The Full English Breakfast: The History of an Iconic British Dish | History Hit

The Full English Breakfast: The History of an Iconic British Dish

Traditional Full English Breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausage and baked beans
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The Full English Breakfast is a bulwark of British cuisine, the roots of which date back to at least the 17th century. The greasy meal does few favours for the international standing of British kitchens, but at home on the archipelago the fry-up is as essential and jealously protected as fish and chips.

Although constituent elements of the Full English may have been thrown together on a copper skillet standing in the coals of an ancient Mesopotamian fire, the “Full English Breakfast” only began to mean something much more recently.

The Full Breakfast

The Full English is a mainstay of popular British food. It can be found almost anywhere in the country, from high-end establishments to cheerless high-street cafés. Variations of this ‘full breakfast’ exist across the United Kingdom and Ireland, and they have done for decades – if not centuries.

What is it today? Typically, it’s a general fry-up of eggs, sausages and bacon, occasionally black pudding, with mushroom and tomatoes as well as toast, baked beans and hash browns. This is washed down, of course, with tea or coffee. It’s filling, familiar and greasy. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The English breakfast has since at least the 18th century referred to a substantial meal generally including hot bacon and eggs. It stood in contrast to a lighter ‘continental’ breakfast of mainland Europe. It was to such a meal that travel writer Patrick Brydone referred when in 1773 he delighted in having “an English breakfast at his lordship’s”.

A few fine dry-fryed collops

Although Sir Kenelm Digby proclaimed how “Two Poched Eggs with a few fine dry-fryed collops of pure Bacon, are not bad for break-fast” in a 17th century recipe, eggs were generally regarded as a luxury on a par with chicken until the early 20th. This is when animal farming began to intensify dramatically.

Eggs were a part of high status Victorian breakfasts, however. In Pen Vogler’s Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, where she reports Digby’s thoughts on the virtues of eggs and bacon, we learn that the popular cooked breakfast was to some extent an attempt by urbanites to imitate the lifestyles of a country estate. This was particularly the case after the First World War, when servant shortages appeared to threaten the longevity of the country house.

The spread of the full breakfast might also be explained by exhortations in cookery columns, addressed mainly to the English lower-middle classes, to eat fatty and filling food in order to put on weight and build strength. Books such as T. C. Duncan’s How to Be Plump from 1878 contained rather self-explanatory advice on “healthy eating”.

Heinz Baked Beans advert from c. 1957

Image Credit: Retro AdArchives / Alamy Stock Photo

British icon

By the Second World War, food writers were aware of the near-iconic status of an eggs and bacon breakfast even as they disparaged its monotony. It became the basic cooked breakfast of the post-war middle class. In 1950, it was the basic breakfast on offer at a hotel catering to tourists in the upmarket residential neighbourhood of Malabar Hill in South Mumbai.

The cooked breakfast differed over time and place. It wasn’t quite as ‘full’ as we might expect today until the post-war period, when the dish embraced leftover potatoes in the form of fried potatoes, among other innovations. In the 1960s and 1970s, avant-garde breakfasters supplemented their plates with mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans and black pudding.

Full English

Just how old the Full English is is a tricky question. It’s often claimed to originate among the medieval elite, while some of its constituent elements easily date back to the Bronze Age. Bread, for instance, was a staple in Egypt, Sumer and the Indus Valley, as common in Homer’s Greece as Caesar’s Rome.

On the other hand, tomatoes and potatoes are rather conspicuous for the fact that they are New World vegetables not introduced to European cooking until the 1500s. This rather brings into question just how English the English Breakfast is. All the same, the “Full English Breakfast” as we know it appears to be Early Modern at best.

The Full English is the essential item on pejorative lists of British cuisine. But it is also, writes Vogler, “the only British meal to have found favour with non-Brits and we, as a nation, are proud and protective of it.”

If it was once a meal reserved for the well-heeled, it is today one of Britain’s most popular dishes. And it continues to change, the rise of vegetarian and vegan diets meaning a decreasing proportion of Full English Breakfasts are served with any meat or eggs on them.

Kyle Hoekstra