Answering the Most Important Question About the British Fry-Up

Egg and beans – should they touch, or be separated by a breakwater sausage?

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02 January 2019, 11:25am

Photo by Terry's Cafe of "The Works"

A great many national certainties have been upturned during these turbulently populist times, yet one thing that has remained is the British/English love of a fry-up in the morning. There's a clue in the name: full English breakfast (FEB). Take Strictly Come Dancing competitor and former cricketer Graeme Swann, who once said that the five components of his hypothetical "Desert Island Salad" would be: "Eggs, bacon, sausage, beans and chips (can I have brown sauce too?)."

There is perhaps no greater connoisseur of the FEB than Alan Partridge – if not the quintessential Englishman, then certainly occupying a small corner of the English psyche where we like to reserve our most strident opinions for trivial matters. Thus, with each new day bringing fresh hell in the national destiny, we displace our anxieties onto frivolous concerns. A coping strategy. Unable to make sense of anything, we venture Strong Opinions about The Dress or what the way you hang your loo-roll reveals about your personality. Or the FEB.

For some, the sight of baked beans served in a ramekin – much less the whole thing "dished up" in a jar – signals the final, irrefutable proof of the decline of a once great Empire. It is hipsterisation or maybe gentrification gone mad – either way, a corruption of our very identity.

The positioning of the beans on the plate was of course a topic of some interest to Alan Partridge (although, by smuggling his Big Plate into the Travel Tavern’s all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, he had a little more latitude than most in that respect). Thus, smacking his lips having wolfed down "the best full English breakfast [he’d] had since Gary Wilmot's wedding", lovingly prepared by his Anglophile Russian girlfriend Sonja, Alan adds an important caveat: "Minor criticism: more distance between the eggs and the beans. I may want to mix them, but I want that to be my decision. Use the sausage as a breakwater."

Is this just Alan being a fusspot – perhaps even tacitly pro-ramekin – or is he, by zeroing in on the engineering utility of the sausage, on to some deep psychological or anthropological truth, one expressed through the medium of the arrangement of the core components of the full English breakfast on the plate? Important questions, now more than ever…

The first person I turned to regarding whether or not you should use the sausage as a breakwater between the beans and the egg was Ivy League Psychology professor Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, the world’s leading expert on disgust. Although unfamiliar with the whole beans/egg problematic, Professor Rozin remarked that it had its analogue in the kosher tradition’s prohibition of contact between meat and milk, since "unlike instances where one acceptable food is contaminated by touching an unacceptable one – a cockroach or piece of faeces, say – here, both foods are edible, although of course there’s no cultural prohibition against the mixing of baked beans and egg. At least, none that I’m aware of."

terrys cafe breakfast
Photo by Terry's Cafe of "The Blow Out"

The separation of foods begins in early childhood, says Dr Jeff Brunstrom, a psychologist at Bristol University interested in the psychological processes underpinning flavour preferences and dietary habits. "My suspicion is that children deconstruct a meal into its constituent parts. They say, 'I like beans, I like sausage, I like egg.' But then they see beans touching sausage, and that becomes a kind of 'sausagebean'."

It's a point underscored by Dr Lucy Cooke, a child feeding expert working at Great Ormond Street Hospital: "What Partridge says is what some kids I work with are like: they need to be able to identify the individual foods first before potentially mixing them up. It relates to evolutionary psychology’s explanation that, to some extent, we are driven to keep foods separate to avoid the possibility of contamination when food sources weren’t particularly safe or familiar, or had an uncertain source." It’s true, certain own-brand beans do have an uncertain sauce, although one suspects that the deployment of a sausage structure to ensure they’re not yoked to the egg has more to do with the latter.

"There are some innate problems with texture," clarifies Dr Gillian Harris, a specialist in childhood food acceptance and refusal at University of Birmingham. "You’re born disliking certain textures and there’s a biological drive to avoid them. One of those textures is slimy, and the reason for that is because it’s quite often bacterial decay. There are people who, even in adulthood, can’t stand mushrooms, bananas, not to mention jellied eels and tripe. Fried egg is difficult: it has the white slimy stuff and the runny egg yolk. It’s on the limit of what we’ll tolerate. There’s an eating disorder, ARFID – Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder – which is in DSM-5, and if it's not dealt with by the time children reach their teens, it will persist into adulthood." A-ha!

Dr Harris adds that all children go through disgust at around 20 months, while there’s also "neophobia", where new things are rejected (new faces, new toys, new foods), a phase that occurs in all mammals. "Neophobic people are more likely to be sensory hypersensitive – to taste, to touch, to smell – and they’re the ones unlikely to have the egg yolk touching the beans. It’s the fried egg that’s the problem. In his memoir, Toast, Nigel Slater said it was the one thing he couldn’t cope with as a child. It would make him throw up.

It seems, then, that The Great Beans/Egg Problem is only a problem if the egg is fried or poached, rather than scrambled. But isn’t a non-fried egg an intruder in the FEB? And all this is of course to presuppose that beans should even be on the plate in the first place. Is that a non-negotiable standard, the Platonic essence of "full-English-breakfastness", or are there only ever variations of the repertoire, like in jazz, or picking your five-a-side team from a squad of eight or nine? If baked beans are in fact non-negotiable – and Metro once decreed them to be the second best element of a FEB, although with somewhat dubious authority given that they're described as "perfect for dipping eggs into" (how?) – then is their function to provide liquidity or "tomatoeyness"? If the latter, aren’t you better off with, y’know, tomatoes, be they tinned or grilled? Furthermore, are tomatoes and baked beans an either/or? If so, is this for reasons of double liquidity or double tomatoeyness? And where does ketchup fit in: is it a more-or-less sectionable offence to deploy the red sauce when you already have beans on the plate? Questions, questions.

For many Brits, Partridge no doubt included, it is heretical to have a bean-free FEB, the sort of thing that might land you on the front cover of the Daily Mail under the headline: "TRAITORS!" Breakfast means Breakfast, and yet still no one seems to know quite what Breakfast is. (Does the sausage represent a hard border? And that’s to say nothing of "Brussels chiefs" trying to tamper with the Great British Banger.)

One person who has as good an idea as any is Dr Kaori O’Connor, an anthropologist at UCL and author of The English Breakfast. She explains that eating baked beans for breakfast harks back to medieval times, when they would be placed in a pot in the dying embers of a fire and left to slow-cook overnight, providing farmworkers with a quick and nutritious snack prior to their dawn chores. By the Victorian period, baked beans had all but disappeared from the English breakfast menu, although emigrants to the New World kept the tradition alive, says Dr O’Connor, as they were "perfect pioneer food". The gamechanger was the invention of canning, after which Samuel Heinz developed tinned baked beans in tomato sauce in 1886, bringing samples on a sales trip to Britain, where they were enthusiastically taken up by Fortnum & Mason. For a while, then, they were "an American luxury", until their popularisation in the early decades of the 20th century.

"When people lost their servants," says Dr O'Connor, "breakfast got stripped down to things that were easy to cook. Having beans isn’t a universal rule, but they have become a very working class thing. Is that because of their tomatoeyness? I think that’s what Alan Partridge would say if he was a professor of nutrition. You’re creating a cosmology of the plate."

Is Dr O'Connor right about beans’ working class status? Perhaps these profound questions of bean inclusion and beans/egg segregation were class (or regional) markers, acceptable in a greasy spoon, but not for a fine-dining FEB, a haute-English. To answer this, I had to turn to the pros, cultural gatekeepers out there on the front lines.

the wolseley breakfast fry up
"The English and Black Coffee" by The Wolseley

Dave Stevens, head chef at The Wolseley in Mayfair – for Dr O’Connor, "the best place to have breakfast" – was able to confirm that not only do they serve baked beans, but they do so on the plate. "There are two reasons for that: one, it’s another piece of crockery on the table at breakfast when there’s already a lot going on with a pot of tea or coffee, cups, saucer, toast, etc. The second is it acts like a sauce. And we only use Heinz beans, as they’re the best."

While the devil-may-care repudiation of Partridgean principles of prandial partitioning is mitigated by the reduced-down viscosity of the beans, the fact that they feature on The Wolseley’s plate confirms them as déclassé food.

Terry’s Cafe in Borough, Southwark, offers what you might call a traditional English breakfast. More caff than café, self-professed "diamond in the rough", it’s far from being a greasy spoon, given the swank acquired by making Time Out’s top London breakfasts. But it hasn’t forgotten its humble roots, as evidenced by "The Blow-Out" breakfast (otherwise known as a "Graeme Swann Salad"), where a sea of beans laps against the slimy albumen shores of the fried egg. "I’ve had people go, ‘Can I not have the eggs near the beans,'" observes Terry’s proprietor, Austin Yardley. "I go, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ I don’t agree with it. It depends whether you’re trying to do a nouveau breakfast or a proper breakfast, where you mop it all up with a slice of bread and butter. That’s the best bit, innit?"

Such promiscuous proximity is endorsed by blogger The Fry-Up Inspector (who, like Partridge, hails from Norwich). "There definitely seems to be an issue with mixing beans and egg according to the followers of my Facebook page," he says. "I personally don’t mind it, though, as I feel egg and beans go nicely together. When eating a breakfast I always put the beans over the toast or fried bread and then lay the eggs over the top." The Fry-Up Inspector is also very comfortable with both beans and tomato in his FEB, adding: "The main place I use ketchup is actually on the tomatoes if they are fresh ones, as they often lack enough tomato flavour, especially in the winter months. Brown sauce is excellent on beans, a match made in heaven!"

Yardley does confess to using a ramekin to house the beans in Terry’s Cafe’s mixed grill, but not in their more upmarket breakfast, "The Works" – "nouveau, but not as nouveau as avocado and poached egg" – which includes bubble-and-squeak and black pudding, even a sprinkling of fresh herb. Here, the sausage’s engineering function is less breakwater than bridge, a pork pontoon between the non-contiguous Bean and Egg regions.

But for the Chairman of the English Breakfast Society, Guise Bule, the matter is clear: "I am going to be a little snobby and tell you that any establishment which does not contain beans within a separate container is a greasy spoon wannabe. The only place this is acceptable is at your mother’s table or an authentic greasy spoon from the 1970s," adding: "English sausage rules the plate and you ask me to reduce it to a mere breakwater? Clearly you are treasonous."

So there we are: the seas are rising, the breakwaters redundant, the deckchairs on the Titanic being rearranged. And Breakfast does, it seems, mean Breakfast.

@reverse_sweeper