Rise and Dine
The Breakfast Book
By Andrew Dalby (Reaktion Books 232pp £19.95)
The Breakfast Bible
By Seb Emina & Malcolm Eggs (Bloomsbury 256pp £16.99)
There is a once lovely square at the back of Paddington Station now comprised entirely of budget hotels. I missed the last train home last week and after drawing a few blanks secured a single room in one of these for £60. I didn't expect much at that price, not in London. Nor was it. My room number was shakily inscribed on the door in black biro, for example. But what did surprise me was that my £60 also entitled me to all the pomp and circumstance of a full English breakfast.
Crapulent and tremulous the next morning, I descended the narrow staircases from the room in the eaves to the basement dining room. The solid varnished pine tables were packed with breakfasters. Polish waitresses in black T-shirts with the words 'I LOVE MY JOB' on the back darted hither and thither bearing trays and crockery. Every breakfaster down there apart from me, I'd say, was a tourist.
Those recently arrived at the tawdry free-for-all of Heathrow Airport, who had then paid £20 for a 15-minute ride in a shabby rail carriage into Paddington and ended up here, on these stained and worn 1960s carpets, looked deeply traumatised. Even the Italians at the next table were subdued. The German man with whom I shared a table for two, and who inclined his nut in a curt nod, appeared to be clinging to the wreckage of his dignity only by his fingertips. The one table at which there was animated, unselfconscious chatter and laughter (highlighting the ashamed silence of the rest of us) belonged to a group of lively Spaniards who were either impervious to the awfulness or quite possibly exhilarated by it.
So here I was among these demoralised tourists, squashed into the basement dining room of this ghastly hotel in this insanely expensive city. But anyone who imagines that things can't get any worse has another think coming. Because here comes breakfast - our famous 'full English' breakfast, moreover.
I eat anything. Wipe its bum and chop the horns off, ho ho. I'm not fussy. The average number of taste buds in the average gob is between two and eight thousand. I have about twenty. But when my full English arrived, the mere sight of it turned my stomach. I prodded the bacon rasher with my fork. The factory-bred sow, raised in China in conditions only slightly more cramped, I guessed, than those in which she was served up, tasted, rejected, then thrown in the bin, had lived and died in vain. The flesh was bright0 pink, barely cooked, barely even tepid, and had a fleshy nakedness about it that was faintly obscene. The anaemic egg was a tragic poem. The themes of the poem were artificiality, incompetence, waste and quite possibly blasphemy. The tomato was a product of that strange impulse of the Spanish to export scarce water from the Costa del Sol to northern Europe in spherical, thick-skinned packages force-grown in sterile conditions under polythene. The triangle of fried bread was a saturated sponge, sweating cold grease. The sausage was a budget bag of (at a guess) snouts, intestines, eyelids and hepatitis C.
Our overseas guests were half-starved enough to at least try our internationally famous breakfast dish. They were forcing it down with bulging cheeks and protruding eyeballs. Some of them perhaps saw it as a test of character, much like the bushtucker trial on I'm a Celebrity. A reckless few, bless their hearts, managed to get all of it down, before making queasily for the door, perhaps already conscious of a minatory deliquescence in the lower bowel, and they politely thanked the Polish waitresses for the experience as they went.
What amazes when confronted by a nauseating parody of the full English breakfast such as this is the sheer waste of almost everything you can think of: time, money, life itself. To dip into either of these breakfast compendiums is to be forcefully and happily reminded that breakfast, the full English or otherwise, should be the best meal of the day.
The Breakfast Book by Andrew Dalby is encyclopaedic. Not a single depiction of a breakfast in the entire canon of Western art and literature is omitted, from Jesus saying to his disciples, 'Come and have breakfast' (John 21:12) to Charles Burton Barber's exquisitely saccharine 1894 oil painting of a little girl saying grace over her breakfast tray. The art is handsomely reproduced. Dalby also offers a comprehensive history of breakfast from the Neolithic period onwards. There are chapters on the psychology, anthropology, sociology and geography of breakfast. There are recipes, eulogies and statistics. Between us, I'd say that anyone as obsessed with the idea of breakfast as Dalby should be locked up. But he has nevertheless written a marvellously toothsome compendium.
As have Seb Emina and (or aka) Malcolm Eggs. The Breakfast Bible is more of a light-hearted celebration of breakfast. It is scrambled eggs to Dalby's kedgeree. The handsomely produced book is a delightful object in itself and the result of a thousand breakfasts eaten both for pleasure and in the line of duty for the London Review of Breakfasts website. Each constituent of the full English has its own chapter and there are a hundred pages of classic breakfast recipes. There are twenty essays on subjects as diverse as famous last breakfasts, breakfast proverbs, and the Hunter S Thompson breakfast, which includes (or ideally ought to include) four Bloody Marys, two margaritas and six lines of coke. And I was glad to know that Abraham Lincoln's preferred breakfast was a boiled egg and a cup of coffee. The text is beautifully and wittily written.
I heartily recommend either or both of these books. It is, after all, an important subject. Here is Winnie-the-Pooh on breakfast, quoted in The Breakfast Bible.
'When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,' said Piglet at last, 'what's the first thing you say to yourself?'
'What's for breakfast?' said Pooh. 'What do you say, Piglet?'
'I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting to-day?' said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
'It's the same thing,' he said.
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Jeremy Clarke writes The Spectator's Low Life column.