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The Hard Problem of Breakfast

How does it emerge from bacon and eggs?

Over the past century, scientists have unlocked many of the most profound secrets of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast, advancing…By Jonathan Bines

Over the past century, scientists have unlocked many of the most profound secrets of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast, advancing our understanding of the day’s most important meal and ushering in a golden age of innovation.1 Yet there remains one problem that has proven frustratingly resistant to our efforts at resolution: What is often referred to as The Hard Problem of Breakfast.

The stubborn fact remains that, no matter how deeply we probe into the nature of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast—to say nothing of shakshuka, grits, bear claws, or dim sum—or the interactions between these fundamental building blocks and, say, orange juice or coffee and the morning paper, we simply have no convincing theory to explain how such disparate, seemingly inert components give rise to the phenomenon we subjectively experience as “breakfast.”2

Scientists still waffle on the origins of breakfast.

It has long been understood that no breakfast can exist in the absence of its constituent foods and their related supporting structures such as plates and bowls, utensils, and toasters.3 A breakfast must self-evidently be “of” something to be considered a breakfast at all. Yet despite technological advances that have enabled scientists to probe these components at the most minute levels, we have to date found no trace of the theorized Breakfast Particle or any other plausible mechanism by which breakfast could emerge from the underlying biochemical or nutriophysical activity.4

In particular, we know from the work of Scherzinger, et al. that breakfast is not located in the eggs.5 Although eggs are highly correlated with the emergence of breakfast, Scherzinger and his team at the Boston Institute for Alimentary Investigation (BIAlI) were able to show definitively that breakfast cannot be located within any part of the egg—white or yolk—and that this result remains consistent regardless of the method of preparation—soft or hard boiled, over easy, scrambled, Benedict, etc. Moreover, these results hold true even when the egg is highly distributed throughout the dish, as in quiche.6 Morris and Shrenk have gone even further, demonstrating that breakfast may emerge even in the complete absence of eggs—such as during oatmeal with walnuts and brown sugar.7

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As it has become increasingly clear that breakfast’s secret will not be discovered among the large-scale tofu scrambles and sausage McMuffins of our ordinary experience, scientists have turned their attention to the smallest scale: its fundamentally quantum nature. Where Newton once conceived of a fixed breakfast (an apple, say) occupying a definite location in space and time, today we must consider our morning meal not as an objective fact, but rather as a kind of cloud of comestible potentiality—a statistical superposition of all possible breakfasts that mysteriously “collapses” into bacon and eggs or an everything bagel only upon the “order” of a “diner.” But how this collapse occurs, and the exact nature of this proposed “diner,” remain frustratingly opaque.8

Studying the particles of a complete breakfast has allowed us to calculate certain probabilities with great accuracy (for example, the likelihood of your bagel actually coming out “lightly toasted” instead of burnt to a crisp like they always do). But it has not (yet) cut the Gordian cinnamon knot. It has also raised profound questions of its own: Can breakfast truly occur “any time?” Can we ever know for certain what’s in the Denver Omelette? Can my order of huevos rancheros really affect your decision to just get the individual grapefruit half? Are donuts only there when we look?9

Can we ever know for certain what’s in the Denver Omelette?

The failure of science to find coherent answers has led some scholars to theorize that breakfast may not exist at all.10 Rather they suggest that our experience of breakfast may be no more than a persistent illusion—that in fact, nothing truly exists beyond the bacon, eggs, toast, hash browns, coffee, and perhaps a fruit cup. Our brains falsely attribute the quality of breakfast to these items, perhaps to encourage us to eat them and thereby nourish ourselves. The evolutionary psychologist Danika Saunders has recently proposed in a series of papers that our ancestors who developed the ability to breakfast may have enjoyed a survival advantage over their non-breakfasting peers, such as being better able to outrun wolverines.11

More intriguing still, if somewhat disconcerting, is an idea first proposed by Lipton and Singh12: that the dishes themselves may have evolved the capacity to trick our brains into experiencing them as breakfast, perhaps in an effort to perpetuate themselves by encouraging us to get up and make them. This of course raises many confounding philosophical questions of determinism and free will, such as the one famously posed by the esteemed former chair of the Nutritional Philosophy department at Yale, Roderick T. Dale, to a table of graduate students with whom he was breakfasting: “Did I just order the waffles—or did the waffles order me?”

Three hundred and fifty years have now passed since Newton first speculated about the arising of breakfast from ingredients.13 Yet we appear no closer to answering The Hard Problem of Breakfast. What is this mystery of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast? Why does it exist, and how does it emerge each morning to delight us with its flavors, colors, and aromas?  Perhaps we will never know. Or perhaps, someday, some brilliant young scholar will finally, definitively “crack the egg”… and we can move on to lunch.


Jonathan Bines is a staff writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.


Footnotes

1. Baker, L. Breakfast Unleashed: The Technological Revolution That Changed What We Eat Before 11:00AM Forever (2015)

2. Dell, P. Scientists Still Waffle on Origins of Breakfast. Newsweek (March 2019). Also, Renery, D. Breakfast: Epiphenomenon, Artifact, or Adaptation? Bulletin of the Gastronomic Scientists 804 (2012).

3. See, for example, Pinsky, F. “Where The Hell Is My Grand Slamwich?” Denny’s (2009).

4. Brain scans have detected the so-called “neural correlates” of breakfast, neuronal activity correlated with, say the consumption of a cantaloupe. But these fail to explain why there is “something that it is like” to eat cantaloupe. Or as Philosopher David “Lucky” Chalmers puts it: “We may one day build an android capable of eating a blintz. But would it taste the cheese?”

5. Scherzinger, et al. No Yolk: Eggs “Egg-scluded” as Physical Basis of Breakfast American Journal of Dietary Physics 208 (2007).

6. See, for example, Davidson, M. “Quiche Any Time! 12 Quick And Easy Recipes that Rule Out Eggs As a Mechanism For the Emergence of Breakfast”  https://www.YummyTummyRecipes.com/sciencereview

7. Morris D. & Shrenk R. That Time We Got Baked and Ordered Every Breakfast at IHOP. Reddit (2009).

8. An excellent summary can be found in Martinez P. Who Had The Grits? Uncertainty, Probability and the New Physics of Breakfast (2009); Also see Bohm, D. Wholeness And the Implicate Side Order of Whitefish (2014); and Mye, A. Schrödinger’s Crêpe (2006).

9. To address these concerns, Gustaf Togue of the Institute for Advanced Eleggtrodynamics has recently proposed the “Many Orders” theorem, interpreting the equations of quantum breakfast to conclude that no specific breakfast is ever chosen; rather, at the time of ordering, every possible breakfast is selected in one of multiple split-off restaurants that exist independently but can never communicate with one another (which explains why only one particular breakfast ever appears on the bill).

10. Davis, E. I Skipped Breakfast For 30 Days and Here’s What Happened. Huffington Post (Personal) (March, 2019).

11. Saunders, D. Breakfast as an Evolutionary Adaptation to Wolverine Predation. Cornell University Journal of Evolutionary Psychology and Wild Guesses 414 (2012).

12. Lipton, Y., & Singh, D. Are Humans Just Breakfast’s Way of Making More Breakfasts? Maybe! Waffle House Science Quarterly 6323 (January 2011).

13. Writing to his friend Henry Oldenburg in a 1672 letter: “To determine by what modes or actions bacon produceth in our minds the phantasm of flavour is not so easie.” Two hundred years later, Biologist T.H. Huxley would express much the same perplexity, writing, “What breakfast is, we know not. Also, where it is. I’m friggin’ starved.”


Lead image: Nomad_Soul / Shutterstock

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