In my post introducing family stories, I wrote the following: “It is often impossible to know for certain even what year a person was born (a hard fact), let alone what they ate for breakfast, and even less likely to know what they actually liked to eat for breakfast.”
This is perhaps a strange question. What does breakfast have to do with anything? Some might point out that in the past, there was less variety in food and thus people ate what they could find and afford. Which is true – that is why it is easy to speculate. If I were to make an educated guess as to what my ancestors ate for breakfast, porridge is the first thing that comes to mind. Eggs, milk, bread, potatoes, berries…these are all likely possibilities. But is like trying to guess their names based on the popular names in the years and regions in which they lived.
If anything, I have discovered in my research that while there are many Johns and Marys in my family tree, there are also a lot more obscure name choices in it too. (Melanchthon? Rehumah? Tryphosa?)
Back to food – it doesn’t follow that just because someone usually ate something for breakfast that they also liked that food for breakfast. They may have survived on porridge, but all that really says is that they could access and afford porridge on a daily basis. The bigger question is how they would answer this question: If you could wake up and have someone prepare you anything you wanted for breakfast – no matter what the ingredients, time of year, amount of skill required, or dietary restriction you may have (this is a magical breakfast) – what would it be?
How anyone answers this question shows a lot about their personality and imagination. Our ancestors, of course, had both. While they certainly did not have the wide access to global knowledge that we currently do, nor as much choice or accessibility of different foods, they could still dream about what they would have for their magical breakfast.
For sure, some of them would have said “porridge” or “fresh, warm bread with butter” or “eggs and bacon” – practical, heartfelt, and sticking to what they know is tasty but not too rich. Or perhaps they would list an alcoholic beverage.
Some of them might have said “my grandmother’s cornmeal cake” – something they had never had since childhood, or had never had just quite the same, and was associated with childhood memories.
Some might have gone in a strange direction – wild game meat of a rarely-hunted animal, or an odd mix of flavours or items that they would really like to try. Adventurous, impractical, and curious.
Then there are those whose answers would be luxurious – rich creams, cheeses, pastries, sweets, meats, eggs, etc. Tasty, ostentatious, and celebratory.
Of course, most of my ancestors did not leave any written records that could answer this question. It is very hard to speculate how each of them would answer. For that matter, I still don’t know how I would. It would vary depending on my mood and life-circumstances – as, I’m sure, it would vary for my ancestors as well.
But it is this type of question, moreso than statistical information, that brings the past to life. That is why historical fiction, where characters are created out of whole cloth, is so attractive. The drawback to learning about our ancestors is that beyond a few generations, it is extremely difficult to know what they liked for breakfast. I briefly got to know some of my great-grandparents as a child (although not well enough to know their breakfast preferences) and had I been a bit older or a bit more astute, I might have learned about their great-grandparents from them (my great-great-great-great-grandparents, although only if my great-grandparents were old enough and astute enough to get to know them).
Unfortunately, a lot of these answers are gone, speculations aside. There are other stories to find, of course. What I really want to do with asking these questions is not get the answers, but rather to help remind myself that my ancestors were real people. They were not robots – they had hopes, dreams, desires, hobbies, vices, favourites, secrets, senses of humour, senses of curiosity, and imaginations. The dash between their birth and death dates was full of joy, heartbreak, fun, and hard work. Their relationships were complicated. They had family and friends. Some of them travelled halfway across the world for a better life of peace and prosperity. Some of them were born, lived, and died on the same homestead. A lot of them married the boy or girl next-door, even if they were of different cultural or linguistic or (gasp!) religious backgrounds. For every ancestor, there were siblings and cousins who died in childhood or had no children of their own, whose stories were even more likely to be forgotten.
But all of them would have had an idea of what they would want for their magical breakfast.