“When a woman asks for back, I call her ‘madam’. When she asks for streaky, I call her ‘dear’.” This quote from a grocer in Jilly Cooper’s 1979 book Class neatly illustrates the peculiar relationship between food and status in this country – as Pen Vogler notes in last year’s Scoff, “most Brits could read a shopping basket as though it were a character sketch”. It also inadvertently makes the case for bacon as one of the few things that brings us together, even if we don’t eat pork – why else would Sainsbury’s sell ten different plant- and poultry-based alternatives?
Vogler and her fellow panellists for a recent British Library talk on diet and class professed themselves stumped when asked which food united this fractious kingdom, agreeing with Ruby Tandoh that “it’s not going to happen. I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that there’s no good answer to that.” They’re probably right, but I’m going to nominate the bacon butty as the thing that comes closest.
Enjoyed by everyone from builders to politicians, bacon knocked cheese off the top spot in a 2020 poll of our favourite sandwich fillings. The chef Fergus Henderson reckons “we all react the same way to the smell of frying bacon. Rather like chocolate produces the same endorphins as falling in love does, bacon speaks to us all.”
Ed Miliband may cite That Bacon Sandwich as his sole regret about his time as Labour leader, but it’s easy to see why his aides thought it would be a good look for a man accused of being out of touch with the ordinary voter. In a HuffPost article that attempted to translate the story for a US readership, Joe Murphy of the Evening Standard explained that “the bacon sandwich has a sort of cultural icon status in Britain”. “It’s a universal food,” the article continued. “It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s the hangover cure and the worker’s delight.” There aren’t many things you can get at both the Phil-U-Up Burger Van at B&Q Leatherhead and Buckingham Palace, but a bacon sandwich is one of them. (Prince Harry is said to be a fan, which makes me worry for his happiness in the US.)
If you want to get the British talking, forget politics: ask us about how to make a good bacon sandwich (bap/butty/barm/stottie cake/morning roll). Should the bacon be back, middle or streaky, grilled or fried, smothered in brown or red sauce? (The answer to that last one is neither: English mustard and marmalade are the secrets to greatness.) Drop in that Paul Hollywood likes them on sourdough (too chewy), Marco Pierre White microwaves the bacon (weird) and Heston Blumenthal toasts just one of the slices of bread and dips the sandwich in burger sauce (rescind his passport immediately) and you’ll have a fight on your hands.
Travelling around the UK, a decent bacon sarnie is one of the few things you can rely on from Stornoway to… well, Sandwich. Indeed, bacon, in the traditional sense of a side of salt-cured pork, was once unique to the British Isles; though other forms of salt pork exist in many cultures, nowhere is it quite so celebrated. For all our talk of the roast beef of old England, the pig was for centuries the only animal reared exclusively for its meat here.
No wonder we developed such a fondness for it. Treasured rather than wolfed down on the go, a side of bacon would bring our predecessors pleasure for months. As we try to cut down our meat consumption, we’d do well to remember how special that bacon butty really is.
This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West