Three words that to Britons invoke not only salivation and a beloved breakfast but, notions of Britishness just as nuanced and highly debated as its ingredients. Indeed it is somewhat of an intra-British proxy culture war for ownership of the true recipe.
According to the English Breakfast society (that’s how seriously this is taken) the dish is composed of; bacon, pork sausage, black pudding, fried egg, mushrooms, tomatoes and baked beans. Some alleged Full English heathens include chips, hash browns and toast.
Here this debate is of little concern and matters little to the breakfasts importance (It definitely does not contain hash browns or chips). The Full English is a symbol of culture and pride as well as a unifier of the classes, something rarely achieved in Britain besides tea, queuing and talking about the weather.
Unusually for a national staple the Full English emerged not from the lower orders but from the medieval aristocracy. A symbol of immense wealth and power, something to no doubt laud over the poor cooks who prepared it. Who but the rich could afford to have various meats on a plate prepared for them of a morning? However, the sweet meats and vegetable mix a nobleman would eat in 14th century would be unrecognisable as a fry up today.
Breakfast itself was the reserve of the wealthy in the middle ages, the peasantry having only lunch and tea. Yet even in the midst of the 14th century the Full English was appropriated to be used as a national and cultural symbol. An amalgam of true English foods to fuel the most powerful members of a growing kingdom. Its hearty nature emphasised in direct contrast to the lighter breakfasts taken by their continental counterparts.
Such an association with wealth, power and Englishness meant the breakfast became a kind of culinary holy-grail for the aspirational middle-classes of the industrialising 19th century. Although the sweet meats of the prior centuries had been replaced with something more recognisable today. And so began the Full English’s journey down the social hierarchy.
The industrial bourgeoisie of the Victorian era who, didn’t have to slave away in dirty and deadly mills could afford the time and money to sit and take a breakfast composed of three meats and eggs. This was not only a sign of their ability to afford such an extravagance but, an opportunity to showcase their ornate silverware to guests- and no doubt themselves.
It is around these tables which the tradition of reading the morning paper and ignoring the family emerged. A quite startling contrast to normal meal time etiquette.
The Full English’s national symbolism continued to develop, now dualistically. Not only the breakfast of those orchestrating Britain’s domestic economic boom, it was exported into the ever-expanding empire, a taste of Lancashire in Lahore. A form of colonial soft-power, as well as avoiding any cultural contamination from colonial subjects.
The ability of the British to access these apparently quintessentially British foods in the colonies was a supposed testament to their mastery of global trade. It would be 100 years before the food of the empire impacted on the palate of the metropole.
Industry had fueled the empire but also revolutionised the British farm, catalysing meats journey down the classes. Cheaper meat meant the once breakfast of kings was now available to the working-class. Here it served a truly practical purpose, one which above mere aspiration saw it’s explosion into mass popularity, it contained enough calories to fuel a days manual labour. It is estimated that by the 1950s half of the British population started their mornings with a Full English.
Such association with the working-class has not muddied its reputation with the middle-classes. In modern Britain you can find it served in a café in a post-industrial town or in a high-end hotel.
Although its dominance of the breakfast table is on the wane due to increasingly busy lives, calls for healthier diets and a myriad of breakfast alternatives the Full English, Scottish or Irish for that matter will undoubtedly live on in the national psyche.
For all its invocations of warm and fuzzy notions of a past Britain for either worker or empire the Full English’s popularity can boiled down to one thing, it’s just bloody tasty.