The British playwright Somerset Maugham once said that ‘to eat well in England you should eat breakfast three times a day’. I think he meant it as a jibe, but we should take it as a compliment.
Our breakfast is as powerfully evocative of England as any part of our cultural heritage. In The Lion and the Unicorn, stirred to patriotism amid the country’s daily bombardment in the Blitz, George Orwell opined that English civilisation was ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own’. That flavour is of sizzling bacon, straight from the pan.
Our beloved breakfast has been the subject of a serious work of anthropology in Kaori O’Connor’s The English Breakfast in which she declares it to be the most famous national meal in the world. Originally a dish of the wealthy, popular in the country houses of the gentry as early as the 13th century, the full English’s heyday lasted from around the accession of Queen Victoria to the early 1950s. Its appeal to urban dwellers lay partly in its wholesome recollection of the country home, and this was an important factor in its popularity in the industrial era. As O’Connor has pointed out: ‘By recreating the idealised country lifestyle in town, the English breakfast helped to mitigate the perceived ills of urbanisation.’
It has not been all plain sailing for the fry-up. In the 1920s the growing taste for all things modern and American (especially packaged cereals, sold as health foods so women would not feel guilty about serving them to their families) made the English breakfast seem old-fashioned.