American Times LOS ANGELES: All set for the feeding frenzy

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ONCE UPON a time there was breakfast in America. You know the kind: the endless choice of bacon or sausage, of eggs poached, scrambled or fried, over easy, over medium or sunny side up; of French toast, Belgian waffles or English muffins; of rye bread, wheat bread or granary; of pancakes, home fries or hash browns; of grits, porridge or biscuits with gravy.

It was all wonderfully reminiscent of homesteaders stoking up for a hard day in the fields sometime towards the end of the 19th century. In the modern, fast-paced largely urban world, though, it seems nobody has that kind of time.

For sure, Americans still love to go out for breakfast at the weekend and order the works. But at home it's a different story. Gone is the era when Mom would rise early, crank up the stove and prepare a hearty meal for the whole family. Most mothers these days are in as much of a hurry to get out of the house as fathers and schoolchildren and the result is that, where breakfast is concerned, there is only one meaningful criterion any more: the faster the better.

The result is little short of an early-morning eating revolution. Egg consumption is down. Toast consumption is down. Even breakfast cereal consumption is down. Here, in the land of cornflakes, Kellogg's has reported a drop in sales of nearly 10 per cent in its most familiar products over the past year. Admittedly, the company has lost market share to its competitors, but the percentage of American breakfasts featuring a bowl of cereal has dropped steadily in the 1990s, from just under 40 per cent to just over 30.

Welcome to the era of so-called convenience breakfasts: cereal bars, pastries you can pop in the toaster, bagels and bite-size snacks. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now eat their first meal of the day away from home, according to the National Restaurant Association, and that means eating in the driveway, in the car, in the bus or - most frequently - on arrival in the workplace.

Kellogg's has already gone into overdrive marketing its Nutri-Grain Bars and Pop-Tarts, both variants on the healthy, fruit-filled cereal bar. There are now Nutri-Grain Twists to spice up the formula (double fillings of strawberry and cream, or apple and cinnamon), Pastry Swirls and Wild Magic Burst Pop-Tarts, which change colour when exposed to heat.

Post Cereals, meanwhile, has devised a portable version of its most portable product lines, which rushed parents can feed to their children in the car without fear of spills or milk stains. And Pillsbury has gone one further, condensing the traditional breakfast into the Toaster Scramble, a flaky pastry confection filled with eggs, cheese and bacon or sausage that requires just a couple of minutes' browning on each side.

And where these pioneers have shown the way, others are following. Last year, 23 new toaster pastries were put on the market as well as 78 new national bagel brands. Some car companies are even looking at the possibility of fitting their new models with microwave ovens to save needless hanging around at home at the start of the woring day.

This being America, the idea of convenience breakfast has been around for a while. Back in 1971, an employee of McDonald's grappled with the challenge of how to serve a portable, non-spillable version of eggs Benedict - another American breakfast classic - and came up with the multi-billion dollar generating Egg McMuffin.

The co-ordination required to eat a bowl of cornflakes is just too much to ask these days. "Going from hand to bowl to mouth is out," says the breakfast-oriented marketing firm First Matter. "Going from hand to mouth is much more in sync with lifestyles built on mobility."

It can't be too long, surely, before the automatic feeding contraption featured in Charlie Chaplin's 1936 classic Modern Times as an efficiency device for factory workers, enabling them to keep working while they eat, crosses the borderline from satirical film fantasy to grim, post-modern reality.

Unless, of course, Americans are more readily seduced by the equally rampant craze for coffee bars. After all, it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes to grab breakfast at a bar - either first thing in the morning or as a quick break a couple of hours later. Ask the Italians. They've been doing it for centuries.