On this episode of “What Is X,” Justin brings back a seasoned veteran for one last job: he invites on his friend Seb Emina, former editor of the London Review of Breakfasts blog and author of The Breakfast Bible, to ask: What is breakfast? Now the editor-in-chief of The Happy Reader, Seb is no longer in the breakfast game—but when this podcast comes calling, one must answer. Together, Justin and Seb plumb their past and present as breakfasters, as post-Kelloggian subjects, as staunch opponents to the tyranny of brunch. Breakfast, that humble first meal of the day, is not just a meal, Seb asserts, but a mindset. Why is that? And what makes it such a universal, unifying experience compared to lunch and dinner? Listen in and you’ll also learn why cereal deserves a There Will Be Blood-style epic about its early days in Battle Creek, Michigan, what the Full English reveals about Brexit and the geopolitics of Western Europe, and the dishonor the BBC regularly casts upon breakfast. Plus: a peek into the secret language of Justin’s childhood.
Justin E.H. Smith 00:13
Hello and welcome to What is X. I'm your regular host, Justin E.H. Smith. You all know the routine by now—on every episode we ask a question of the form “What is X,” where that variable is filled in by some difficult concept, something it's hard to figure out, something people disagree about. Often but not always something that is a familiar concept from the history of philosophy. Today, that's not the case, though I think—perhaps my guest thinks—it should be the case. We're going to be asking a very difficult question, namely, what is breakfast? My guest is my dear friend Seb Emina, who is a writer based in Paris and has been involved in a number of projects. He is most recently the editor of the magazine The Happy Reader. He has also been an editor of the men's fashion magazine Fantastic Man. Before all of this, he was the editor of a very august publication, known as the London Review of Breakfast. He's also been the creator of Global Breakfast Radio. And finally he is, with Malcolm Eggs, the co-author of a book called The Breakfast Bible, which came out, what year was that? 2013. Okay, so you are a veteran of breakfast scholarship. So it's a pleasure to have you, Seb, thanks for coming on.
Seb Emina 02:15
Thank you, Justin, I feel kind of nervous. I've listened to quite a few of these podcasts. And your guests are always so sort of credentialed. So I feel like I've got a lot to live up to on the subject.
Justin E.H. Smith 02:31
Haven't I just spelled out some very impressive credentials?
Seb Emina 02:36
Well, that's right. I mean, you said veteran and yeah, I mean, I think retired veteran is probably a good phrase as well. You know, all that breakfast stuff, just as a kind of apology in advance to your listeners, I often describe it as being in my past. I mean, this is a bit like, those films in the Eighties, action movies, where, you know, kind of someone drives up to Arnie's mountain retreat and says, Can you come out in retirement and do one last job? As a big fan of What Is X, I said yes.
Justin E.H. Smith 03:16
Yeah, I'm so glad, we're all so grateful. You're gonna save the world with breakfast. So let's try to figure this out. I mean, the reason why I wanted to do this episode, and I kind of insisted with you a little bit to pull you out of retirement, is because I personally have the deep suspicion that everything but absolutely everything is interesting and weird the more you look at it, the closer you look, right, and that you start to see concepts of even the most familiar everyday things, like breakfast, warping before you, before your eyes, the minute you start to look at them. And breakfast is interesting, because, you know, what structures a child's universe more than the daily routine of the morning meal? Between me and my sister, it was a whole wall of cereal boxes that we placed on the table in front of us. And we literally put a wall between us so that we wouldn't see each other and then there was squabbling about who got which box, who was emptying which box too fast. We had special terminology. I'm just now remembering this. That the dust at the bottom of the bag inside the box of Frosted Flakes or Froot Loops or whatever—we'd refer to that as "chez." C-H-E-Z. And we'd say, Ah, you left nothing but chez in the box. There's only chez left! You know, it was a whole universe. And yet, you grow up and you learn that not everybody eats breakfast, like some cultures have no idea that breakfast even exists. So then the question comes up: Does it exist?
Seb Emina 05:19
Well, it didn't exist in Western culture, really, or it wasn't supposed to exist for a long time. I mean, in Middle Ages Britain, say, it was seen as somewhat not the done thing to have breakfast or to certainly have it before you went to say church or something, because that was somehow vulgar, or sort of demonstrating a lack of virtue, especially if you had status of some kind. And I think if you go to Italy, you find a total lack of breakfast that I've always found baffling. And I remember when Google released their trends service, where you could put in a word and you wouldn't see the search results for the word, you'd see who in the world was searching for that word. Some people were typing sex, I guess, but I type in breakfast when I see something like that. And I typed in breakfast. And I was baffled because it said, Italy, Italy is the country that searches for breakfast the most, and why is that?
Justin E.H. Smith 06:33
Wait, is this the English word breakfast or...
Seb Emina 06:35
Yes, the English word breakfast. So yeah, A, it's an English word. Why are you searching for it in Italy? And B, you don't even eat breakfast! So this makes no sense. I'm not sure if it was like, per capita... but that was quite weird. Eventually, the answer turned out to be that there's a psychedelic rock band called breakfast.
Justin E.H. Smith 06:56
Oh, I see. Yeah. Yeah, that's a bit of a false lead.
Seb Emina 07:03
Red herring. Nice breakfast, perhaps. But I think I've always been—in a sense when you try to define what breakfast is, which I suppose you have to do before you can ask the question “Does breakfast exist?” you come up against certain—you know, you think you know the answer, and you think it's simple. Breakfast is the first meal of the day, for example. But then you start realizing, well, maybe that's not actually true in all cases. For example, in the Middle Ages, as I mentioned before, when people said they didn't eat breakfast, just went straight to lunch, well, then lunch was the first meal of the day. So that's not breakfast, and even now, you can sort of credibly claim, well, I never eat breakfast. So, you know, if you're having kind of a chicken schnitzel at 1pm, then no one's gonna sort of point and say, ha, that's your first meal of the day, therefore, you are eating breakfast.
Justin E.H. Smith 08:15
Strictly speaking, you're breaking the fast, right? But still, it's a break of the fast without being breakfast.
Seb Emina 08:26
Well, and then, yeah, then you're like, Well, yeah, exactly. The break of the fast—what is this kind of pseudo-religious element to the whole thing? Am I fasting every time I go to sleep? Is that what I'm doing? I just thought I was going to sleep and happening not to eat for ten to eleven hours. I never that then eating something was such a big ceremony. So that's kind of implicit in the word somehow. And if you indeed look at other languages, often the word for breakfast, the first meal of the day, has that same sort of etymology, if you dig down to it. In French, for example, also dejeuner means breakfast to some extent, and so does diner.
Justin E.H. Smith 09:16
It's like to de-fast, right? Yeah. Yeah.
Seb Emina 09:21
So you got little or petit dejeuner is, is breakfast literally, it's a little break fast, from dejeuner, break. And then lunch is etymologically the same word. So it either devalues the act of fasting, or it kind of elevates those couple of hours during each day when we happen not to be eating.
Justin E.H. Smith 09:46
Right, right. Yeah, I mean, just we can zoom out a bit. The general problem of carving up and naming the meals, right. I don't know how it was in England over the course of the twentieth century, but my grandmother in the United States, who was a very proper, kind of old-school Scandinavian American, used to always insist on calling breakfast breakfast, but she called lunch dinner, and she called the dinner supper. And we would laugh at her. And we thought it was ridiculous. But, you know, even within my lifetime, within the same culture, within the same language, meals have somehow shifted, right. They're no longer conceptualized in the same way and by the same names.
Seb Emina 09:50
Well, the first ten to eleven years of my life, I was in Birmingham in central England. Yeah, you called breakfast breakfast you called lunch dinner, like you said, and you call dinner... tea. I didn't say the word dinner until I was maybe eleven years old. And when we moved to London. So I think in Britain, it's a class and a regional thing. But, interestingly, you always call breakfast breakfast, that does not change. Everything else shifts.
Justin E.H. Smith 10:38
Right, it's the most, the most real of the meals in England.
Seb Emina 10:51
Oh, it's the most universal and unifying somehow. I mean, I'm not going to argue that there isn't a class aspect to what people eat for breakfast or the kinds of produce they put on their plates or order from their cafe. But at the same time, fundamentally, the same kinds of foods appear again and again. Whether if you eat the grain from the field, you might have granola, you might have rice krispies. But ultimately, you're still eating these kinds of ancient field-grown plants on some level. And then if you have a fried breakfast, the classic full English, you may get kind of, you know, sort of organically produced sausages or cheap snacks from the greasy spoon, but you're still kind of having the same meal. Whereas I think, on a class basis, lunch and dinner are wildly different compared depending on you know—
Justin E.H. Smith 12:32
Oh, right. Yeah. Yeah. That's so interesting. Yeah. So breakfast, breakfast unites the society across the class divisions. That's fascinating.
Seb Emina 12:42
Well, I was thinking it's—well, yeah, that is a way of putting it, it has a kind of element of political neutrality to it. I think, not unlike our dearly departed Queen more recently, or what you're supposed to have somehow, is a somewhat conservative, but somewhat—its role in your day is to kind of say nothing and be quiet.
Justin E.H. Smith 13:02
What do you think she ate for breakfast? The Queen?
Seb Emina 13:06
Oh, I mean, this is where my not having been a, you know, sort of core breakfast scholar for quite a while, it's a bit of a setback. But I did see the answer to this question when I was writing the book, The Breakfast Bible, because I read it in a newspaper somewhere. I remember there being something about Prince Philip, not liking Prince Charles's line of organic produce, the Duchy Originals, because Prince Charles makes, you know, bacon and various stuff that's sold through the Waitrose chain of supermarkets. I remember Philip thought it was like, pretentious, you know, middle-class rubbish. There's a kind of glass clock, perhaps you can visualize it as, in British society, where when you get to a very upper-class point, you hit a kind of midnight where you start eating the same food as the working classes, and I think baked beans were a real unifying point.
Justin E.H. Smith 14:17
Seb Emina 14:27
This is my recollection of something I read years ago.
Justin E.H. Smith 14:31
What did you eat for breakfast as a kid?
Seb Emina 14:36
As a kid I had breakfast cereal, like most kids in the Eighties, I would say.
Justin E.H. Smith 14:42
So it was the same in England as in as in the United States, because in France, they surely were not eating breakfast cereal.
Seb Emina 14:50
My understanding is that cereal really made inroads into any Western country.
Justin E.H. Smith 14:55
I look at the cereal section in in French supermarkets and it just looks *so* impoverished and diminished compared to the bounty and variety of the whole aisle of the supermarket when I was growing up, and even the boxes look more plain and uninspired. I can't imagine anyone is buying those in France.
Seb Emina 15:20
Well, my memory of breakfast, I have very fond memories, like you, of breakfast cereal, I feel quite defensive about it when I read about the kind of anti-breakfast cereal movement that we're in. There are justified health reasons and so on. But when I was a child in the supermarket wandering down the cereal aisle, I thought that was the only place in that entire building that was for me. Everywhere else was full of boring tins and frozen peas and whatever. But you know, arguably, I had a closer relationship with, say, Tony the Tiger or Snap, Crackle and Pop than I did with certain, you know, middling friends from school or whatever. More time and in the presence of their faces.
Justin E.H. Smith 16:12
And there was also—perhaps it was because of these mascots, right? But there was also something just irreducibly comical about the idea of cereal. I mean, I still find it funny every time I come across the word cereale in French, right, which we translate just as "grain," right? Because I see the word cereale, and I immediately think of Tony the Tiger. And I have to correct myself and think like, well, actually, no, they're just talking about wheat crops, or barley crops. And this has nothing to do with a commercial product.
Seb Emina 16:52
But it is just wheat crops. I mean, in the end. You know the history of breakfast cereal?
Justin E.H. Smith 16:57
Yeah, well, this is what I wanted to push you on. And this is like the thing that I think is most exciting about your work, your scholarship. And I really do think like, if you wanted to, you could have made this book with Oxford University Press and been like a real breakfast cereal scholar, right. This is like a serious historical thesis or a historical discovery, that this was, I think, as you put it in the book, or certainly, as you put it to me in conversation, this was a sort of history of the creation of a product that has weird kind of resonance with later product—what's the word— product reveals, product rollouts of the sort that we're seeing in the 21st century with big tech, right? So give us that story, in a nutshell.
Seb Emina 18:03
[laughter] You make it sound so insightful, I have to try and live up to that. So breakfast cereal came about as an expression of a certain sort of religious desire to cut out a certain variety of breakfasting from the American diet, and replace it with something, to use a sort of late-nineteenth-century word, something more healthful. And it all started with this movement called the Seventh-Day Adventists, who were based out of a small town called Battle Creek, in the Midwest, somewhere near Michigan, say, Detroit. And I mean, it kind of grew out of that movement. And it was kind of anti-masturbation.
Justin E.H. Smith 19:09
I forgot about that part.
Seb Emina 19:12
So the theory was that eating all of this bacon, all of this meat in the morning was sort of adding to a certain lusty propensity in certain kind of American males and American young males, which was not, which was not ideal, according to that, or probably all wings of Christianity. So various sort of health-oriented Christians started to kind of experiment with healthier diets and so on. And they also started founding these sort of sanatoriums across the states. And the first-ever cereal was called Granula. and that was by a guy whose name I forget, but he was a specialist in hydrotherapy, based on the belief that kind of dousing people in water all the time was going to be the cure to all their ills.
Justin E.H. Smith 20:17
Granula with a U.
Seb Emina 20:19
With a U, exactly. There was one called granola a bit later, which is nothing like what we think of as granola. But, yeah, Granula was the original, the kind of ur-cereal. And the big explosion happened though thanks to John Harvey Kellogg of Kellogg's fame. And he had a kind of big sanatorium in Battle Creek. And he was a Seventh-Day Adventist, sort of avid follower of those teachings. And lots of people come and stay at a sanatorium and get treated with various sort of healthy kind of spa-esque sorts of remedies and enemas and these kinds of things, like laughing chairs, and, you know, it's sitting in certain places and getting fresh air. It was a bit kind of, like a wacky equivalent of well, for The Magic Mountain, I was gonna say, but that's pretty wacky in its own right. Kind of a Midwestern—
Justin E.H. Smith 21:29
Yeah, that's what I was gonna say, like, the Americanized chapter of the history of sanatoria. Yeah, distinctly American, but also with roots in the old world. Yeah. Yeah.
Seb Emina 21:44
Anyway, so his wife, in fact, started to experiment in the kitchens of the sanatorium and started to come up with all of these innovative food products that sort of tied in with his philosophy. And they were things like cornflakes. And stuff like this. And they were very popular. But also, there was a big market for them outside of the sanatorium canteen context. So lots of people started kind of wanting to buy them. And it was quickly realized that you could make huge amounts of money. Because you were just taking, you know, corn or wheat or something like that, baking it or doing something hot with it, and then selling it for ten times its value. So it was a kind of gold rush, and because Battle Creek was the kind of address that you had to have to be taken seriously as cereal merchants, it became a kind of Silicon Valley predecessor for breakfast cereal. So you had the Post company, which made Grape Nuts...
Justin E.H. Smith 23:04
Why do they call those Grape Nuts? I was horrified by Grape Nuts when I was a child, I thought they were like little pieces of gravel that would break your teeth. But now I think they're quite amazing. Do you know why Post—is it because they're like grape seeds?
Seb Emina 23:23
You know, I think I knew this once. And I think it's, there is no really good explanation. The first company was kind of known for using language in a very marketing-oriented way that often didn't make sense when you thought about it, but just kind of worked for some reason that no one could really put their finger on. And like Postum coffee, cereal coffee that they released, the early slogan for it was "there's a reason." There was never any indication of what the reason was, it really kind of mesmerized people. They're like, you know, there's a reason, so I'm gonna buy this. So they were really good at just, I don't know, nonsense that somehow got through the market and resulted in huge numbers of units sold. So anyway, yeah, you had, I don't know, then all the kind of middlemen moved in. You had like, derivatives—like you get off the train in Battle Creek and a bunch of, like, sharks would come up to you and try and sell you shares in the latest like, you know, Grape Pots or Corn Weasels or something. There was a huge rush. It sounds kind of silly. But I also think it did represent something fundamental in American and probably Western society in a wider sense, as well. And there's a really interesting moment—I read this interesting book about the history of cereal called Cerealizing America. It might not even be in print anymore. But it told this really interesting almost like Cain and Abel-ish story about John Harvey Kellogg's brother, William Kellogg, who was kind of working with him on the business as well. And at some point, he took the decision—at some point, he managed to covertly wrest control of the company from his religious brother, John and being more commercially minded, he pumped cornflakes full of sugar. And then they really took off. To me, it was almost a transition represented there. By which I mean that that was perhaps, in food terms, the moment where the American moved from being a religious society to a consumerist one. It's represented in that alchemy, of you know, cornflakes for ethical reasons to cornflakes for profit reasons.
Justin E.H. Smith 26:24
Yeah, there really needs to be a Paul Thomas Anderson film mythologizing this. Sounds like There Will Be Blood, like the epos of America, the dueling forces. That's amazing.
Seb Emina 26:39
If he's listening. I'm available to consult.
Justin E.H. Smith 26:44
Yeah, you know, something crossed my mind as you were talking about the Seventh-Day Adventist origins, and that is Quaker Oats. I don't know how far back that goes. But the fact that a cereal company, Quaker, wanted to associate itself with an earlier, indeed seventeenth-century, Protestant sect suggests that there's something very deep about this, right? Like the Protestant cereal movements?
Seb Emina 27:28
Yeah, I mean, I don't know the full story of Quaker and Quaker Oats. But it's definitely interesting that even in 2022, you can go and buy this product, and it's completely open about its religious underpinnings or its Protestant underpinnings. Whereas you don't get that at all from other cereals. And I mean, I suppose it talks to the slightly ceremonial nature of breakfast more generally. But it feels comfortable in that context that it wouldn't do in I don't know, your pack of eggs, perhaps. I mean, that's breakfast food, that's a bad example. Let me say that again. It wouldn't feel comfortable in the same way with your frozen spinach or your orange juice, I don't think. But I think, yeah, there's a ceremonial thing, there's a ritualistic thing about breakfast. And I think it ties in a way to something else that I always found interesting about the meal, in particular, which is that people just eat the same thing over and over again, day in, day out, in a way that would seem weird with the other meals. You can say, I don't want to have pasta tonight, because I had it last night, whereas with breakfast, as A.A. Gill I think, once said, we're like dogs. On some level, we just have the same filling, and we're happy with it. And in fact, ambition for the meal is less about variety than it is about refinements and getting it perfect. You know, we're kind of heading towards this vanishingly incrementally small point in the future where we finally get our granola and blueberries completely, unimpeachably spot on.
Justin E.H. Smith 29:41
Right, right, right. What do you eat for breakfast these days?
Seb Emina 29:47
Well, these days, you know, that's an interesting question, because, as an aside, I've always been interested in how the BBC and I think other broadcasters, when they want to check that the audio is okay, before the proper interview begins, they say, What did you have for breakfast? It's like a wasted question, something that no one cares about. They can just throw in it.
Justin E.H. Smith 30:12
Right. But not this time! Not on today's episode.
Seb Emina 30:15
I always wish they put that question in there, that tells me as much about that person as a lot of other things they're going to ask them in the interview. So for me these days, well, this morning, I had toast with Marmite—I had two slices of toasted marmite and then the final one with marmalade, a kind of dessert within the breakfast. Often I have granola. And sometimes I have something involving eggs, fried eggs or boiled eggs, it's not super experimental. But that's kind of what I like about breakfast as well.
Justin E.H. Smith 30:53
When you're eating breakfast, do you think about yourself as the breakfast guy? Or is that something that's just receded into the past?
Seb Emina 31:04
Well, you know, part of my reason for stopping with all the breakfast stuff was that I wouldn't be known as the breakfast guy for the rest of my life. I think I started specializing in the subjects, which was in 2005, when blogging was a thing. So I started this blog, London Review of Breakfasts. And the reason I made it about breakfast was because I felt like that was a subject that people didn't talk about, but was everywhere, and everyone did it. So it's kind of, you know, there for the taking. Yeah. And also, I didn't need to be some kind of credentialed specialist to start going on about it. And it worked. I mean, it was always kind of amazing to me, how every time I mentioned that I did this thing to somebody at a party or who I happen to be sitting next to on a train or something, they would have really impassioned and strong opinions. And almost it felt like they were relieved to finally be able to confess to me a poached-egg technique or something. And, yeah, then it grew and grew. And I did the book and so on. But at some point, I realized that if I carried on like this, I would be typecast as that breakfast guy forever. And I think this podcast is kind of proof of that. Because, you know, I stopped the blog in 2015. The book was out two years before that. Yet here I am still being—occasionally, you know, occasionally news reporters still get in touch with me and say, Can you give me a quote about the decline or the revival of the full English breakfast, or whatever. You're not going to say no, because I don't want to just be that guy. But no, so the answer is, the short answer is kind of No, I do not.
Justin E.H. Smith 32:59
You know, the topic that excited me initially, when I learned about it from you, was precisely Mr. Kellogg and Mr. Post being like the late nineteenth-century equivalent of Mr. Bill Gates [laughter], Steve Jobs, and the idea that a kind of economic and cultural revolution could happen around something, as in some sense, timeless and universal—or at least, you know, for the past eleven thousand years or so, since the agricultural revolution—as grain, right? Like what a strange thing that that's what had the power to transform culture and economics. But that then leads me to concentrate with you more on our mostly shared experience of being kind of post-Kelloggian subjects, right? Who know breakfast as the box of cereal with the animal mascot on it that's sitting in front of us and the chez at the bottom of the bag and all, but that's of course not all that breakfast is, and you do a lot more than that too. You are not only up to speed on the history of Battle Creek, but also on the many different ways people conceptualize breakfast around the world, including in England, including breakfasts that don't involve, you know, grains at all, but involve baked beans and eggs and stuff like that. Right. Have you branched out to kind of a global perspective? Or is it pretty much just England and the United States?
Seb Emina 35:10
No, I've looked into global breakfasts. And in the book, there is a certain amount of exEmination of what it is that people eat in other cultures. And then I mean, so you know, it's sort of mashed ful medames in the Middle East. It's sort of rice-based breakfasts in parts of Asia. And, you know, what I didn't do is get into cuisine where breakfast is largely similar to lunch and dinner. Because otherwise, the book would just have been 40,000 pages long. But the thing I found that was in common with all cultures, to an extent, was this repetition element of breakfast, that all the meals, if you're in a breakfast-eating culture, and not all cultures are breakfast-eating, as we've discussed, then, indeed, you'll probably just have the same thing. Time and time again. But I said the phrase global breakfast and—
Justin E.H. Smith 36:26
Oh, right, yeah, Global Breakfast Radio. Yeah, I don't even know about that—
Seb Emina 36:29
I kind of thought I would explain what that's about. Because that ties in to me to an even wider sensibility, which is that breakfast isn't just a meal. It's a kind of mindset, or time of day almost. And the idea for that project came out of something that occurred to me that I put in the introduction to the book, which is that somewhere in the world, breakfast is always just about to happen. The sun is rising somewhere. So even though it may be about lunchtime, as we're speaking, if you're in Brazil, people are about to have breakfast there. So I got talking to my friend, Daniel Jones, who's also a very amazing web developer and technologist and artist. And we have this idea that we could make this radio station and it would always play you real radio. So real, local radio from wherever in the world the sun is rising, right? And every ten minutes, and we did it, we spent a year listening to radio from all over the world. And something that's beautiful about breakfast radio as a phenomenon—because that's a phrase, right—no matter what is playing, it always has this sense of sort of pseudo-sermonistic, it's starting the day it's laying out the news. So that was a way of getting at the whole other—
Justin E.H. Smith 38:11
That's so interesting. Yeah. I mean, I hadn't really thought about this before, even though it should be perfectly obvious that part of what gives breakfast its character, its general kind of affective aura, is also what gives morning its character. And so to be interested in breakfast is also to be interested in the morning, right, which is, I suppose, mostly, what was driving this GBR project, right?
Seb Emina 38:49
That's exactly it. And then possibly me trying to kind of rebrand a bit as, you know, if you want to become a morning guy, maybe that's a way of doing a little pivot, as they say in tech. Just thinking about what you were saying about the consumerist revolution that grasps how it kind of tracked, I suppose, the explosion in modern advertising, and I guess, a very image based world used to sell products. For me a really interesting and very little commented upon, for obvious reasons, moment, was I think in the year 2012, two enormous brands were sold, each for a billion dollars, and one was Instagram, and the other was Weetabix. It just seemed like: here's a key moment in Brekk'n tech. At the time, people were like Now, you know Instagrams not worth as much as Weetabix. What are you talking about? Obviously now, it seems we have the opposite perspective. It's strange Weetabix could have ever been worth as much as Instagram.
Justin E.H. Smith 40:12
Right? Right, right. Oh, that's so fascinating. Incidentally, what is this unnatural, monstrous hybrid known as brunch? That is something that—I don't know if I've ever eaten brunch, or I've certainly never *done* brunch in the way people are supposed to. But right, it sounds like a kind of joke. It's a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch. As if the very name is meant to signal this is neither fish nor flesh. This doesn't really fit into the daily rhythm. This is unnatural, as I said, but are you a brunch person? Or do you draw the line there?
Seb Emina 41:06
No, I'm not a brunch person. That's a surprise, really. I think brunch... as I recall it, the word brunch, surprisingly, in fact, was first coined in Britain but was really taken up by America and has now become a kind of shorthand for a certain sort of hipster... But the trouble with it obviously is you can't have breakfast and then brunch and then lunch. So it doesn't have a correct kind of place in the flow of things. For me, I don't know. Brunch, because I live in Paris, like you, it drives me crazy. Because if you go to any restaurant on a Sunday, it's trying to sell you brunch and you can't have lunch anymore.
Justin E.H. Smith 42:10
Le Brunche. Yeah. They have to emphasize—
Seb Emina 42:14
Exactly, like they outlaw lunch. I wouldn't hate it so much if it if it was live and let live, but it's cannibalized the perfectly sensible meal of lunch. And I've nothing against eating breakfast late, don't get me wrong, which is fine. So. And for me, that's all it should mean. And if that's what it means, then I'm okay. But yeah, I don't have that much interesting to say about except that the French brunch is just insane. And it's somehow become a multiple-course meal. That's what you're supposed to do. And it seems to me to consist of selling you all of the stuff that they couldn't get rid of in the week from the main restaurant or repackaging it, so you might get served some soup and some Haddock and coffee. It's just kind of ludicrous. But having said that, there's a good place near me.
Justin E.H. Smith 43:20
We should go there. Yeah. Yeah, I'll do brunch with you. There's this French fast food chain called Flunch. Have you ever been there? Have you seen that, Flunch?
Seb Emina 43:33
Yeah, I've seen it. But it's a turn-off immediately. I don't even want to know what the name is. What is that a portmanteau of? Is it blushing and lunch or something?
Justin E.H. Smith 43:44
I don't know. We were stuck in Rouen once on a Sunday and it was the only place open and we went there. I think yeah, that same question came up, what is this a portmanteau of? But it's interesting. I mean, one more thought about the French, the continental breakfast. And indeed, as we discussed earlier, the petit dejeneur, the idea that you are having a little anticipation of lunch. It's such a different attitude towards the meal than the Anglos have, right. Especially I think the English, where, you know, the full English breakfast, as you call it, is like as different from the French croissant and cafe as you can imagine. Do you think this reveals something about Brexit and the geopolitics of Western Europe or are we going too far, though?
Seb Emina 44:46
No, that wasn't where I was expecting that question to go. [laughter] But it's really interesting because there's a direct causal relationship between the French attitude towards breakfast and the fact that the Anglo breakfast is so expensive and so sort of jingoistic on some level? Well, you know, a sort of quiet level but it's there. And the reason is that at some point if you were of status, a country gentleman, a squire, not a sort of tilling-the-fields kind of class in Britain, for your lunch or dinner, you will be eating or serving or having French cuisine on some level. That was seen as the proper thing to be eating. So the only slot left in which to show off the produce you yourself were getting from your estate, your bacon, your eggs, you know, was breakfast. So that was why that came about, that particular expression of British culinary identity. And I suppose Brexit was all about setting an island people with a very kind of complicated, suspicious relationship with the mainland, setting themselves apart from it. You know, I'm sure the phrase full English Brexit was thrown around at some point. And people were desperately trying to leaver that pun in, but they never quite worked it out.
Justin E.H. Smith 46:36
It's just a bit too much of a stretch.
Seb Emina 46:40
well. Yeah, yeah, exactly. But certainly, there is... I mean, continental breakfast is kind of a ludicrous phrase anyway, and its existence says something really fundamental, I think, that you just kind of lump in, you know, a whole continent's worth of breakfast-eating habits into a couple of croissants and a bit of ham.
Justin E.H. Smith 47:06
And after all, they really just mean French. Because certainly in Eastern Europe, I think the typical breakfast is more like in England than like in France.
Seb Emina 47:19
Yeah, that's right. I mean, and it doesn't, you know, it doesn't encompass sort of Scandinavia. I don't know if that counts as Continental. But where you might get that kind of strange brown breakfast cheese spread, that Norwegian Marmite cousin, I think, in terms of its place in the world. I think funnily enough, though, in a world where everything has become so polarized, I haven't sensed that breakfast has followed suit. And I find that even when it comes to something like Brexit, which was like one of the first alarm bells, I think that we had that something weird was going on in the world, previously unthinkable, you know, political outcomes are going to be coming down the line for the next—and often, I think about a complaint. I mean, some people might find this whole conversation incredibly boring compared to the very important matters that you discuss on other episodes. But I often think about the early days of social media, and that being a common complaint about it. That it's just going to be people talking about what they had for breakfast, why would I want to read that. Well, I think that was like a utopian possibility. When you look back in hindsight, I think, yeah, we should have just been exchanging granola, baking... rather than being at each other's throats about seemingly existential news stories.
Justin E.H. Smith 49:15
Well, there's that meme going around that's like what I guess is just the most maximally full English breakfast imaginable, that shows like the bacon and the sausage and the eggs and the hashbrowns and the baked beans. And I think it says you have to remove two, right, and then people post underneath, which they would remove and of course, it's almost always the baked beans. Haven't you seen this?
Seb Emina 49:45
I haven't seen it.
Justin E.H. Smith 49:46
I'll send it to you the next time it pops up.
Seb Emina 49:49
I can't believe that the algorithm didn't know to show that to me immediately. Well, I mean, it's not a full English if it—I mean, the thesis of the book in a sense was that a full English must be defined, because it hadn't been before. And it was, we decided that it had to have—and I say "we" because a lot of my breakfast editorial projects have been a collaboration with a big team of people—we decided that there's a thing called the magic nine. You know, if it doesn't have all nine of those ingredients in it, it could not truly be termed a full English.
Justin E.H. Smith 50:30
Oh, that's fascinating. Yeah, yeah. I think the meme makers did not know that. I didn't mean to mention Paul Thomas Anderson twice in the same episode—I mean, I don't think I've ever mentioned him before to anyone. But have you seen Phantom Thread?
Seb Emina 50:47
I have, and I love it. I love the breakfast scenes in that film.
Justin E.H. Smith 50:51
What's going on? I mean, what is the connection between his perverse stunted sexuality or whatever that is, and the massive breakfast he orders in the scene where he meets the young woman? I liked it. But I have no idea what that was supposed to read as—
Seb Emina 51:11
The whole thing builds up to an omelet, doesn't it?
Justin E.H. Smith 51:13
[laughter] Yes, what's going on there?
Seb Emina 51:16
It says the film is about fashion. But like most art, I think, if you really dig down, it's really about breakfast. [laughter] There's a whole thing in there about talking to him at the breakfast table. And you mustn't talk to him or something like that which—the link between, I mean, there's certainly a kind of storied tradition, in art, in literature and in films, about people who are very particular about breakfast and it must be just so. And often that indicates some sort of narcissistic, psychopathic tendency. You know, like, James Bond is a big, you know, if you read the books, everything is just so for his breakfast. Off he goes, like, you know, murdering a bunch of people—with a license to do so, but still, he doesn't seem to have much psychological fallout from doing that. And there are a bunch of others. Oh, yeah. American Psycho, you have these detailed descriptions of the breakfasts there. I mean, the Phantom Thread thing that kind of struck me was was the sort of the incredibly controlled relationship with conversation at breakfast, and his entire day was seen to be ruined, if it weren't adhered to. And when I was the breakfast guy still, at some point, I was asked to go on BBC Radio, and do a little monologue about why you should take more time to eat breakfast in the morning, something like that. And I kind of wrote it the night before. And I was like, God, this is really whimsical, isn't it, I need to put some sort of bite in this, like, even if gentle, you know, even a gentle kind of opinion of some kind, that might, you know, sort of wind people up a *little* bit. And I said something which to me felt kind of relatively innocuous, but at least gave you something to think about, which was, no one should feel obliged to talk at the breakfast table. And out it went, and I didn't really hear much about it, and I didn't listen to it. And then the next morning, there was all this chat on Twitter, about this guy who'd said on the radio that you shouldn't talk at breakfast. And then I realized that I was on the front page of a newspaper, one of the biggest broadsheets in the UK, the Telegraph, saying that a food writer had implied that couples shouldn't talk to each other in the morning, something like that. It was really like, taking my very specific, precise knowledge about being obliged to speak at breakfast and turning it into a much more kind of trollish opinion in The Guardian and a counterpoint, Seb Emina is wrong, you should speak to each other. It kind of went on like this. And I realized at that point how glad I was not to be a politician or something.
Justin E.H. Smith 54:40
Yeah, right. Right, right. Even the breakfast signal gets distorted.
Seb Emina 54:47
You're just summarized in a very crude way. People get angry at you for something you didn't really say.
Justin E.H. Smith 54:54
Right? Right. They turned the "not must" into a "must not."
Seb Emina 55:01
Someone called me a fascist crybaby.
Justin E.H. Smith 55:02
[laughter] That's horrible. But yeah, that sounds like U.K. tabloids in a nutshell, yeah. Well, listen, I think we agree on breakfast [bell tolls] to the extent that one can agree. I mean, you know, initially the idea of this podcast was that we were supposed to kind of have it out, you know, in a more or less pugilistic way, and then come to agreement or disagreement or aporia by the end, but, you know, I'm not going to disagree with you about breakfast, that's crazy.
Seb Emina 55:51
You can if you want.
Justin E.H. Smith 55:54
I mean, to go back to the beginning, I think it's socially constructed. I think it doesn't exist. It's a good example of a social construction. But it's also almost a painful example because it's one of those things that seemed *most* robust, *most* existent as a child. You know, that was just part of the furniture of the universe, right. And, to be honest, I don't eat breakfast. I eat for the first time around 1pm every day.
Seb Emina 56:29
I was gonna ask you what you ate for breakfast, but now you've answered that question. Why don't you eat breakfast?
Justin E.H. Smith 56:36
Oh, you know... it's maybe kind of a stoic thing. I feel like I haven't accomplished anything yet. Like, I don't deserve to eat yet. I haven't even done anything. But also, I just like to get so jacked up on black coffee for the first several hours of my day that I don't think about eating until I'm in that state.
Seb Emina 57:02
That's very medieval of you.
Justin E.H. Smith 57:03
[laughter] Yeah, well, yeah, maybe. If we think about agreement or disagreement on this topic as having the same habits, then we disagree. Because you are still a breakfast eater.
Seb Emina 57:20
Yeah, I am. But yeah, I mean, I think I've just normalized my my habits now. And nobody—I mean, everyone's an expert on breakfast. I think that's why it was strange to choose on some level. Everyone who eats breakfast is an expert. Of course, I hope to sell the book to everyone in the world who eats it. But that unfortunately didn't quite happen... Have you ever tried a cronut?
Justin E.H. Smith 57:46
No, no, no. See, that's something I would never do. Like go stand in line for something that they're talking about on TikTok or whatever. I mean, how good can it be? Just eat a doughnut and then eat a croissant some other time.
Seb Emina 58:05
They seem to have died out I think. You don't come around them so much anymore. I feel like Dominique Ansel, the guy who invented them, maybe made a mistake when he sort of trademarked the name and said no one's allowed to call them this unless they're me. I think he could have, for the first time in a long time, added a new generic food.
Justin E.H. Smith 58:28
Seb Emina 58:31
But people got tired of writing croissant-doughnuts or doissant or whatever they were doing.
Justin E.H. Smith 58:38
"Doissant." [laughter] Yeah, well, he blew it, didn't he?
Seb Emina 58:44
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I happened to be in New York when they were just coming out. And I managed to get hold of one and it was very nice. Yeah. I'd say it was nicer than a donut and not as nice as a croissant.
Justin E.H. Smith 59:00
Interesting. Yeah. I mean, I suppose if you are the founding editor of the London Review of Breakfast, it makes sense to go to the trouble of seeking out a cronut, I can understand that.
Seb Emina 59:13
When we went, we went at about 9:30 in the morning and they said, Oh yeah, sorry, they sold out at like seven. And I said, You know, I get it, you're gonna get your media relations department. And I talked to them and they said okay, we'll leave one for you tomorrow. And indeed and then then I later found out that CNN had tried to get one using similar tactics and had not received one.
Justin E.H. Smith 59:44
Wow. The Do you know who I am routine. That's funny. So Seb, any new projects in the works related to breakfast?
Seb Emina 59:58
Well, as I said, I've been trying to kind of disavow myself of that subject. Having said that, I feel like the body of work collected in the London Review of Breakfasts, which, as I mentioned, isn't just me, but a lot of really brilliant writers ended up contributing to that website, who went on to be kind of, you know, quite famous in some instances. And there's just such an amazing kind of body of work collected there. And yet, it's an old Blogger template, which is kind of unreadable if you're kind of used to modern design sensibilities. So what I'm thinking about doing is kind of collecting it all. And I want to make a sort of really simple book or an ebook or something, with the incredibly exciting title: London Breakfasts, 2005-2015.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:02
All right, yeah, yeah, yeah. A retrospective. That's really exciting. Yeah, yeah.
Seb Emina 1:01:07
There's a kind of poignancy, right, because 2015 was the last year before everything started kind of going off the rails. Maybe it's nice to read about this kind of before time.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:01:19
Yeah, yeah. Well, that gets back to my idea that breakfast is something that is, for many of us, a deeply nostalgic theme to reflect on. Right. It reminds us of a lost world.
Seb Emina 1:01:39
Absolutely. And I think it's so packed full of memory in the same way that music perhaps is. And transportive. You know, I don't want to come up with Proust cliches, but absolutely that's there. But, you know, breakfast is a canvas onto which we can paint anything we like. And that was the fun of doing the website. People wrote reviews that were only thinly about the breakfast that they were eating and turned them into little short fictions about—
Justin E.H. Smith 1:02:15
Kind of like the London Review of Books, is only about the books—
Seb Emina 1:02:20
That was the conceit, that was like, Well, how far can we go in taking breakfast far too seriously? That's the joke. And it was a very funny joke. And it stayed being quite funny for quite a long time. And then it kind of occurred to us that actually, we should be taking this meal this seriously. And it's not a joke anymore.
Justin E.H. Smith 1:02:39
That's great. Well, listen, Seb, as always, it's a delight to talk to you. Let's do brunch soon. Or Flunch?
Seb Emina 1:02:56
Yeah, let me see. I mean, you eat breakfast on the fourth. Any food on you before? 1pm?
Justin E.H. Smith 1:03:02
Yeah, okay. Well, we'll have a late late brunch. All right. Well, this has been a real pleasure. Once again, I've been talking to Seb Emina. He's a writer based in Paris, the editor of The Happy Reader and the founding editor of the London Review of Breakfasts, among many other things. Seb, let's talk again soon.
Seb Emina 1:03:25
Thank you, Justin. It's been really fun.