What Makes a Continental Breakfast Continental

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 3 2013 7:30 PM

What Makes a Continental Breakfast Continental

1383342189
"Well, la-di-dah."

Screenshot from Key & Peele

Last week’s Key & Peele featured a sketch in which Jordan Peele’s character, sporting an impressive conk, rapturously discovers the free continental breakfast offered by his mid-range hotel. With increasing excitement, he encounters Froot Loops, miniature muffins, and bananas as though they were rare delicacies from assorted European countries. (“Ahhh, the Danish, clearly from Brussels.”)

The joke, of course, is that contra the character’s genuine delight, the offerings at most hotel continental breakfasts are far from European. Why are such morning buffets called “continental breakfasts,” anyway?

Advertisement

The term dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when American hotels began changing to appeal to an emerging middle class and to European tourists. One meaning of the original “continental breakfast” refers to the type of food served: Americans traditionally ate large quantities of hearty, fried fare for breakfast, like pancakes, eggs, and meat—holdovers of the agrarian lifestyle. European visitors to America were appalled by such greasy abundance, preferring lighter items like fruit, bread, and pastries. Hotels began offering such continental foodstuffs to appeal both to Europeans and to health-conscious Americans.

The “continental” in “continental breakfast” didn’t just refer to cuisine—it also referred to the way hotel guests paid for their meals. At traditional hotels, guests paid for their room and board together: They were expected to eat all of their meals in the hotel’s restaurant, and the price of all meals was included in the hotel’s rate. This was known as the American payment model. In the late 19th century, as middle-class patrons began demanding cheaper and more flexible arrangements, some hotels adopted a so-called European plan, in which guests paid only for their room and could either pay separately to eat in the hotel restaurant or go elsewhere for meals. Soon a hybrid American-European plan emerged, called the “continental” model to distinguish it from both (but to retain a whiff of foreign sophistication). At a continental-style hotel, breakfast was included with the cost of one’s room, but guests were on their own for lunch and dinner.

This payment model persists at contemporary hotels that offer a “free continental breakfast,” even as the food has lost touch with its European roots. Blame the 1950s for taking the Continent out of “continental” food: Restaurants that advertised themselves as “continental restaurants” in that decade served a hodgepodge of not-exactly-authentic entrées: steak, spaghetti with tomato sauce, Caesar salad .... These restaurants used the word “continental” to convey variety, not European-ness. And that connotation has stuck: As Peele’s character can tell you, if there’s one thing today’s continental breakfasts have, it’s variety.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.