Every country has its myths, and I suspect one of England’s is, as the English Breakfast Society puts it, that the English breakfast is “a centuries old . . . tradition, one that can trace its roots back to the early 1300’s.”
Yes, there is an English Breakfast Society. That should tell us something about how central the myth is. Or, if you like, how central the reality is. Or how odd the country is.
Or possibly how odd any country is.
Never mind. It tells us something or other. Can we move on?
I found the quote on the society’s website, right below the picture of a wealthy couple from the long-dress-and-maid-serving-breakfast era. They’re sitting at a table looking unhappy. The man’s taken refuge behind his paper and all we know about his face is that he has eyebrows–two, I believe–but that’s enough to let us know he has no time for the woman right now because he’s attending to serious business, which by definition excludes women. The woman’s turned away from him, looking bored. Not to mention sulky. She’s not reading a newspaper because, c’mon people, ladies didn’t back then.
The maid’s leaving the room and if I had to be one of these three people I’d be her because at least she gets to walk out, even if she can’t stay gone for long.
But never mind the picture. It’s a red herring. I only mention it because it’s such bad publicity for the English breakfast that I couldn’t resist. If you want to promote the beauty of a meal, bury this picture someplace deep.
Several other websites make more or less the same claim about how far back into history the English breakfast reaches. But let’s stay with the English Breakfast Society. Not only do they say the English breakfast dates back to the 1300s, but in a different paragraph they say it reaches back to the 13th century, which through a quirk of mathematics or accounting or something numbers-related isn’t the same thing at all. And, they say, it was developed by the gentry, “who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.”
I suspect we’re looking at a bit of time slippage there. The Anglo-Saxons hadn’t come into fashion in the 1300s/13th century. If you wanted to get ahead in whichever of those two centuries we’re talking about, you needed to and downplay whatever Anglo-Saxon traditions your family had kept alive and speak Norman French. Chaucer, who first broke the English language into the publishing world, earning rave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, wasn’t even born until 1340 and didn’t start writing until several years after that.
So forget the Anglo-Saxons. I’m pretty sure they’re another red herring. Let’s take the rest of the claims apart.
First, who were the gentry?
To belong to the gentry, you had to own enough land to live off it without getting your hands dirty or doing any actual work. It was a loosely defined group, though. The nobles–the people who held titles–were easy to count, and people did count them, totting up fifty in the early 16th century, some 200 in the 18th. Once you had a number, you could be sure you’d gotten them all back on the bus after they’d gotten off to see the attractions or use the restroom.
The gentry, though? Sorry, but if you left a few dozen behind at Tower Bridge, no one would know.
But let’s not compare the gentry to the nobility. That’s another red herring, and one I dragged in. I got tempted by those numbers. Sorry. Let’s compare the gentry to the peasantry instead. The most striking difference is that where the peasants were hard working and often hungry, the gentry ate well and prided themselves on their hospitality.
Hospitality to people like themselves, that is, or people further up in the hierarchy. It wouldn’t do to get too hospitable to the lower orders. They’d start to think they should eat like that every day.
No, I’m not cynical, just fed up with how little has changed.
But we were talking about the English breakfast. In this telling, the gentry used breakfast to show off their wealth and hospitality. They made it an important social occasion.
Take weddings. A wedding mass had to happen before noon (don’t ask me; maybe god had afternoons off), so weddings took place in the morning and then the bride and groom ate a wedding breakfast. With who knows how many well-wishers and hangers-on and family members.
Cue a grand spread for breakfast.
Skip ahead a few centuries and along comes a wealthy middle class. Not all of the middle class was wealthy, mind you, but part of it was, and because it drew its wealth from (gasp, horror) trade instead of land, it couldn’t be part of the gentry. But it could sure as hell eat, and it copied the gentry’s breakfasts, along with many of their other habits.
The tale of the English breakfast, version two
In Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler tells the tale differently, and I have a hunch more reliably. The earliest courtly records, she says, don’t say anything about breakfast except that people who rose early would have bread and ale.
Who rose early? Well, it wasn’t the nobles and it probably wasn’t the gentry. Breakfast for them seems to have been a blank. In the medieval monasteries, an early meal was for people who did physical work. Monks and nuns were supposed to have their minds on higher things than stuffing their bellies, at least first thing in the morning.
By Tudor times, though, Katherine Parr’s maids were eating beef for breakfast, and by the 17th century breakfast had become pretty much universal, although the harder you worked (and the poorer you were) the earlier you ate. Samuel Pepys (we’re still in the 17th century) was eating meat left over from last night’s supper, either cold or reheated. (No, the microwave hadn’t been invented and they didn’t have electricity anyway so it wouldn’t have done him any good it if had been. He ate it fried.) For one breakfast, he ate radishes. Make whatever sense of that you can.
By the time we come to Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), we find her mother writing about visiting cousins and having a breakfast of cakes, rolls, bread, toast, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, although Austen has one of her characters eating pork and mustard for breakfast and another, boiled eggs.
If I can translate all of this, it means that the English breakfast wasn’t what’s now known as an English breakfast. It was breakfast and it was in England, but that’s where the similarity ended.
By Victorian times, the owners of a grand country house might show off with French food at dinner, but breakfast would be about showing off what the owner’s land produced, so we find ham, sausages, eggs, and bacon, as well as things I think of as un-breakfasty: beef, meat pies, pheasant, kidneys, smoked fish, and kedgeree, which is an Indian-inflected mix of fish and rice–a sign of that the British were messing around in India and had brought home the idea that if you added a bit of spice to your food your taste buds would wake up and do a little dance.
The current components of an English breakfast
What’s now known as an English breakfast is heavy enough to stop a train, but a lot of the dishes I mentioned slid off the plate long ago and were replaced with others. It now involves some or all of the following: eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and fried bread. Plus tea and antacid.
Did I miss the marmalade and the fried potatoes? I did, along with the assorted regional variations.
So how deep into history do the components go? As far as I can tell, not very. The baked beans that are now an integral part of the English breakfast didn’t land on the plate, or in the country, until 1886, when Fortnum & Mason began selling them as an American luxury.
There’s no accounting for taste.
As for the eggs, if you leave chickens to their own devices, they stop popping out eggs during the winter. Or so Lord Google tells me. I’ve never raised chickens, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s only when you keep the chickiebirds warm and add artificial light to their lives that they get in the mood to produce eggs all winter. So even among the rich, eggs wouldn’t have been available year round.
And even when they were in season, they were a luxury in a working person’s diet.
Eventually the 20th century came, though, along with artificial lighting and ways to heat a hen house that didn’t risk setting it on fire, and eggs–or maybe that’s chickens–began to be farmed intensively. In the years before World War I a recognizable version of the modern English breakfast started to show up in hotels and in bed and breakfasts.
Meanwhile, in the country houses of the rich, breakfast changed after World War I. They no longer had the massive number of servants it took to serve grand breakfasts anymore, and they began to simplify.
I know. It’s tough.
Bacon and eggs get a mention here, along with gastronomical boredom.
During World War II, with rationing in force, in many working-class homes the breakfast protein went to the men and boys and the toast went to the women and girls, with some of the trimmings added in on weekends and holidays. That was caused by a collision of sexism and the men and boys doing heavier work, either in reality or in theory. I know the men worked like dogs in many industries, but I’m not sure how heavily to bet on the women and girls carrying a light load.
But back to the components of the English breakfast: The tomatoes and mushrooms weren’t added until the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, they’re harder to make fun of.
If you’re not tired of me by now, I have an article online about the difference between writing for a lesbian audience and writing for a crossover audience. It touches on the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. Yes, I really am that old. In fact, I’m older. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the English breakfast.
You can find it at The Bookseller.