An Englishman forsakes his country's cuisine in favor of its American cousin
In 1972 my mother went into hospital (something to do with the birth of my brother) and my father was left with sole responsibility for the welfare of his then only son. I was two years old. It was a golden time. It was the time we had breakfast for every meal.
Hitherto, breakfast was a utilitarian affair: pallid cereal, salted industrial adhesive passing for porridge, and lightly burned toast. Not anymore. Not only did my father hold the key to the sacred resting place of the frying pan, far more importantly, he could only cook one thing. For every meal we dined on crispy bacon, sizzling cubed potatoes, and fried bread, doused in baked beans (scooped from a catering-size drum), smeared from the plate by homemade rolls, and washed down with PG tips the colour of an oil-sopped crow.
I had seen behind the curtain. Breakfast could be all the good things in life—potato, meat, bread, tea—and you could eat them all day. I was entranced, not only by what breakfast could be, but also by what it was not. There was no marrow, no radishes, no chives. Nothing was steamed, or tossed, or boiled. There was never, ever a white wine sauce. Indeed, the sauce choice was (and remains) binary: brown or red.
(The British acknowledge the existence of a third sauce—salad cream, which is a sort of antediluvian mayonnaise—but most folk would rather be caught interfering with goats than pouring salad cream on a fried slice.)
I was addicted to the fry-up, the meal that is so integral to the country’s psyche that it boasts of its nationalism: The Full English Breakfast. To paraphrase the band McCarthy: I’m not a patriot, but why would you want to eat anything else?
Until I went to America, where I was led astray.
I ate my first American diner breakfast in 1990. Shamefully, I don’t recall where (Providence, Rhode Island, most likely) but I remember the awe. I’d never seen anything quite that big before: streaky bacon heaped high; pancakes rolled out by the yard; an omelet like a relief map of Eurasia. There were waitresses compulsively topping up my coffee cup (and yet mysteriously never adding the cost to the bill) and a national conspiracy to add home fries to every order whether I wanted them or not.
And, ye gods, did I want them. At a diner in San Francisco I was served a spud-heavy corned beef hash delivered with a loaded side plate of home fries. I nearly fainted with pleasure (although that might have been a small stroke).
At the Peppermill in Las Vegas, my girlfriend said: “I can’t take another huge American breakfast; I’ll order the fruit platter.” The platter turned out to be a 1965 El Dorado hubcap, heaped heavy with exotic fruit, surrounding a malt loaf the size of a house brick. She wept: “I just don’t know what to do with it.”
We took it with us. I figured it might come in handy. Perhaps if we had to rob a jeweller's, or brain a sow. It was still in the glove box when we crossed into California. But size isn’t everything. To misquote my father: Forget the width, feel the quality. And the quality of American breakfasts knocked their British cousins into a cocked hat. What I once thought was prime bacon was little more than watery leatherette; the trusty black pudding was like a dead grandma; my scrambled eggs, mere yellow matter.
Faring worst of all was the English fry-up sausage, known colloquially as “old man’s dick.” A description as unappetising (unless perhaps you are a particularly randy woman of a certain age) as it is misleading, overstating to some considerable degree the meat content of that sorry member. Once I’d tasted a sausage with limited (or no) urethra content, there was really no going back.
And then there’s orange juice. In 1970s Britain, orange juice was a meal in its own right. It was commonly advertised as a starter and sipped from a tiny tumbler while your partner hacked through a couple of inches of brown Windsor. Orange juice is now ubiquitous in the UK, but there is nothing quite like the taste of OJ in the States. It tastes, curiously, of oranges.
And there is nothing like the taste of a full diner breakfast in America. To my shame, I’ve been playing away ever since. Of course, I can still appreciate the homely charms of tinned toms and bubble and squeak, but show me a flash of lumberjack breakfast and I’m like a rat up a drainpipe. Dirty breakfast-cheating bastard.
Eddie Oxley was born in Hull, a hard flat land where only salesmen and relations come. He specialises in European financial regulation, which post-Brexit, leaves his employment prospects as rosy as a qualified hansom cab driver.