HistorEats: English Breakfast
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Ah, the English Breakfast—enemy of dieters the world over. The meal commonly known as the “Full English” consists of courses of toast, fruit, eggs, meat, and a number of other trimmings. It’s popular in touristy inns or traditional establishments throughout England. It’s even popular in New York restaurants either owned by the English or those trying for a bit of an accent. But most Brits eat like everyone else at breakfast—in a hurry.
Until the early seventeenth century, the average English breakfast contained items familiar to most modern college students after a late night out. Some bread was usually involved and some beer, ale, or wine. The best way to get a fresh start to your day was a trip to the local ale house or inn—forget about cereal and eggs.
Between that time and the start of the Victorian era, many changes came about in the way everyone was eating. It was during the reign of King Charles II in the 1600s that tea drinking became popular. His wife, Catherine of Braganza, brought the custom over from Portugal where it was already popular among nobility. Today, teatime may be considered traditionally English but even the French were drinking tea long before the Brits.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and just before the Victorian era, the French custom of serving meals in courses became popular throughout England. “English service” where the food was presented at once, banquet style on the table, fell out of favor. Though war had led Britain to become the most powerful country in Europe, the English chose to adopt the food customs of the losers.
The Victorian era in England was a time of peace leading to prosperity and excess; if you have a lot of money and no wars hogging the crown budget, you have to find some way to spend it all. While the wealthy always managed to eat well, a practice of large meals trickled down to the middle classes during the 1800s. Instead of bread and beer, respectable Englishmen were being served large meals consisting of multiple courses first thing in the morning. Each course of what we now know as a “traditional” English Breakfast is served one at a time: fruit, hot or cold cereal, eggs, a choice of fish or meat, and finally some toast with jam.
The middle and upper classes eating these English Breakfasts were not the ones doing hard labor. During the same period of time, those people in workhouses or sanatoriums were still being served tea, cold porridge, and bread. If you’ll recall, Charles Dicken’s dear Oliver Twist had no large feasts set before him.
Though only a “tradition” of the last few hundred years--and then only among the upper classes--the idea of a traditional English Breakfast lives on. Today, most people in England, like the rest of us, eat cereal and toast before rushing off to school or work. An English Breakfast, like most deeply ingrained traditions, shows up most frequently on special occasions or in inns and restaurants frequented by tourists who want to know what waking up the English way is like.
TRY AN ENGLISH BREAKFAST OUT FOR YOURSELF...
English breakfasts always transport me back to that dodgy diner in Ilford, a small suburban town northeast of London, where my English grandparents took me every time I visited. I was amazed, at first, at how many different things the restaurant crammed onto one plate. In America, I’d always eaten French Fries after noon. In Ilford, “chips” get served as early as 7:00 AM.
Nothing about an English breakfast serves to jump-start your day. If anything, it makes you want crawl straight back into bed and sleep until sunset. The beauty of this breakfast is that it’s a dense dinner in disguise. It takes your average eggs, bacon and sausage meal and glues it together with baked beans, grilled tomatoes and button mushrooms. You may not feel so hot once you've thrown in the napkin, but you’d be bloody stupid not to try it.
Ilford Breakfast (Serves 3)
-1 can of vegetarian baked beans
-6 medium sized tomatoes, halved
-a container of small button mushrooms
-3-6 eggs (or however many you’d like)
-1 package of frozen oven fries (follow directions on the package)
-6 slices of thick cut pork (or turkey) bacon
-3 thick breakfast sausages
1. Saute button mushrooms and halved tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat, until mushrooms are soft and golden and tomatoes are gooey throughout--about ten minutes.
2. Fry bacon and sausages on a grill pan to desired level of crispiness (two-four minutes on each side).
3. Fry or scramble eggs to your liking.
4. Heat baked beans over medium heat in a saucepan.
5. Serve the ingredients hot, all on one plate. Top with french fries.