Do you remember the last time you felt so bone-achingly tired that only food and friends could fix you? I do. It was last weekend and I was head down on a sticky table, pale-faced and using my hair as a blackout blind to stop the light getting into my mole-like eyes. On all sides of me were some of my dearest friends, who graciously continued talking as if I didn't just flatline in the middle of their conversation. All were running on empty after a night of too few hours of sleep and too many drinks. The last thing I could remember was offering everyone a tipsy alternative voiceover for Titanic. So, thank goodness when a full English breakfast arrived to rescue us.
A thunderstorm arrived at the table with it. Relief, warmth, desperation—get that food in me!—sparked by the dish that has arguably more emotional attachments than any other meal in British culture. The full English breakfast is an adored and messy mix of a breakfast plate, and goes by more than one guise when you're speaking with Brits, just FYI. If anyone offers you a fry-up or a cooked breakfast, that’s the same thing.
The full English breakfast will have eggs—scrambled or fried—plus British bacon (the non-streaky kind, with just enough fat for a sweet crisp) and sausages. Throw in carbs, like cheap white toast or hash browns, debate with friends whether they want grilled tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms, then finish it all off by sloshing tinned baked beans into any empty spaces on the plate.
Regional variations include flavors such as the Irish breakfast, which has soda bread and is the only one to include white pudding, while the Scottish breakfast will probably include an authentic potato bread (kind of like fried mashed potatoes, sometimes known more lyrically as the “tattie scone”).
Regardless of local substitutions, from the hectic aesthetic to the stodgy components, this is a meal you simply can't pretty up. This is the kind of plateful only a mother or a sympathetic best friend could love.
So why does it continue to pull on our small-island heartstrings? The cultural attachment is real, and those who eschew it do so with a layer of knowing guilt.
A quick survey of my closest friends reveals that our feelings about the fry-up are anything but platonic.
We don’t just have the hots for that egg-pork-bean-bread-mess. We are tumbling, introduce-me-to-your-parents in love with it. Perhaps the hook of the English breakfast is that we don't have it all the time, contrary to our international stereotype (it’s bloody hard work to eat that much every day before work, you guys).
Rather, we have it on occasion: after a night out with friends, with our families on Christmas morning, or after a long trip away from home. Maybe this is why we hold a flame for the steaming amalgamation. It’s not actually a brilliant foodie dish, but we’ve just been conditioned to associate it with love and good times in an animalistic, Pavlovian way. We truly are the British Bulldog: just ring that bell and we’ll be drooling for another piece of fried bread next to mushrooms and black pudding.
Armchair psychology aside, there are more reasons why this is the meal we pull out on a morning that needs to be earmarked as a better morning than others. A friend announcing they are cooking you a full English breakfast is akin to them saying, “I love you, man.” It takes hard work over a hot stove. You have to juggle at least four different elements that must be cooked separately. The amount of utensils you will burn through and the heap of washing up left in your wake are ludicrous.
There aren’t many people I’d optionally sweat over burning hob rings for. But while it’s not the British way to wear our hearts on our sleeves, throwing on an apron and toiling in the kitchen seems to have become a less cloying, more acceptable way of proving the we are really, truly happy to see someone. The English breakfast is a perfect antidote to the stiff upper lip.
“For me, it often happens when everyone’s sort of half asleep in your living room after too much wine or a night of board games," says Saskia, a friend who has dutifully brought home the bacon too many times to count.
“It’s normally a time to reflect on the night before, so you start batch-grilling bacon rashers and scrambling two dozen eggs, sharing stories and making the morning last until it’s acceptable for you to nap again,” Saskia explained. "I also like making one for my parents when I go back home to visit—frying little cubed potatoes with rosemary and making it fancy to show you care.”
There's that word: Care. Your skin may be seared with hot grease and your kitchen littered with eggshells, but at the end of it you have plated up a labour of love that is so very gratefully received by all waiting. If you’re on the receiving end, you know that you have a friend or loved one who is willing to go to great lengths to show you are welcome in their home.
No one's fooling themselves; the English breakfast isn’t winning a beauty pageant any time soon. It's a hefty, heart attack on a plate kind of dish. One friend, when asked, even used the phrase “grotty yet lavish.”
Regardless, it’s our weapon of choice for showing affection when the morning rolls around. In the great tradition where food equates love, we are stoically, madly besotted.
Sarah Musgrove is a freelance writer and digital editor across the pond, who has written for the likes of metro.co.uk and Oh, Comely magazine. Her favorite breakfast is the kind that someone else makes for her.