Codfish Was Once A Popular Luxury Breakfast Food

Some foods have long been established as breakfast favorites, including bacon and eggs, as well as cereal with milk. Fish, on the other hand, is not as commonly associated with morning fare for many in the United States.

There was a time, though, when fish — specifically, one variety — was very much considered a breakfast food, albeit a luxury one. A century ago, Eggs Benedict was a favored breakfast menu item at fashionable dining spots, and so was codfish. In 1914, three years before America's entrance into World War I, breakfast menus for both the Waldorf Astoria luxury hotel in New York City and the Cunard Line shipping company prominently featured codfish. The breakfast fish dishes differed, it should be noted. The Waldorf Astoria served its codfish in cream (for the then-exorbitant price of 50 cents), while the Cunard Line showcased grilled codfish steaks.

In those days, there were several acceptable ways to serve codfish for breakfast. Some luxury hotels and restaurants served it in cream on toast, others as fried codfish balls (with pairings like tomato sauce). Codfish was a popular offering in American homes, too, at least among families who could afford the high-priced food fish (it was expensive due to the scarcity of high-quality specimens). A cookbook published in 1916 notably highlighted a recipe for salted codfish hash.

How long was codfish a breakfast staple?

Cod fishing has a long history in the U.S., dating back to the early colonists. The fish was such an important part of the economy in New England that Massachusetts had renamed a prominent cape (yes, Cape Cod) after it by the early 17th century. By the 18th century, a sacred cod was a feature of the Massachusetts State House.

Fish balls (and cakes) made from cod, and codfish hash have long been favorites in New England, with the first extant recipe for codfish balls with potatoes dating back to the 1830s. The fish remained popular in wealthy homes and luxury restaurants for at least 100 more years. For example, a cookbook published in 1939 had an updated recipe for codfish balls, although by then they were being served at noon, and had become more appropriate for lunch or brunch than breakfast.

This shift appears to have been contemporaneous with the rise of lighter fare for breakfast during the early decades of the 20th century, when many of the foods we now think of as breakfast fare were beginning to become popular options.

When did other breakfast foods supplant cod on American tables?

Recipes are still being shared for classic salted New England-style codfish balls. What's changed from 100 years ago is that the primary ingredient (cod) is no longer considered a luxury item, and almost no one seems interested in serving the dish for breakfast, at least in the United States. Breakfast cod is still a traditional specialty in places like Bermuda, and salt cod and cod fritters are both still beloved in Portugal.

In a choice between cod and cereal in the morning, most of us would probably choose the latter. Breakfast cereals became popular just before the turn of the 20th century, thanks to Dr. John Kellogg, and bagels became widely available, at least in New York, during the same time period. Bacon wasn't established as a breakfast staple, and the natural pairing partner for eggs, until an ambitious public relations campaign in the 1920s. But within the space of a few decades, all were crowding out regional favorites like cod balls on breakfast menus. Thus, the golden days of the luxury codfish breakfast passed into history.

Cod, of course, remains a great option for lunch or dinner. Just make sure to prepare it properly. Trust us: You don't want to get sick from eating a cod worm.