(Excerpted from AltaMira’s upcoming BREAKFAST: A HISTORY, to be published in the first half of 2013)

Everyone who has eaten at a restaurant has experienced the annoyance of being told that some desired item is unavailable, but never is this more unbearable than first thing in the morning. Restaurant breakfasts can make or break one’s day, and they can make or break a film.

Due to the urgency of the morning, or perhaps that one does not always present one’s most polite, patient self in the morning, frustration is a recurring theme in theatrical breakfast scenes. In the diner scene of the 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces, a frustrated Bobby (played eloquently by a young Jack Nicholson) orders a “plain omelet, no potatoes – tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee and wheat toast.” Stymied by the restaurant’s “no substitutions” policy, he is forced to engage in a battle of wits with the waitress to attempt to get exactly what he wants on his plate. Desperate to get wheat toast (not available as a side order), Bobby thinks he has delivered his coup de grace by ordering a chicken salad sandwich, but asking the waitress to hold the mayo, the lettuce and the chicken. “Hold the chicken?” The waitress is incredulous. With a steely gaze, Bobby utters the famous line from the film: “I want you to hold it between your knees.” Needless to say, he did not get his toast; he is instead asked to leave the establishment. The scene powerfully illustrates the generational conflict that characterized the late 1960s while humorously demonstrating the daily, minor irritations one may experience over breakfast.

Another movie took the frustration with customer service during breakfast a step further. In the famous “Whammy Burger” scene in Falling Down (1993), William ‘D-Fens’ Foster, played by actor Michael Douglas, experiences the crushing disappointment of coming to the fast food restaurant for a ham and cheese ‘womlet,’ only to find that the restaurant had stopped serving breakfast a mere four minutes earlier. The scene, in which a frustrated D-Fens says “I want breakfast,” only to be told that they were no longer serving it, is the breaking point in D-Fens’ psyche; he calmly reaches into his bag and pulls out a semi-automatic handgun, fires shots into the ceiling and proceeds to hold the patrons of the restaurant hostage while he waits for his food. This scene provides a fascinating social commentary on whether or not the customer truly is always right, while, again, illustrating the tenuous thread that holds a person together before they have had something to eat in the morning.

Writer and director Quentin Tarantino seems to have a keen interest in breakfast. Several of his films use breakfast scenes to mark pivotal moments. Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction has multiple scenes that take place at breakfast; the film is bookended with the same breakfast diner scene. The second, known as ‘The Big Kahuna Burger Scene’ is the audience’s first exposure to the wry Old Testament sensibility of Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), who declares “hamburgers: the cornerstone of any nutritional breakfast!” before reciting Ezekiel 25:17 and unloading the clip of his 9mm into the recipient of his sermon. The film’s epilogue takes place in the breakfast diner where Winnfield, having experienced an epiphany, reveals his career change and his greater destiny. Tarantino staged this significant moment of character development at breakfast, just as director Joel Schumacher did with D-Fens in Falling Down.

Breakfast scenes in movies establish normalcy from which to deviate; they celebrate life’s calm, quotidian moments; they demonstrate a character’s true colors. To say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day may be trite, but its role in film is grossly underestimated.