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The Pomp and Pleasure of an English Breakfast


You know, a grande latte is usually enough to get me going in the morning, several of them. But how about brain cakes, smelts and jelly, and of course fried cow's heel? Mmm. The English breakfast.

Anthropologist Kaori O'Connor traces the origin and evolution of this meal in a new book, "The English Breakfast: The Biography of a National Meal with Recipes." She joins me from our London Bureau. Welcome, Ms. O'Connor.

Ms. KAORI O'CONNOR (Author): Well, welcome to you.

LYDEN: You're American by birth, I presume?

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yes.

LYDEN: Of all the cultures that an anthropologist might travel in and explore food in, I wouldn't think that the English breakfast would have provided such, shall we say, rich source material.

O'CONNOR: Well, I don't know about that, because the English breakfast is famous around the world. It came up with the empire and it went out with the empire. It was a form of edible civilization and also it was a form of national identity. It was a time the English were very, you know, anti-French, anti-French food. And they really wanted to, you know, up the British identity and they decided to take this meal and make it the very essence of England and to sort of promote it around the world. And this is very anthropological.

LYDEN: Well, now we all have a notion, I think, of what an English breakfast looks like, smells like. I remember bangers and mash from my old backpacking days. But how do you define it?

Ms. O'CONNOR: Well, you see the original English breakfast was - I mean, the closest we have to it today is alive and well in America and it's called brunch. And it was very much like brunch. It was a huge meal. So you have the boar's head, then you have ham, oyster patties, pickled salmon, marinated turkey, game toast, deviled rabbit, dressed crab, mayonnaise of turbot, and Yorkshire pie, on and on and on.

LYDEN: Well, first of all, you have to have some money to create this breakfast, but still it's - I understand that it's a relatively modern invention that we even eat in the morning. Break fast. I thought that's what everybody did from caveman times.

Ms. O'CONNOR: No. What happened is, you did break your fast, but your fast had been on the go for some hours before you broke it. Because in the old days, the peasants had to get up and get out to the fields to look after the animals or else get into the kitchen to start the fire, to get the ovens going, to get their betters' food served. So nobody ate immediately. You got up. You got on with it. Then after about two hours you came back and you had something to eat. And depending on who you were, that could be just cold beans or just bread from the night before.

Because you know, really, we're so used to instant everything that we forget how long it takes to build up the heat in an oven or even to boil a kettle of water, you know, from scratch.

LYDEN: So how did we get from cold beans at the hearth to the kinds of Victorian breakfasts that you write about in this book?

Ms. O'CONNOR: Well, what happened was basically lunch was pushed backwards. I mean, obviously in the 19th century Britons of all classes enjoyed a very high standard of living. And being the center of an empire, foods were coming in from all over. And you know, more things were more widely available.

People were eating up, as it were, you know, rising in the world. Books like "Mrs. Beeton's Cookbook," which is, of course, famous and six inches thick, found their market among people who were actually being able to eat foods for the first time that used to be for the middle class and the rich. The middles were moving up toward the gentry and the working class were rising up toward the middle.

So everybody's taste buds underwent a rebirth. At the same time, most people moved to the towns and found that they had to eat earlier. So with the new ovens, which didn't take four hours to fire up, it was possible to serve a very hearty and sustaining breakfast that could see the man through the day. And at this time, there appeared a whole rash of breakfast cookbooks, like how to make breakfast, and you would think well, who needs it? But in fact, breakfast hadn't really been eaten before. So you know, as a proper meal. So everybody had to know how to do it.

LYDEN: The recipe that I'm planning to serve my guests on Christmas morning will be imitated boar's head.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

LYDEN: Could you talk about that a little bit?

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yeah. Okay, well, you take a hog's head and this is what they do, they boil it then they let it sit. Then you decorate it so it looks like a real boar's head. And you prick up its ears and if they're not standing up appropriately, you sort of pin them up in place with toothpicks. It's like, you know, food dressing. You make it into a kind of a centerpiece. You crown it with holly and you lay it on a great silver platter and you surround it with more Christmas branches. And you bring it to the table and it's a festive centerpiece.

Not for vegetarians, but for everybody else - I know. It takes some getting used to, but I mean it is one of the quintessential Christmas things, actually.

LYDEN: Well, here's something for the Christmas menu that the kids will enjoy: reindeer tongues. Now, that's not something I think I've ever really had.

And they're to be soaked for several hours, then exposed to the air. This must be done three times. Then scrape them very clean and put them into a stew pan of cold water, bring them to a boil, let them simmer slowly, skim them carefully all the time, and serve on a table napkin.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Lovely, isn't it?

LYDEN: Blitzen.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yes, I know. Poor Rudolph.

LYDEN: I want to ask you, when did people stop eating like this?

Ms. O'CONNOR: It started to decline after World War I, and the reason was what they used to call the servant problem. Because here were people who had gone off to World War I, really off - out of domestic service, off the land for the first time. And they come back to a changed world. Domestic service is highly unattractive to them. They go into anything else they can find, and of course there are many more opportunities. So people, you know, people don't have the cooks that they had anymore. So it starts to go down. Also, this is the stage at which the gentry are beginning to lose their money. And then it kind of died the death in the Second World War.

LYDEN: Kaori O'Connor is an anthropologist and the author of "The English Breakfast: The Biography of a National Meal with Recipes." Thanks so much.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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