I'm not exactly sure when I fell out with the fry-up, but undeniably, I have. Back in mid-80s Manchester, as a kid, and for decades after, it felt like the ultimate breakfast. Today? I have no idea when I last ate one.
It helped that, back then, food was plainer, paler, less abundant. The cooked breakfast was a conspicuous Sunday treat. Particularly for mums, as it was the only time dads cooked. Quite the maverick, my old man used frankfurter sausages, tinned tomatoes gilded with Kwik Save cheddar, and instead of bacon, fried luncheon meat.
Later, in the 90s, when the concept of eating out on Sunday mornings was still wildly exotic, an uncle – a man who lived his life beyond the drab opening-hours everyone else was subject to – would occasionally take me for hangover-busting full breakfasts at a Salford pub. We were living the dream.
Over the next couple of decades, the ingredients improved and the fried bread disappeared (sadly), but this meal remained one of life’s great indulgences. It was a hotel highlight on a gastro weekend away or a bleary blessing the morning after a mate’s wedding.
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I had fierce opinions about every element of it, from that indigestible US import, the hash brown, or the dismal, shrivelled danger of 97% of grilled tomatoes (super-heated, utterly tasteless), to disputes over beans. Yes please, always Heinz and never served in a ramekin.
Nonetheless, the fry-up was something I rarely cooked at home. I had neither time nor, increasingly, appetite. Gradually, I became more health conscious. Long before bacon was linked with colon cancer I was weaning myself off it (now for ecological reasons, too). I was not alone.
According to retail analysts Mintel, between 1972 and 2012, the number of people regularly eating eggs ‘n’ bacon for breakfast plummeted to roughly 10% of us. Egg sales continue to rise and sausages occasionally surge (attributed recently to a growth in protein-rich diets), but they tend to be eaten individually now. The full breakfast is in generational decline. As an abstract concept, we like it (83% of us in a 2017 YouGov survey), but far fewer of us are choosing it on menus.
My love of the cooked breakfast cooled in stages. Firstly, I realised it is no hangover cure. Cysteine in the eggs might help break down toxic acetaldehyde, but a fry-up is likely to aggravate sensitive stomachs, and as blood rushes to your suddenly bloated gut, it can leave you feeling exhausted, light-headed and in need of a lie down.
Secondly, as our brunch culture has blossomed, the glamour of this once iconic dish has faded. Britain has opened itself up to new, sun-soaked global breakfast dishes. The full English suddenly seems rather dull and provincial next to the spicy pork brioche with Korean gochujang hollandaise at Belfast’s General Merchants; avocado on toast with dukkah, leaves and pickled red onions at Walthamstow’s Kiwi-run Bühler & Co.; or the godlike poached eggs with nduja and ricotta on focaccia at La Cucina within Manchester’s Mackie Mayor.
Having eaten more widely, and having eaten some of the UK’s very best bacon and sausages (tip: Ludlow’s indie butchers, particularly D.W. Wall), I am also sceptical about quality. Only very rarely do our best restaurants source exceptional ingredients, and assemble them with the care that can transform the full breakfast into a true zinger.
Farewell then, fry-up old friend. We live in the avo-toast era now and (Mexican cartels apart), I’m fine with that.
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What's your take on the full English breakfast? Leave a comment below...
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian