English Breakfast: Bacon, Scrambled Egg, Sausages, Beans Etc.
Every morning my husband sits down to a full English breakfast...then he has to go back to bed for an hour or two as there is no way he could actually function after eating so much food in the morning! But seriously, has no other meal been more maligned by our over-worked, over-stressed culture than breakfast? This of course is a real shame as most nutritionists agree that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day. Apparently, its importance is increased the younger we are, and this is born out by an experience I had as a young teacher. I was seconded to the special needs department, through my own choice I hasten to add, and was in charge with three pupils who were effectively excluded, but were so close to leaving school were kept on, although not in the formal classroom, until the end of year 11 exams. These boys had a wide range of behavioural difficulties, although none exhibited the real signs of ADHD or Aspergers. Now, over a game of Junior Scrabble I asked my little rabble what they ate for breakfast and the resounding reply was: "a couple of cans of Red Bull from the garage, Miss." On the way to school they would stock up on the worst kind of junk, consume it rapidly at the school gates and come in hopped up on caffeine and e numbers, wreak havoc in the classroom and fail to learn a bloody thing! Ah, those were the days. I was in fact quite fond of my rabble, all of them over 6 foot, all of them children, all of them ill-fed. Now, before this post turns rapidly into one of my wild rambles I shall resume my initial point and move on. The point being: breakfast is important.
It has been proven that the consumption of breakfast has real health-giving results. We are apparently more able to learn, communicate well and concentrate if we have consumed breakfast. Indeed, those who ate old-fashioned (non-instant) porridge for breakfast did better in intelligence tests that those who ate a sugary cereal, and those who ate a sugary cereal did better than those who ate nothing at all. The conclusion being, I suppose, that something is always better than nothing. Eating breakfast is also meant to be good for controlling one's weight, although the claim that eating breakfast boosts your metabolism may be slightly spurious, it's just that breakfast eaters also tend to have a propensity to have other health-giving habits too, like exercising and eating the old fruit and veg. It is interesting to note that only 5% of smokers eat a regular breakfast, make of that, gentle reader, what you will.
Now, most nutritionists agree that the best kind of breakfast would be low in GI. Those naughty sugary-carbs really don't sustain you and may have you running to the nearest chocolate bar at 11 o'clock. But, a breakfast containing protein, veg/fruit and whole grain will keep hunger locked up 'til lunch (perhaps unlike the famous breakfast cereal!). Also, because the energy a low GI breakfast supplies is long term, it enables us to concentrate, the protein satiating us until we've done a proper morning's work.
We used to do a good breakfast in this country. My own grandfather, a professional sportsman in his youth (rugby and boxing) would always sit down to eggs and bacon of a morning, and although working men and women had more substantial breakfasts than their sedentary counterparts, breakfast was rarely avoided. Here's an extract from Mary Norwak's The Farmhouse Kitchen, that really brings home the extent of the breakfast of those who worked a physical job.
Many farmers have two breakfasts because they start work so early in the morning. A modern farmer may only being his day, at first light, with a cup of tea and some toast and cereal, and then eat his full breakfast meal at nin o' clock. But in the past, those who had to start the day's work at some distance from their homes would begin with porridge and then return later to breakfast...Either way, a farm breakfast usually starts with cereal or porridge. After this comes a cooked dish of two or three "fries", such as bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushroom and fried potatoes; sometimes there may be kidneys, sausages or fish. In warmer weather, cold ham, brawn or boiled bacon is popular. After this comes plenty of new bread, oatcakes or toast, accompanied by honey or home-made marmalade.
I don't know about you but I feel full just reading that. But despite the reliance on fried food, note the use of tomatoes and mushroom and protein and oats and good bread; all health-giving stuff for a person whose job is so physical. However, we still see a similar repast at the other end of the social spectrum, aristocratic country houses serving huge protein-rich breakfasts, particularly during the shooting season. In Good Things in England, Florence White describes such a breakfast, as well as what she calls the "normal workers' breakfast" of bacon, eggs and toast. Interestingly, she also describes a breakfast meant for Britishers in a hot climate, those who lived in India during the period of the Raj.
We have inherited from India the chota-hazri consisting of a large breakfast cup of coffee made with milk and accompanied by two bananas; this is served in our bedrooms at five or six o'clock in the morning before we go for our usual morning ride which is followed by a tub and some luscious mangoes, the proper place for eating which is one's tub!
Whilst it is always nice to peek into the lives of our social betters I am far more interested in Florence White's "normal worker" and what they liked to eat of a morning. And, no book provides greater insight into the eating habits of the "normal" middle class folk of England than Mrs Beetons' Household Management. Now, for those of you not in the know, Sam Beeton sold the rights to the original Household Management not long after poor old Isabella's death, to the then publishing giant Ward Lock. For years afterwards, right up until the 1950s indeed, the book would reappear in a revised version every ten years or so, and was always a popular wedding gift to the aspirational middle-class British newlywed. I have several versions of Beeton (I am poor of purse but rich in books, the two may be connected) but one of my favourites is a 1920s edition. In the back are listed suggested menus for "simple" breakfasts. Please don't think the menus are simply a list of breakfast foods one might eat in the summer, they are meant to be an indication of what to eat in one sitting. Undo your belts.
Findon (sic) Haddock
Porridge and Cream (again!)
Rolls, Toast, Bread, Butter, Marmalade
Tea, Coffee, Cold milk
Cream of Wheat
Scones, Toast, Bread, Butter, Jam.
Tea, Coffee, Hot and Cold Milk.
Seriously though, I think there are many reasons why we as a culture have rejected breakfast. First, for years there has been conflicting advice on what we should eat to maintain good health, and the food which constitutes the traditional protein rich breakfast has come under much scrutiny, particularly the humble and much derided egg. Secondly, for many of us breakfast is the first meal we skip to conserve calories, and it is ironic indeed, that not only are breakfast eaters slimmer than breakfast skippers, but it is the act of skipping breakfast which makes us run to the corn-syrup soaked baked goods in the middle of the morning, just the thing which made us fat in the first place Thirdly, I think we are a time-poor culture. Even I, who work on a very part-time basis from home, find mornings a bit of a rush. It must take iron-clad planning and an even greater iron-will to get the family a decent breakfast and then prepare yourself for work and the kids for school. The middle-class folk of the 1920s who owned my Beeton book when it was brand new would have had a maid; father would've worked closer to the office than his modern counterpart, and perhaps would not have started work until nine o'clock; mother would see the children off to school with confidence that they could cope with the walk on their own and so on and so forth. Finally, I believe that meal-times, lack the formality of the past. In a way I think this is a good thing, I prefer informal pot luck suppers to posh dinner parties, but it was the formality of a sit-down breakfast which probably made it a nice experience, otherwise why do we enjoy breakfast so much when we're on our holidays? In all, I think we can safely say that the rejection of breakfast is a symptom of cultural change.
But if breakfast is so good for us, and in particularly so good for our children, then shouldn't we reclaim it? I don't think we could ever go back to the days of having a Beeton-esque extensive breakfast menu, but I do think it is possible to give the first meal of the day the consideration it deserves. Here are my top tips for a good old-fashioned(ish) breakfast.
- Plan it. Plan it like you would any other meal, but don't be ambitious else you'll get fractious. Start with breakfast baby steps.
- Get up, get washed, get dressed, get breakfast. I am not a morning person, but I find my day always goes better if I'm dressed before breakfast. I just feel up and at 'em if I've got my clobber on.
- Try to eat it at the table. This is a big one for us, as we generally eat breakfast watching breakfast news in a comatose, bleary-eyed fashion. But even a simple breakfast at the table makes the meal seem as important as it is.
- Try to include veg and protein. Cereal, milk and a banana is fine. Toast, egg and tomato is better!
- Why not try sandwiches and juice. Sandwiches for breakfast are really nice if you toast them.
- Soak your porridge over-night, this really cuts down the cooking time.
- I've heard tell that some folk set the breakfast table before they go to bed at night. I do not do this but admire those with such inclination!
If you have any thoughts about breakfast, or any ideas on how to make a lightening fast delicious morning meal, please let me know, I'd love to hear your thoughts!