How England defines a substantial meal during a pandemic

Before we get to the meal, can we start with a small scandal? 

Oh, let’s, even though I’m probably the only person scandalized anymore. It’s like living in a patch of crushed garlic. At a certain point you stop treating it as if it was strange. And you stop talking about it. How many ways can you find to say that everything smells like garlic?

Forgive me, though, if I point out the latest political eau de garlique

The Scandal

The former owner of a pub that the current health secretary, Matt Hancock, used to frequent now has a contract to supply the National Health Service. He got in touch with Hancock via WhatsApp, saying, “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”

Well, hello, Alex. Smelled any garlic lately?

Alex’s post-pub company had no experience making medical supplies–it made food cartons. You know, the kind of thing you’d use to carry home a nice jacket potato with baked beans. 

Irrelevant photo: This is a flower. It’s blue. What’s worse, I’ve used it before.

But I have interrupt myself so I can explain that to the non-British among us. A jacket potato is a potato that’s been baked. So far, so noncontroversial. The British use jacket potatoes as the base for all sorts of interesting fillings, including, unfortunately, baked beans. You have to be British to understand the combination, but in case you’re not–

How am I going to explain this? 

Let’s try this: The British will put baked beans on anything except ice cream. And be happy about it. 

I’m not British and I’ll never really understand the baked beans thing, But if I were and I did, and if I couldn’t make myself a jacket potato with baked beans at home, I could buy one somewhere and carry it home in exactly the kind of box that Alex’s company used to make.

You knew I’d get back to that eventually, didn’t you?

Now Alex’s company’s making millions of the vials for Covid tests. I’m not sure how much it’s getting paid for that, but Bourne says his contact with Hancock had nothing to do with getting the contract.

The National Audit Office, on the other hand, says that people (in general; it’s not talking about him in particular) with political connections who offered to supply protective medical gear were poured into a high priority channel and were ten times more likely to get government contracts than the poor schmucks without contacts.

That could, however, be a complete coincidence. 

Alex’s lawyers said, “To suggest that our client has had political, indeed ministerial, help is to betray a deeply regrettable lack of understanding of how the supply chain works.” 

I never did understand how the supply chain works. You probably don’t either. And I do feel regret about that. Deep regret.

Alex, it turns out, offered his services from  “sense of duty and willingness to serve.”

Thank you for your service, Alex.


Just so we’re clear about this: I like garlic. It’s just that from time to time I’d like to smell something else.


The Tier System and the Substantial Meal

Britain will be coming out of its national lockdown on December 2 and England, as least, is going into a set of tiered restrictions. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will handle this according to their own sets of rules.

Tier one has the fewest restrictions and applies in the places with the fewest Covid cases per 100,000 people. It also applies in the fewest places–basically, Cornwall and a handful of small islands. 

Tier two covers the largest area, and tier three, now that you mention it, also covers a pretty hefty chunk of geography.

We’ll skip the details–anyone who genuinely needs to know this should go someplace sensible–and focus on the built-in absurdities, some of which are inevitable in any system and some of which are hand-crafted by a skilled absurdity designer.

The system has to break the nation into chunks one way or another, and some lunacy will inevitably creep into that. 

Tier one

As a county, Cornwall has very few cases, but it does have some hotspots. Devon–the county next door–has more cases over all but has some coldspots. So someone in a Devon town with almost no cases is in tier two while Bude, on the Cornish side of the border, has a cluster of cases but is in tier one. And the two aren’t necessarily far apart. They could easily shop at the same stores and work at the same places.

This is, predictably, pissing off the people on the Devon side of the border. And making me, on the Bude side, nervous about whether our local hotspot will cook down with the milder restrictions.

Tier two

In tier two, pubs can stay open but only if they’re selling “substantial meals.”

What’s a substantial meal? Everyone important is ducking that question. Environment Secretary George Eustice, demonstrating how unimportant he is, told radio listeners that a Scotch egg would be a substantial meal. But there’s a catch: It would be a substantial meal “if there were table service.” 

Would you like a beer with that? 

If you get it from the bar, though, sorry, mate, it’s a snack. 

No beer.

What’s a Scotch egg? A boiled egg wrapped in sausage, rolled in flour and breadcrumbs, then fried and at least theoretically edible. 

Sorry, it’s like asking me about the baked beans thing. I’m not the best person to explain it, especially since I’ve never eaten one and had to look up the ingredients. But I can report back that the egg can be either hard boiled or soft. And George Eustice didn’t say whether it had to be a large egg or whether a medium is acceptable.

A spokesperson for the prime minister said,  “I’m obviously not going to get into the detail of every possible meal.

“But we’ve been clear: bar snacks do not count as a substantial meal but it’s well established practice in the hospitality industry what does.”

It is indeed. Which is why a friend was able to post a pub photo on Facebook. The pub had replaced a beer’s brand sign–the kind that, in Cornwall, might say Doom Bar or Rattler–with one that read, “Substantial Meal. Made up Brewery.” 

So you can order a Substantial Meal and be perfectly legal. 

Back before the current lockdown, the communities secretary, Rober Jenrick, also demonstrated his unimportance by wading into the substantial meal debate (yes, it came up in the last tier system too) and saying that a pasty alone wouldn’t be a substantial meal but if it came with a salad or a side of fries–sorry, chips–it would be.

So basically, if you wave a lettuce leaf over it, it’s a meal. Ditto if you add potatoes to a meal that’s already heavy on the potatoes (you’ll find them inside the pasty’s pastry wrapping), that also makes it a meal.

What if you add potato chips, which the British call crisps? For that we’d have to consult King Solomon, because no one’s unimportant enough to have gone on the record about that. 

Under the old tier system, “a table meal is a meal eaten by a person seated at a table, or at a counter or other structure which serves the purposes of a table.”

What other kind of structure serves the purposes of a table?

Stop splitting hairs. Somebody worked hard to put that together.

The Local Government Association, though, said it was “open to interpretation” and had a “a degree of flexibility.” Neither of which–just to be clear–was a good thing.

“It would be difficult to argue that a single sausage roll or a snack pork pie constitutes a main meal, whereas if it was served plated with accompaniments such as vegetables, salad, potatoes it could be considered substantial.”

But that was the old rules. Under the new ones, a Scotch egg, might be substantial if it’s served at a table-like structure. At least until someone comes along and contradicts that.

Tens, possibly hundreds, of hours were invested in defining all those variables: a table, a meal, an egg, how many people could share a plated meal before it turned from substantial to insubstantial. But, of course, that was under the old guidelines. With the new ones, we’ll have to start all over. 

We’re not done yet, though. Can a customer keep drinking after they’ve had their substantial meal? For a few minutes it looked like they could, but nope, once they’re done eating, out they go.

Any day now, we’ll have guidance to help pubs figure out when customers are actively eating and when they’re playing with their food so they can order another pint of Substantial Meal. 

It’s being worked on by the parents of toddlers. 

All this reminds me of the opening Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shosha

“I was brought up on three dead languages–Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish. . . . I studied not arithmetic, geography, physics, chemistry, or history, but the laws governing an egg laid on a holiday and sacrifices made in a temple destroyed two thousand years ago.”

Tier three

In tier three, pubs can only sell takeaways. In boxes that Alex’s company may or may not still make. It does simplify things.

72 thoughts on “How England defines a substantial meal during a pandemic

  1. To be fair to the brewers of Substantial Meal, their little jest donates 1 pound per can of its packaged sales to a charity that provides actual substantial meals to children in poverty. On the bright side, apparently deep fried haggis and chips, being known as haggis supper. will sustain those north of a certain border.
    PS – Over-indulging in garlic is an excellent, cheap and widely available social distancing strategy, with the bonus of making you vampire-safe.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Good lord, Substantial Meal’s a real thing! Who knew? It was a hand-made sign and I didn’t think it was more than a joke.

      North of the border, the rules all change, so I’m not sure the substantial meal rule still holds.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Not only do I understand how supply chains work, but I’ve got certificates to prove it. When I worked in NHS procurement there were all kinds of processes to make sure that contracts were awarded fairly. I am by no means justifying what seems to have been happening, but those processes took weeks and would probably have cost many lives in the spring if they’d been adhered to.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sigh. I confess to questioning the baked beans in everything concept as well as the Scotch concept of what to do with an egg. But that’s just the American in me, I’m sure.
    But I did have an idea. I share with you the mystery of defining the supply chain. Economics was a class that did nothing but bring my GPA down. With that background, how about asking the Local Government Association if they would consider defining the supply chain for you – once they decide what a substantial meal is. Sigh again. I’m sure they’re too busy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t want to define the supply chain, especially after reading that definition of a table, or a table-like substance. The issue is how it works and how (I suspect) it’s being used to divert money into well-connected pockets.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is why we are just generally avoiding eating out at all. It seems a lot simpler to stay home and eat whatever we want in the comfort of our own dining room.During August we tried to support local eateries by stopping in for coffee and cake. But we have not had cooked meals at all, only the occasional take-away.
    Although we want to support local businesses, the enjoyment factor of eating out has reduced dramatically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve gotten the occasional takeaway, and that’s turned into quite a treat. I’d love to support the local cafe, but I really do hesitate to take the risk at this time of year, when the doors and windows are closed and people are sitting around maskless.


  5. One of Serbian national dishes is baked beans and, honestly, the beans you can eat in Serbia, Bosnia or Macedonia is a heart-warming experience, to say the least. Every time we have some get-together, my friends ask me to make beans for lunch/dinner, no matter what part of the world they come from. Then again, we eat beans as a main dish, with lots of bread and salad, and that’s about it.

    The fact that baked beans can be eaten on anything except ice cream by some I (alas) learned the hard way – on my vacation on Malta – and yes, I was miserable about it. The food at the hotel was namely pretty bad so I figured, why would I let food spoil such a perfect island? Sooo, I decided to eat out…once, many times…thinking, foolishly, a pizza is a pizza or a hot dog is a hot dog, how bad/different can it be?! That was, of course, before I found out that they are made with beans, garlic and some kind of sweat flour over there. I don’t even want to be reminded of it. I prefer focusing on the positive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How bad can it be? A skilled cook can ruin anything. It’s a gift some people have.

      I like many bean dishes. I’ve never had Serbian beans–or any Serbian food, now that I think about it–but I’ve had a Greek bean dish that I could eat every day happily. It’s just baked beans, in their brown gooey sauce, that put me off. It’s a terrible thing to do to a bean.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It depends how you make it and what you put inside. Serbian can be quite gooey but, trust me, it’s to die for.

        I love Greek food too, though, if I have to choose, I’d rather go for Turkish. Serbian is a mixture of Turkish and Austrian food and and and…It means lots of meat, salad and veggies. Very colorful and quite yummy.
        We eat lots of bread too; the Germans none. A pretzel here and there, yes, but you order a pork schnitzel at a restaurant and that’s what you’ll get. It’s delicious, but there’s no bread and no salad.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NO BREAD? I’d give up a lot of things before I gave up bread.

          I hereby promise that if I get a chance to taste Serbian food, I will. I haven’t had Turkish food more than once or twice, but if it’s better than Greek, I’m a convert.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Right?
            My friend has a logical explanation why we eat so much bread back home. The times have more often than not been hard so people would bake bread, filling their bellies with sth that was always at hand, since they had no money for sth more nutritious. And the habit remained. Now that we have so many different sorts, how can you not love it?

            Liked by 1 person

  6. As a Brit living in New York, I understand the baked bean thing all too well. The last time I came back over to the U.K. I stocked up on British-loving-US-loathing items. Angel Delight, Marmite and Baked Beans. In truth, I can buy a can of them here but at $4.69 from my local store, I just can’t quite bring myself to. Slight problem at check-in at Heathrow … turns out baked beans are quite heavy (especially when you have a lot of them). Wonderful post as ever and makes me long for a Scotch egg. But, as a scotch egg snob, it’s got to be homemade and unless it’s got baked beans with it, needs a good dollop of Hellman’s … bliss! Katie

    Liked by 2 people

    • I didn’t know a Scotch egg needed mayonnaise. Mayo can ease the way for all kinds of edibles, and probably a good number of otherwise-inedibles.

      How different are American baked beans from British ones? I’m not a fan of either one, so I don’t have any sense of it, but I do understand the longing for some of the foods you grew up with. I just happen to have a stash of American chocolate chips in the kitchen.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You boiled that egg up nicely. I was stopped momentarily by the jacketed potato reference, but am grateful that you explained it without me having to resort to Google.

    I only know about Scotch Eggs from an episode–the only episode I’ve seen, so what luck–of The Durrells in Corfu. In this episode, the widowed? mother of three children is trying to find ways to make money. She alights on the idea of making and selling Scotcheggs. I had no idea at the time why they were ill-advised in a tropical type setting other than allowing them to sit out in the heat led to several cases of food poisoning for the poor people who bought them. Now, thanks to you, I understand that reference much better.

    Lastly, I am forced to wonder if very soon, there will be establishments serving beer with french fry garnishes in order to turn them into a substantial meal. If containing potatoes is the only requirement–wouldn’t vodka qualify by itself? (I did Google that to make sure I was remembering correctly, and yes, potatoes are turned into vodka. The derivation of that word comes from the Russian word Voda–or water. So, fermented potato juice is the life-giving waters of Mother Russia. This is the only use I’ve had of my Russian Studies degree in many decades. I am both thrilled and depressed by this realization.

    Your writing, as always, makes me think, laugh, and ponder in equal pleasure and measure. Happy post Thanksgiving week/pre-holiday preparations. I hope whichever Tier of restrictions you are enjoying allows you to find space to survive the madness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Our holiday plan, at the moment, is to organize some dry weather and go for a walk. It’s absurdly beautiful around here, so that would be a nice way to spend Christmas. Or any other day. It should be safe enough.

      I admire the use of your Russian Studies degree. I have an English degree (and a year of Russian). It’s all been equally useful. Especially the Russian. I hear someone speak it on TV and I pick out a word or three and feel really clever, even if I can’t tell you what they’re talking about because all I caught was “good” and “and.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A scotch egg is only a substantial meal if it’s followed by indigestion tablets. Or do I mean indigestion tables?

    Things are crazy. If this were a war instead of a pandemic, I think we’d ALL be dead by now.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. So Alex’s company will be making test vials of pressed cardboard ? What could go wrong ?

    A Scotch egg sounds sorta similar to a Wendy’s Breakfast Baconator, so if I ever get to Scotland…
    But a haggis meal ? I think I’d go with a Ploughman’s Lunch.

    Over here Dear Leader is being likened to Mad King George, wandering around the White House muttering “I won I won I won.” Personally I wonder of George was THAT mad. I’m thinking more of Ludwig of Bavaria. Or Hermann Goering. Tut. (not King Tut – he isn’t believed to have been insane.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, they say Nixon was talking to the White House portraits by the end. So there’s a precedent for madness in the building.

      The baconator sounds like a machine to destroy bacon. What focus group, do you suppose, they got that one past?


      • Actually, they have a sandwich called The Baconator (and a Jr Baconator) that’s been on the menu for several years – burgers, cheese, the usual veggies and BACON. The breakfast Baconator adds an egg and some slightly spice sauce & loses the veggies..So technically the consumer is the one destroying the bacon,

        There may be a precedent for mope madness in that building than is generally thought. There is much speculation on what shocks may be revealed (that they weren’t quick enough to destroy) when the new regime takes possession. Of course, given the number of Covid cases reported there it will need to be thoroughly decontaminated. Other wise it will be like the settlers trading the Indigenous peoples unwashed blankets that came from smallpox viictims.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree with James that serving a side order of beans with the Scotch egg would help it qualify as substantial – as would the after-effects of such a meal.

    Have you seen the meme doing the rounds that goes something like this:

    Cornwall – Tier 1.
    Devon – Tier 2.
    That’s what you get for putting the cream on first 😉


  11. Very informative. I’ll now know to say yes to jacket potatoes and no to Scottish eggs. It seems like I should be able to order another beer as long as at least 1/3 of my jacket potato (measured by weight) remains on my plate. Simple enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I order a jacket potato with baked beans, the beans would stay on my plate forever and I could order beer until I passed out under the table, but sadly I don’t drink anymore so the opportunity’s wasted. I suppose I could order them for someone else. Can the person sitting with the person who has 1/3 of the potato, by weight, left on her plate also stay and drink?

      This is all so complicated.

      For reasons I don’t understand either, the eggs seem to be Scotch, although a person would be Scottish. And anything else other than whiskey–a plaid, a chair, a theory about life–would also be Scottish. The egg, though? Scotch.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m not sure I’d want to eat one of those, but then again, I’m not sure you guys enjoy hot dogs, which, by the way, is what a lot of bars are using as their entire food menu over here. It’s good that the virus is so easily fooled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The virus, being tiny, doesn’t have a lot of room for brain matter, so yes, it’s easy to fool. And aren’t we lucky that it is, because we don’t seem to be so bright ourselves lately. Imagine what would happen if it were smarter and couldn’t be fooled by a hot dog or a Scotch egg.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. On Maui there is a popular dessert called “shave ice” that on the mainland we would usually call a sno-cone. After adding the flavored syrup, they often add elaborate toppings, which can include ice cream and beans. Then recently I found out that Korea has a similar dish called “bingsoo” that also can include ice cream and beans. I happen to live in an area that’s lately become Koreatown, and I have places near me that serve bingsoo, but I haven’t had the nerve to try it yet.

    (OK, it’s red beans, not baked beans, but still. Ice cream with beans is a thing.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good point. Even thought I’ve had Chinese steam buns with a sweet bean filling, and even though years ago I had some memorable bean pie, my mind neglected to remind me that beans can be sweet. I just don’t seem to think of them that way.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: How England defines a substantial meal during a pandemic — Notes from the U.K. – NuLifeWellness

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