I was 4 when I slept over at Joey Castellano's house and had my entire culinary weltanschauung shattered. At the breakfast table, I saw a plate of doughnuts. What else did people eat for breakfast? Ice cream? Hershey bars? Was everything outside my home thrilling, scary food anarchy?
My parents used some kind of 1970s, value-neutral explanation that I nevertheless heard as "Catholics are weird." So I felt safe in my codified breakfast world until last month, when I saw a McDonald's billboard advertising CHICKEN FOR BREAKFAST. The chain's new Southern Style chicken biscuit made me question exactly why we accept certain food at certain times. Most countries, after all, are pretty grossed out by eating eggs at an early hour: in Spain, France and Italy--countries that know what they're doing with food--you have some kind of bread substance and coffee and move on. So how did sausage and Pop-Tarts become O.K.? It's not as if you can send your kids to school after a plate of hot dogs and cake. Is there any logic to this?
"There's a tremendous amount of logic: there were millions of dollars spent on selling them to you," says Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated and host of PBS's America's Test Kitchen. He explains that America inherited the big Victorian British-Irish breakfast of bread, eggs and pork (probably because it could be cured and stored). Cereals were added at the turn of the century thanks to the Kellogg brothers. Doughnuts sneaked in after they were paired with coffee as an afternoon treat for World War I soldiers. In the South, buttery biscuits have long been served with gravy or rich, salty ham. But chicken, Kimball says, from all his readings, was never cool.
Until now, that is. Chicken biscuits rule at Bojangles, Chick-fil-A and even, quite recently, Wendy's. A McDonald's representative told me the company added this breakfast item in an attempt to "increase the chicken portfolio in our menu." Because people think chicken is healthy, McDonald's has been selling tons of it (59% more than in 2003, compared with only 10% more beef). People, however, are wrong, because 5 oz. (about 140 g) of fried chicken and butter-filled biscuit (410 calories, 20 g of fat, 1,180 mg of sodium) is a lot more damaging than an Egg McMuffin and almost exactly the same nutritionally as a double cheeseburger.
But it is good. The biscuit is soft and buttery, and while I don't love chicken, this is at least clearly decent, non-McNugget chicken, boldly presented without sauce.
Yet I still don't feel that it's breakfast. (After all, McDonald's slaps that exact same chicken patty on a roll with pickles and sells it at lunch as the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich.) I need to be eased into my day with something comfortingly soft or sweet. And breakfast meats of any kind gross me out. But if everyone else is eating sausage and bacon, I am not going to judge people for a fried-chicken biscuit. They are pioneers. Thirsty pioneers, no doubt, but pioneers.