Comparative breakfast studies / Les études comparées du petit déj

One of the most popular of several traditional French breakfasts (all of which are light): bowl of café au lait and biscottes (or grilled bread, as here) with butter. Jam is also widely used.

I am currently in England, one of the birthplaces of the massive multi-part protein-heavy Anglo-Saxon breakfast. I had what is commonly referred to as the “full English breakfast” this morning (er, well, for lunch, but whatever). I grew up eating French-style breakfasts with the occasional Anglo-American breakfast thrown in by my American family, and all these breakfasts lead me to believe that the world needs (another) comparative blog post about breakfasts. (Maratinage / baratinage has apparently, for the moment at least and despite its header image, turned into a food blog. I doubt this will last. Side note.)

I have wildly mixed feelings about English food (sorry, English folk, but much like Sir Mix-a-Lot I cannot lie), but note the word mixed. There are quite a few things about English food that I love (I am intentionally using English rather than British, side note #2). One of the many things about English cuisine that are truly brilliant (in both the American and British meanings of that word) is the traditional full English breakfast, which is clearly the origin of a lot of traditional Anglo-American breakfasts. Oh my god, you guys. Full English breakfasts are genius.

Full English breakfast, from Garfunkel’s at Victoria Station. I’m pretty sure the chips/fries are not commonly served, but I could be wrong. The toast is hiding the usual mushrooms. I’d never seen one with parsley on it before, but it’s not like I’ve eaten full English breakfasts all my life.

So: what I’ve usually seen is a fried egg, beans, a grilled tomato, two or three mushrooms, toast, butter, and a large sausage (there seem to be several varieties, as opposed to American breakfast sausages / sausage patties, which, I doubt I need to specify, are basically all the same). I’ve also twice, in the same restaurant years ago, been given a “fried slice,” meaning a piece of bread fried in grease – in this case grease that was clearly old – and that was its own level of hell, which I shall not recount here; however, if you are ever served a fried slice, take great caution (I do not think they’re common, as I’ve had to explain what they were to some English people). Anyway. The bulk of the genius of the full English breakfast, as far as I’m concerned, is the vegetables. To repeat myself: oh my god! Someone find the people who thought of eating beans in the morning and give them some sort of retroactive prize!

Now, some English, like some Americans, eat continental breakfasts. This seems to be synonymous with “what we think French people eat” (to be fair, they really are what some French people eat). What an excellent segue into talking about what the French eat! I grew up mostly eating French breakfasts (unless of course my Dad was doing the cooking, in which case it was fried eggs and bacon). See the top photo for what I think of as the basic French breakfast: a bowl of hot chocolate or café au lait, accompanied by biscottes or grilled bread and butter or jam (or both). Yes, a croissant (or two) can sometimes be involved (this was rarely the case during my childhood, since they ideally need to be bought immediately before breakfast in order to be really good). Since I grew up with this, and since I tend to not want to eat a lot immediately after waking, I tend to go for this kind of thing (the second option in my case is cereal, which the French have begun eating more – at least, people are feeding cereals to their children more). I will not provide you with a picture of cereal, sorry. Finally, the French do in fact eat French toast (even though it’s Belgian – it’s called “pain perdu,” meaning “lost bread,” as it came about as a way to make edible bread that was too old for other things). This is not, however, regular breakfast fare by any means; I may be wrong, but it may actually be more commonly served at other times (any French people want to weigh in on that one?).

You are also, if you’re French, allowed to eat one to two soft-boiled eggs – oeufs à la coque – served in those tiny cups with what the British (and possibly some Americans?) would call toast soldiers (buttered) and, of course (this /is/ French food), salt. It doesn’t count if it doesn’t involve eggcups, or the whole ritual with the spoon and tapping the egg. (My grandfather /did/ use a little gadget that sawed off the top of the egg for maximum efficiency, but he was a bit of a geek.) Americans and English folk also eat soft-boiled eggs, of course, though in my American family they’re usually served already cracked. I have no idea how common it is for the English to eat them for breakfast. (For that matter, why is it so impossible to find restaurants that serve them?)

Photo by Jason Lowe for the Guardian’s Observer Food Monthly, which I assume owns the copyright. For a good article on the Guardian’s version of soft-boiled eggs – which is not the French – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/sep/16/simon-hopkinson-how-boil-eggs.

(For a typical French method of cooking oeufs à la coque, see this. For the Manchester Guardian’s version of soft-boiled eggs – which is not the French way – go here. The main difference seems to be the amount of time involved: in my experience, which is backed up by the French article, a soft-boiled egg must be boiled for 3 to 3.5 minutes, no more, no less. This is a pretty sacred truth to the French, I think.)

On a side note: if you ever have the opportunity to get really fresh eggs (as in, you own chickens or know someone who does), soft-boil them. it’s divine. I was lucky enough to have fresh-laid eggs a few times as a kid, and wow. (Side note: oeufs à la coque are a major comfort food of mine, in part because I never actually make them – you need the egg cups, and the boiling has to be so precise, and you cut up the toast, etc etc, and I can’t be bothered with all that after dragging myself out of bed.)

So now onto American breakfasts, which I will not be able to do justice to because of the amazing variety (I believe it’s safe to claim that there’s greater variety than in England or France, though that claim is based mostly on personal experience). I think however that there’d be general consensus (tell me if there’s not) that a fairly typical “traditional” anglo-American breakfast is bacon and eggs and/or sausage; often a sweet element like pancakes, waffles, or French toast; steak or ham (for some); some kind of toast or English muffin (shockingly just called “muffins” here, which really confused me on my first trip to Asda); orange juice or (if one must) apple juice; a cup of coffee; maybe hash browns or (if you’re in the south) grits (usually with butter. At least if you’re me). Obviously most people don’t have time to prepare this kind of thing in the morning, but like I said, I’m not posting photos of cereal.

Strawberries aside, this is probably more or less what people think of when they think of the traditional “American” (anglo-american) breakfast. Stock photo. I normally take my eggs over easy, but I was tired of google image searching.

So how do they compare? It’s interesting to me that the traditional English breakfast doesn’t really include sweet elements, when the French does slightly (if jam is used) and American breakfasts (the full ones) are often practically swimming in syrup. Eggs, bread, and some form of toast are a common theme, as is coffee. I don’t know. I grew up mostly eating French-type breakfasts, as I said. (Meanwhile, my mother has often said, only half-jokingly, that she stayed in the US primarily for the academic libraries and the enormous breakfasts.) I love them – they are just the right amount of food at that time of day – but even when they involve eggs they don’t really give you the oomph you need to last until lunch (which is part of why lunch is traditionally the largest French meal of the day – but that tradition is quickly dying). The American breakfast lasts longer, but if you’ve got a lot of syrup or other sugars involved, you’re gonna get all logy. (This is why on road trips I typically stick to the proteins.)

So, in the long run, what to prefer? …Maybe all of them! Maybe I should start mashing them all up! (…Not literally. Ew.) Bowl of hot chocolate, cup of coffee, OJ, grilled tomato, beans, sausage, soft-boiled eggs, and English muffins with butter! …No one wake me until lunch.

Congratulations; you’ve made it to the end of my longest post ever. But breakfast – breakfast is so yummy! Even if you’re me, and can usually only deal with it at lunch!

(Here’s some potential comment fun! What did you grow up eating?)

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