I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
We have to thank the Victorians for telephones, railways, and flushing toilets, but most of all, we have to thank them for the full English breakfast.
As a middle class started to develop in the 19th century, so did the habit of sitting down to a proper first meal of the day. Eggs, bacon, ham, tomatoes, and mushrooms, were followed by toast, jam, marmalade, and fruit.
Along with breakfast went the ritual of reading the newspapers, discussing the events of the day, and swilling down cups of tea or coffee.
History of the English Breakfast
Food historian Caroline Yeldham told the BBC that Romans did not eat breakfast: “They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”
The medieval world was divided between a small number of wealthy aristocrats who enjoyed a hearty morning feast and a lot of peasants who didn’t.
The History Learning Site tells us that for the lord of the manor breakfast “was a leisurely affair. A lord might have white bread; three meat dishes; three fish dishes (more fish on a saint’s day) and wine or ale to drink.”
The lowly peasant, who faced a long day of hard labour, had to fuel up with just a chunk of dark bread and a mug of ale.
By the 19th century, regular working hours were set up. Labourers would put in four or five hours of toil on an empty stomach and then break for a meal at about 10 a.m. Office staff began work later, after loading up with sausage, bacon, eggs, and toast among other things; the full English breakfast is born.
Tony Hancock in a Classic Ad from the 1950s
The Breakfast Banquet of the Rich
Below stairs in the homes of the upper classes, the cook would be consulting The Book of Household Management published by Mrs. Isabella Beeton in 1861, to ensure she provided all the necessities of life for the family upstairs.
The landed gentry in Britain brought lusty appetites to the table that could not be satisfied by bacon, eggs, and toast. To face the rigours of the day, such as counting the tenant farmers’ rent, playing snooker, and dozing in the chairs at the gentleman’s club serious sustenance was required.
There is an organization called the English Breakfast Society. It notes that as members of the Victorian aristocracy broke the fast from the previous night they “would typically find dishes of baked halibut steaks, fried whiting, stewed figs, pheasant legs, collared tongue, kidneys on toast, sausages with fried bread, pig’s cheek, and Melton pork pie.”
Often served buffet style, the array on the sideboard might also include a cold joint of meat, mackerel, game pies, muffins, and a variety of breads.
Ingredients of the Full English Breakfast Today
Some of the more exotic items have disappeared from the full English. No more quail eggs, kedgeree, or galantine of beef.
The standard English breakfast has evolved to simpler fare. Essential ingredients are eggs (usually fried), back bacon, pork sausage, black pudding (blood sausage), baked beans (almost always supplied by Heinz), fried tomatoes and mushrooms, bread fried in the juices (read fat) from the meat, and toast. Oh, and a good dollop of HP Sauce.
The main reason people stay in English bed and breakfast establishments is the second “B.” No B&B would continue in business for long if it only served stewed prunes and muesli. It’s the massive load of grease and protein the guests are looking for. Scarf down a full English and there’s no need for lunch, unless, that is, a cozy pub serving a ploughman’s lunch beckons. Happily, one usually does.
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The Healthy Full English
Of course, someone was going to come up with a healthy full English. That someone is Angela Nilson of the BBC who says the full English “contains 807 calories, 63 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, and 4.52 g salt.”
She has devised a version that involves brushing veggies with olive oil and draining fat off with paper towels and the like. There are even blueberries and orange juice involved.
Weight Watchers has a version that involves grilling rather than frying.
These lower calorie and fat versions, of course, defeat the whole point of the full English, which is that it’s a gigantic, artery-clogging, blow out of grotesquely unhealthy proportions.
Nutritionists advise against enjoying a full English on a daily basis unless you have a really good health care plan that pays for the frequent insertion of stents to push the goop in your blood vessels to the side.
Today, most Brits only indulge in this kind of meal on weekends.
The Extreme English Breakfast
It was bound to happen. In a world where supersizing is common there was going to be a mega-full English breakfast.
Let’s meet Martin Smith who runs the Jester’s Diner in Great Yarmouth on the east coast of England; he created the “Kidz Breakfast.”
For £15 (about $25) you can sample―and sample is about the most ordinary people can manage―this culinary behemoth.
It’s called the Kidz Breakfast because it weighs the same as a small child―nine to nine-and-a-half pounds―and is served on a platter about the size of a police officer’s riot shield. Eat it all in 60 minutes and it’s free.
Ingredients are: an eight-egg cheese and potato omelette, 12 strips of bacon, 12 sausages, six fried eggs, four slices of black pudding, four slices of bread and butter, four slices of toast, four slices of fried bread, hash brown potatoes, beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms.
Martin Smith told BBC reporter Jacques Peretti they serve a couple of these monsters each day followed by two epic failures to finish the meal. Peretti had a go, but in his words “I haven’t even made a dent in it.”
Then, along comes Robert Pinto. A quite slim 39-year-old, he drove 125 miles to take on the Kidz Breakfast and demolished all 6,000 calories of it in just 29 minutes.
But, for mere mortals the full English breakfast is quite sufficient.
- ABC News found in a survey (2005) that 40 percent of Americans don’t eat breakfast. Among those that do start the day with food, cold cereal is by far the most popular choice consumed by 35 percent of poll respondents. Bacon and eggs comes in second at 11 percent. A few people mentioned doughnuts and Coca-Cola, cold pizza, and pork loin and cheese. And, at least one hardy soul said his favourite breakfast was liver and grits.
- The first breakfast cereal hit the marketplace in 1863, but it had to be soaked overnight to make it chewable.
- According to the Guinness folk, the world record for the number of people eating breakfast in bed at one time is 418. This notable triumph was achieved in August 2015 at the Sheraton Langfang Chaobai River Hotel (China), in Langfang, Hebei, China. The meal consisted of pastries, muffins, fruit, and juices.
- “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner: Have We Always Eaten Them?” Denise Winterman, BBC Magazine, November 14, 2012.
- “Food and Drink in Medieval England.” History Learning Site, Undated.
- The English Breakfast Society.
- “The Ultimate Makeover: Full English Breakfast.” Angela Nilson, BBC Good Food, April 2008.
- “Full English Breakfast.” Weight Watchers.
- “230 Calories a Minute for 26 Minutes: Hungry Diner Takes Café Challenge and Polishes off Gut-busting 6,000-calorie Breakfast in Record Time.” Kerry McQueeny, Daily Mail, February 7, 2012.
- “POLL: What Americans Eat for Breakfast.” Gary Langer, ABC News, May 17, 2005.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Pennington on December 20, 2016:
Great Hub. This is good information to know, good historical facts on breakfast the British way. Thanks for putting this together.