Bacon for breakfast seems as American as apple pie. And certainly bacon has been a staple to the American diet since the colonial period. Pigs are relatively easy to domesticate, and the brining/salting process that preserves bacon allowed the meat to thrive in the days prior to refrigeration.
In recent years, bacon has had an enormous rise in popular culture with restaurants, festivals and home chefs doing all kinds of crazy things to it (chicken-fried bacon, or the all-bacon ‘merica burger anyone?). But bacon’s place in the American imaginary lies primarily in the classic American breakfast of bacon and eggs – with maybe a slice of toast or some potatoes to go with it. It is THE American breakfast – when traveling outside of the United States, one can find an American breakfast on menus to differentiate from Irish, English, and Continental breakfasts.
Believe it or not, though, bacon’s association with the American breakfast is barely a century old. Before this, the majority of Americans ate more modest, often meatless breakfasts that might include fruit, a grain porridge (oat, wheat or corn meals) or a roll, and usually a cup of coffee.
So how did bacon become associated with the American breakfast? Let me introduce you to the grand-daddy of public relations and advertising, Mr. Edward Bernays.
The Austrian-born Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and was quite good at using psychology to get people to buy a product or an idea. He was the guy who was hired by the Aluminum Company of America to use the American Dental Association to convince people that water flouridation was safe and healthy to the public. His campaign for Dixie Cups scared people into thinking the glasses they were drinking out of were unsanitary, and could be replaced by disposable cups. Bernays was hired by President Coolidge to help run his re-election campaign in 1924, and encouraged Coolidge to invite the country’s leading vaudevillians to the White House for a meet-and-greet over pancakes. This was one of the first known political pancake breakfasts that are now so popular among presidents and council members alike.
In the 1920s, Bernays was approached by the Beech-Nut Packing Company – producers of everything from pork products to the nostalgic Beech-Nut bubble gum. Beech-Nut wanted to increase consumer demand for bacon. Bernays turned to his agency’s internal doctor and asked him whether a heavier breakfast might be more beneficial for the American public. Knowing which way his bread was buttered, the doctor confirmed Bernays suspicion and wrote to five thousand of his doctors friends asking them to confirm it as well. This ‘study’ of doctors encouraging the American public to eat a heavier breakfast – namely ‘Bacon and Eggs’ – was published in major newspapers and magazines of the time to great success. Beech-Nut’s profits rose sharply thanks to Bernays and his team of medical professionals.