, bready, cereal-ly, fruity. Save at one hotel that catered primarily to American tourists, there was nary a doughnut in sight.
It is probably not the case that the United States is exclusively doomed by its breakfasts. Before we can think straight, walk straight, and work well, we will have to put down the Luther burger, abandon the Big Mac, and probably try to drink a little less soda. But damning doughnuts and sweets to the nation's dessert menus wouldn't be a terrible start.