Eating In

Morning glory

Why must breakfast be a meal bereft of imagination? Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers an alternative

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

I know when Hortense is about to be snide. The slightly arched eyebrow, the slow smile with gently hitched ends, the contrived sweetness in her voice. “You never write about breakfast,” she says. She knows I always come to work without eating a meal most of my fellow-labourers deem sacred.

“Is that an offer,” I respond in a voice as sweet as hers, “to share yours with me?” She retreats huffily, leaving me to get on with my mail-room rites. Her implied criticism is valid. Breakfast to me is a meal that interests without attracting. I can see it as a subject of anthropological research, but not as an occasion for eating.

It is surprising to me that anyone eats breakfast at all. Even more surprising is that most of those who do so eat the same dish every day

The scientific case in its favour has never convinced me. One least needs an energy boost when one has just got up, unless insomnia or lucubration has curtailed rest. Refuelling is best postponed until the body craves it.

It is surprising to me that anyone eats breakfast at all. Even more surprising is that most of those who do so eat the same dish every day. No one outside fiction or the madhouse always eats the same lunch or dinner; breakfast, however, exempts those who eat it from sanity and reality.

Lovers of bacon and eggs seem capable of facing them indefinitely without boredom or revulsion. There are equally loyal adepts of porridge or waffles or kippers or smoked salmon bagels. Even combinations as dull as coffee and croissants or tea and toast are daily fodder for devotees.

There are people who inaugurate the morning with patent cereals, even though all are revolting on moral as well as gastronomic grounds. How many would go on patronising Kellogg’s or Granola if they knew that the inventors promoted their pabulum as a chaste substitute for “passion proteins” — glutting one sort of appetite to repress another?

For some breakfasters, the meal resembles an old briar pipe or a bedtime prayer — supplying the familiar comfort of an invariable habit. I recall the dapper old couple who used to start every day in Fortnum’s now vanished Fountain Room with truffled eggs and a quarter-bottle of champagne. Blessed tedium! And I’m not the only food writer to neglect breakfast. Recipes for it are rarely propped against the toast-rack with the morning news. Why is it a meal bereft of invention?

For those who believe in breakfast, two enemies limit choice and inhibit adventure: speed and convenience. Between toilette and train, most of us, unless servants are available to spare us, are in too much of a hurry to cook with due care and elaboration, much less to wash up afterwards.

With the exception of scrambled eggs, which cannot be cooked fast without disaster, all established breakfast dishes are quick. Three minutes or so in the pan or coddler and your eggs or cured meats or lissom fish or pancakes are edible. It needs little more time or forethought to have a slim or segmented sausage or a thin steak or meagre chop or kidney finely sliced.

If you must breakfast, here’s a better way: leave a dish to cook overnight on low heat

Arrayed under silver dish-covers in the sort of country house where authors used to set detective stories, the possibilities might seem numerous and even, while uncongealed, inviting. But quickly prepared dishes still form a repertoire depressingly narrow when compared with the range of nature’s bounty.

A solution favoured on the eastern shores of the North Sea is have something cold. The prospect would keep Leigh Hunt permanently in bed: an assiette of odd viandes, yesterday’s hard-boiled egg, a herring from a bottle, a slice of cheese still stiff from the fridge. The chill they induce extends to my marrow.

Muesli and such-like concoctions are inedible to affective sensibilities. When I was a young researcher in the main archive of Seville, my Swiss friend Hans was aghast at the way the rest of us breakfasted on strong coffee and aniseed liquor.

“I will make you,” he proclaimed, “a Swiss speciality!” Those of us who were looking forward to fondue or quenelles de brochet did our best to champ discreetly on what came out of his grinder, and returned to the bar to wash the grains from between our teeth.

If you must breakfast, here’s a better way: leave a dish to cook overnight on low heat, such as a Mexican guisado, lingering in the embers to supply a hot meal in the morning. A meaty sausage, for instance, a ham hock, chickpeas, a piquant stock, and you will never face Hortense, or whoever occupies her place in your life, unfortified.

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