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?
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.
Thanks to Andrew Haley, author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920.