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23 March 2022

Our diets are international, but at the breakfast table, Britishness reigns

The fry-up occupies a special place in the national psyche – survey after survey names the cooked breakfast as one of the things we believe defines us.

By Felicity Cloake

When David Frost – a politician once described as having “the look of a man who’s only ever five minutes away from getting fried egg on his shirt”– went to Brussels for the first round of talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU in 2020, he enjoyed, the Telegraph tweeted, “a delicious patriotic breakfast of sausages, baked beans, bacon and eggs before leading a team of 100 UK officials into negotiations”.

They’re not the only ones to confuse pork with patriotism; Boris Johnson’s Instagram account shows him tucking into a truck-stop fry-up the day before the Brexit-heavy 2019 election with the rousing slogan “Getting breakfast done!”, while the Daily Mail triumphantly declared Nigel Farage had “passed the test” when he was pictured shoving a bacon butty into his gob while canvassing for Ukip in 2014.

And though the English may have appropriated the cooked breakfast as we’ve appropriated so much else (the term “full English” is less than a century old, and the notion of it as a dish in its own right, with a fixed set of components, even more recent), Nicola Sturgeon has been snapped with a bacon roll in hand on more than one occasion, while Gerry Adams isn’t shy about airing his opinions on the “traditional Ulster fry”. (Beans, apparently, are an anglicised interloper with no place on an “authentic indigenous fry”.)

For politicians, the fry-up functions both as a badge of authenticity and an emblem of national pride. For the Telegraph, perhaps, it is the muscular antithesis of the dainty pastries Frost’s EU counterpart, the Frenchman Michel Barnier, may be presumed to have fortified himself with. They’re not alone; survey after survey names the cooked breakfast, along with tea and queuing, as one of the things we believe defines us.

Indeed, such is its place in the national psyche that one might reasonably imagine Henry V riding into battle at Agincourt with a bacon bap in hand – but I must break it to you that this is unlikely. For a long time, in common with many other Catholic countries, not much breakfast was eaten on these islands at all. The medieval church frowned upon more than two meals a day as self-indulgence: eating praepropere – too soon – came under the sinful bracket of gluttony.

Once that began to change, almost anything was fair game for breakfast, from Pepys’ turkey pie to Jane Austen’s Bath buns; though until the mid-19th century for most of the population the first meal of the day was probably bread or porridge, with cheese and cured meat or fish if you were lucky. Much the same, in fact, as would have been eaten across the Channel, where the celebrated 18th-century French gourmand Brillat-Savarin recalled similar breakfasts in his own childhood.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that what the Indian Army colonel turned cookery writer Wyvern described as “the ding dong monotony of ‘bacon and eggs’ alternated with ‘eggs and bacon’” set in for the majority in this country; those who could only aspire to the lavish spreads put on in the great country houses, with their game pies and curried lobsters. Even poorer households, according to the anthropologist Kaori O’Connor, would have run to this once a week for the man of the house, “yet despite the differences, all felt they were eating the English breakfast”.

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That this became a symbol of national pride probably has less to do with it being peculiarly British, and more to do with it not being obviously French, at a time when that cuisine was very much à la mode. Lunch and dinner may have been all potages and petits pois for the fashionable set – even the democratic Lyons tea shops spoke the language of œufs turbigo and gâteaux specials – but at breakfast, the menu came in English.

And although our diets are more cosmopolitan than ever, for many, breakfast remains sacrosanct in its “Britishness” – a term that happily encompasses everything from cereal to a full fry. Unless you’re out on the campaign trail of course: brave is the politician willing to be photographed with a bowl of muesli.

“Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey” by Felicity Cloake will be published on 9 June by Mudlark

[See also: Cutting costs in the kitchen is about more than just ingredients]

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain