1940s Archive

British Breakfast

Originally Published October 1948

Since the day of Geoffrey Chaucer, 600 years ago, it has been the world's custom to look to France as the authority on good cooking and good eating as a vital part of civilization. I know it is like heresy for me, or any man, to put any people above the French as artists in the fine art of food. Especially the English, of all people, for the English have always had the reputation for heaviness in puddings and for lack of imagination in vegetables. But here I go bravely on the books, taking my life in my hands and declaring that the English are the superiors of the French when it comes to making good eating a cornerstone of civilization.

I got a part of my civilization from the British. And a goodly portion of that culture was gastronomic. I remember my breakfasts at Oxford, when I was mulling in the Muse's arms, as about the loftiest peaks to compare with the peaks I ate my way to glory on as a boy on a Maine farm.

The British breakfast, I swear on my honor as a scholar, is without a peer on this globe's crust. I mean, of course, the kind of breakfast that was de rigueur when I was a student of Oxon in the balmy days before world wars had done their worst. That was the breakfast that was served up—and up is the only word for it—dish after apocalyptic dish, by a servant grown white-headed in the benign long service of supply, and that took two hours and a half for me and my friends to get outside of. It was a parade of the ultimate subtleties in meats and fish and fruits. It weighted a man naturally towards poetry and philosophy. It broadened him out, not only in girth, but in the circumference of friendliness.

An Oxonian breakfast was the best piece of propaganda for a kindly inclination towards the British idea of a commonwealth of English-speaking nations old Cecil Rhodes or any other empire-builder could ever have thought up!

But the French, it is said, really do not count breakfast as a meal. It is at the night, area of conviviality and love, one says, that the French come into their own at table. Consider, one says, their way with fish and meats. And with soups. I admit soups. I doff my hat to the French there. A British soup is like a rain water seasoned with soot. No nation would have any trouble surpassing it.

Eggs? I admit the Gauls have a way with the omelette. I admit their excellence there, albeit it is rather on the frothy and frivolous side. And I acknowledge their artistry in all lighter concoctions, such as desserts. But these are the icings and the toppings and finishes of culture, not culture itself. French breads may be fine. But a slice of solid Dutch bread, with honest Dutch butter on it, is like a handsome solid island in the froth and foam of the sea of French crusts on breads and pastries.

If this be treason, make the most of it. It is high time somebody spoke out.

The trouble with Gallic meats is that they are pretty tasteless to start with. The meat “critters” lack the velvet of the British grass. They lack the fogs and the dews, makers of fine meat. They run to coarse and flavorless grain. No wonder the French have invented the world's most elaborate sauces. They had to, to hide the inferiority of their meats. Notice that the French word for beefsteak is English. The Frenchman admits the superiority of the English beef by that pathetic word—bifteck. The beef of old England! It is like the British Constitution. It is the meat that has built the British Empire and kept it inviolate against foreign invasion.

If there be any flavor or tenderness of texture in the universe to vie with an English mutton, fed on the juicy lawns of damp England, I don't know in what corner to look for it. Our lamb, sweetened by all the flowers of spring, is only a faint approximation to that adult mutton of England. The British have never had to doctor and disguise their mutton and beef with garlic and piquant and pungent sauces. Their meats are their own best sauces. Their fat is their fortune and their sauce. And plain Yorkshire pudding—which is an educated American flapjack—savored with the marrow and the fat of the meat itself, towers over all the Gallic garnishes in the encyclopedia of cookery.

I confess the British lack variety in vegetables. But, after all, what is a vegetable but grass? The British do run too much to bare potatoes and cabbage and Brussels sprouts. I recall especially that virulent purple cabbage that frequents allotment plots. People, apparently, eat such things.

The man who leans his weight on vegetables will find them a thin support to life, a hollow reed, a side dish. The man who puts his trust in them and leans his honest weight on them deserves to totter and crash to earth in his culture.

And, by the bye, the unsubtle English cultivate and cherish the very subtle leek. A cross between asparagus and green peas, it is one of the earth's most delicate and tender, creatures, as well as the national flower of Wales. Let the Gauls match that with onions sublimated by art if they can!

Yes, the British dinner, with its massive solidities of beef and mutton, and walled about with the heavy and hearty and saucy steamed puddings—which run as much in the blood of ancient American cookery as in the English—can hold its own among any French dinners there are.

But I am talking of breakfasts. If the French live for dinner at the end of the day, the English lift up their faces and their hearts and prepare for a day that sings, by putting their best foot forward, by staking their all, right at the start, right at the gates and the wings of the morning, by assembling the best meal the world knows, the British breakfast. Assembling is the word. There is a lot to it!

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