My alarm goes off every morning at 6:30. Some days I’m up before then, others I hit snooze until it’s almost too late. But whatever happens, the first thing I do is to drag myself to the kitchen and brew a fresh cup of Joe in my stovetop coffee maker.
Breakfast can wait, coffee not so much.
I have an on-and-off relationship with breakfast because I do not feel hungry in the morning. That caused many a battle when I was growing up and one or two with my husband. He cannot leave the house without a meal, big or small, in his belly.
This rocky relationship with breakfast has gone through everything: from ‘just coffee’ until lunch, to the equivalent of two breakfasts a one day. Whether it is a bowl of fruit and yoghurt, or having eaten something at home and stopping for a second helping on my way to work.
There is only one, mighty, meaty and caloric enough for me to eat once a year: The Full English Breakfast.
A brief history of (English) breakfast
The story goes that while the food was generally precarious in England, the only dish unworthy of such reputation was Breakfast.
Or at least that is what English writer W. Somerset Maugham meant with his famous quote: “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.”
However, more than a dish, the Full English Breakfast is a tradition that started back in the 1300s as a symbol of social hospitality by the gentry: a distinct social class of the time, formed by the privileged landowners, nobles and clergy.
According to the English Breakfast Society, the gentry held the Anglo Saxon country life values and culture in high regard. To them, offering a hearty breakfast to visitors, friends and family presented a great opportunity, to indulge in lavish meals as a way to show off their wealth.
Keeping up with the Gentry
Before the Joneses and the Kardashians, there was the Gentry. People wanted to be more like them. Their Breakfast was a sign of status.
Wealth was in high tide during Victorian times, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. All those with newly acquired fortunes also wanted to showcase their affluence, so they replicated the Gentry’s ways.
Yet, the Victorians elevated the Full English Breakfast to its next level of indulgence with exotic and higher quality ingredients: halibut, pheasant, figs and multiple parts of the pig, to name a few.
This carried on through the Edwardian years, which also saw the beginning of the Fry-up revolution. In the years that followed, wealth spread further and middle classes grew. The English breakfast started making its way into hotels, restaurants, greasy spoons cafes and home kitchens on Sunday mornings.
A status symbol turned working class hero, thankfully.
The best things in life are fried
The Full English that we eat these days is a dish of eggs, sausages, bacon, tomato, mushrooms and baked beans. Other ingredients such as black pudding, bubble (grilled leftover potatoes) and toast are also common.
The Full Breakfast also goes by other regional names: Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish. If in Northern Ireland, the name is Ulster Fry. Whether by lack of sourcing ingredients, pride or creativity, the neighbours adapted the English Breakfast to fit their needs and taste.
It has other famous names too, “full Monty” for instance. A nickname apparently earned thanks to Army General Bernard Montgomery who liked to indulge on a feast with all the works every day during the campaign in North Africa.
But the one that wins the race due to its graphic nature and outstanding accuracy is: the Fry-Up.
One way or another, almost every single main ingredient on a fry-up is indeed fried: eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, mushrooms. Even the toast might be fried to artery-clogging perfection in a pool of succulent meat drippings.
The tomatoes are grilled and the beans are meant to be baked, but usually, they come straight from a tin.
No beans, thanks.
The first Full English Breakfast I ever ate was at Goldsmith’s cafe in Lewisham Way. It is a ‘caf’ right in front of Goldsmith’s University in New Cross. They are famous for their breakfasts, which they have been serving at student-friendly prices since 2005.
We had brunch with friends who had eaten there before and were keen for us to try it. This may have been eight years ago, but I remember it was delicious. The sausages were of good quality, which is the bar to which all fry-ups are measured. The portions and ratios were also on-point: two of everything.
Still, the main highlight for me was finding out that I could swap the beans for extra mushrooms.
My apologies to my English friends, but I cannot eat baked beans. Where you see a comfort staple, I see and smell soggy haricot beans swimming in a pool of watered-down ketchup.
The second highlight was not feeling hungry at all for 8 solid hours. We had brunch around 11 am and a light dinner that night because we were still full at 8 pm.
That is another reason why the Full English Breakfast is so popular: it may be deliciously full of calories, but it will also fill you up for the day ahead. Silver greasy lining.
I have eaten a lot more fry-ups since that morning in New Cross. At airports, pubs, hotels, cafes, and higher-end restaurants. When I was based at Sea Containers House, the office canteen would serve Full English every morning. Fridays were special: it was black pudding day. Those were the days I was up way before my alarm went off.
Old habits can die.
Although it may sound as I have had plenty in my near British-living decade, the truth is I don’t really eat it as much.
To me, a Full English Breakfast is a treat. An opportunity to indulge myself in all the salty and fatty goodness on a holiday morning, or brunch with friends and family. It is special.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up with other types of breakfasts and therefore options like Arepas, scramble on toast, or even Pancakes (the fluffy American kind) are my first choice for weekend mornings.
I am also very conscious of all the saturated fats and processed meats that add up the nearly 1250 calories on a fry-up. I am not fit, but I wouldn’t be doing myself any favours either, if were to have one every weekend.
The younger generation seems to feel that way too. A nationwide survey confirmed that one in five Brits under 30 have never eaten a full English. This article from The Telegraph summarises plenty of impressions of 24-29’s who agree that it is mainly the fat that puts them off.
That is a shame, though. What started with the intention to preserve a true English tradition, seems to be slowly slipping away in smoothies, shakshoukas and avocado on toast.
We’re not keeping up with the Gentry anymore.