By the Victorian age, the wealthy started to sink their teeth into the full English for breakfast. It was no longer the food of the aristocratic and the upper class but a power breakfast for the banker and the merchant, the inner city professional. For example, there are 7 references to eggs in the original Sherlock Holmes canon, served with ham 3 times, “rashers” and scrambled, hard-boiled and curried fowl served the once. Already, we can see that the symbol was changing, the ingredients were a little cheaper, reaching a new audience, and that meant something different. Broad generalised speculation, but it’s not hard to imagine the rich had eaten this breakfast and the outsiders looking in saw the decadence, the opulence. These outsiders now took the fry up and used it as a bourgeois status symbol. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes the status or brand of cigars change. And it wasn’t until after the second world war where manufactured food became cheaply available to a bigger selection of people. The meal found its way onto menus of diners and cafes in the post-war boom. This is where the rise of Greasy Spoon occurred and part two of our story of the full English breakfast starts.
“. . . sausage was plump and cooked to complete brownness. . . “
Nowadays, those same resources are available for a song. For example? Maggie’s unique selling point and the reason we’re here is their customisable breakfast for £7.95. Select from a list of ingredients: ‘Fried egg, poached egg, scrambled egg, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, black pudding, liver, fried onions, chips, hash browns, beans, bubble, tin tomatoes, grilled tomatoes, ham, fried slice, toast, bread tea or coffee.’ A far cry from the hen’s teeth of breakfast seven hundred years ago. And remember, we’re still talking about the same meal and basic ingredients.
We arrive around 12ish on an overcast, January, early Wednesday afternoon, and much to my surprise the place was nearly full up. The atmosphere is one of pure conviviality, the menu promises “an Irish welcome” and within moments of sitting down, they’re providing a “hello and welcome. . . “ with an offer of tea or coffee. (This leads to the temptation of pulling a Dale Cooper when they poured me a cup.) Their mission statement – amongst other things – promises a customer-centric environment. ” . . . To treat our customers with warmth and sincerity and make each dining experience as good as, if not better than the last, by providing a friendly service. . . “
I couldn’t snap enough pictures while I was there without drawing too much attention to myself but luckily Maggie’s has a comprehensive promo video that gives a digital tour of the place. But up-front and in real life lemme say the interior is cleanly quaint, or quaintly clean and very cosy to settle into, especially one of their booths. It’s decorated with an array of yellow and green decor. Milk jugs with flowers on every sill, and sand coloured brick walls with pictures of eras gone by; working people, cottages, and curiously enough a gaggle of nuns on a beach (Ed Note: What’s the plural for nuns? “A prayer of nuns”?)
Looking around it’s not hard to see the demographic; builders on lunch break (“lunchbreaking“?), girlfriends shooting the breeze, an elderly couple in suits and Sunday best, the odd “London professional” typing away at their Mac, and not a yuppie to be seen! Lewisham must have community, and Maggie’s proximity to Lewisham station ensures that the cafe always has a steady stream of new faces too. This is the new face of the fry up. the working person.
“. . . two rounds of toast on the side, white and buttered to mop up the egg yolk, tomato sauce and bacon grease left on the plate. . .”
So this is where the counter-argument to my class warfare starts. I’ve eaten like a king, now I shall venture into a gastronomic time capsule to capture what a full English is like once Tom, Dick and Harry had had a go at tinkering and frying and eating. This should be considered a greasy spoon but we’re refusing to use the phrase. It’s rude and pejorative. It inherently implies a decrease in quality. Referring to any place as a Greasy Spoon is meant in historical context rather than ridicule. The same goes for “prolitariat”, a term Marx championed before the bourgeois turned it into an insult. We’ve gone all ironic and gone slumming, but it’s the best kind – breakfast slumming.
Their menu is a big, comprehensive list of English food; ranging from egg on toast to roast dinners. Their breakfast items make full use of the variations of each ingredient – eggs; scrambled, fried poached, omelettes, potatoes; chips, jackets, hash browns. . . And also a fully licensed bar, making this a perfect place for a hangover cure. Hair of the dog and a fried breakfast? This place is gonna give a Wetherspoons a cold sweat.
My order was taken very fast and my plate came within 10 minutes. Clearly, they have a kitchen making these ingredients in perpetuity. (“Perpetual Kitchen“? Shotgun band name.) We ordered sausage, bacon, mushrooms, beans, toast, black pudding and hash browns. I was very tempted to just ask for the whole dam roster but knew I wouldn’t be able to make a dent so I settled with my fine collection of brines, meats and starches.
The meat of the sausage was plump and cooked to complete brownness. Wilted and wrinkly from the heat and the innards were crumble-dry. Perfect material to dunk into eggs. The bacon was cooked to a slight crisp, wilted and brittle from the fry. The two discs of black pudding, compacted and tough are full-bodied but delicate. The iron-rich taste changes the taste of the salts of sausage and bacon and soaks up the egg yolk and tomato sauce. Hash browns have the perfect quality of the ultra-crispy skin and feather-like fluffy innards.
Now prepare yourself for a shock. The baked beans come on the plate!Remember what I said about Hawksmoor and their beans? To my eye, it’s the biggest class distinction made. Some feel that as beans come in a sauce and take up a large part of the plate it needs to be isolated in small pot or bowl. Less you contain them and have them separate? In which case we’re definitely toeing the line of poshness. These beans will now need to be eaten quickly to make sure the flavours of the other items on the plate don’t get. . . bean’d.
Word of advice. Order mushrooms or tomatoes, you need something soft on the plate against the skins and crisps. Mushrooms are soft in comparison to crispy bacon, crispy hash browns, crispy sausage, and crispy black pudding. Running a fork’s edge on the surfaces of the food you can hear the criiiiisssspppppp criiiiiissspppp of the hash browns and black puddings. The grilled tomato used to be part of the plate but tomatoes were a late mainstream addition to the roster of the full English, coming from tins straight after the war and retail food became more readily available, if I had to guess I’d imagine people wanted a softer texture on the plate to go against the meats.
And lastly; two rounds of toast on the side, white and buttered to mop up the egg yolk, tomato sauce and bacon grease left on the plate, leaving the plate gleamingly clean after the meal is done. (White bread in comparison to Hawksmoor’s brown bloomers?) All washed down with bottomless tea or coffee.
Each table comes fully loaded; small flower vase, pint glass with napkins, a wicker basket of ketchup, brown sauce, and vinegar. and a bowl of sugar and salt & pepper shakes. It would be overkill but considering the size of the breakfast you can get, it makes sense to supply us with a full kit. It’s interesting how in Hawksmoor the sugar bowl has cubes of brown and white and in Maggie’s its a bowl of refined grain. Things are quantised differently depending on where in the social spectrum you reside, clearly.
A radio plays behind the counter ever so slightly which leaves the best kind of ambience; the soothing-soft tones of socialising, occasionally punctuated by that refreshing, bursting sound of the coffee machine spewing and frothing. Everyone’s so friendly (just checking, am I still in London?) Maitre ‘d exchanges smiles and scrunched up faces with customers, making conversation with every table. It’s hard not to notice the staff walk the floor more than a dog on a treadmill, a constant hosting presence.
Only problem? Coffee was scolded. But this is a problem with modern cafes, the ying-yang of tea and coffee and whether the machines are programmed to boil good tea or make good coffee. There’s a trick to this though, put a little salt in a burnt coffee to take away the bitter taste and you’re alright again. Just trust us on this.
No such thing as a greasy spoon
Cost of the total bill? £10.05. It would have been less than that had I not ordered that coffee and waited for the one that came with the meal. I left, jolted from the caffeine and wondering; so which breakfast is better? Frankly, it’s an utterly arbitrary point as far as we’re concerned. It’s more enjoyable to sit down and mull over what one plate has meant for three-quarters of a century than to pick breakfast A or breakfast B as a certified winner of a self-perpetuated class war. Well, what constitutes a greasy spoon? Is there a recognisable marketing face to the demographic? Maggie’s is family owned and boasts of Irish heritage. It has roots, community, a national identity even. It has a less formal face, it offers to refill your drink. It’s more of a shared experience. I had a lot more fun at this one place than at Hawksmoor. But when it comes to making a finer point about class and the battle for the soul of breakfast I will leave you wanting. There isn’t a conclusion. Smashing sausages though.
But if you want to make the case that the full English is for everyone now consider this: in my research, it cannot be helped, notice the traditional aspects of the fry up; it’s a very meaty dish; exclusionist even, to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, vegans and vegetarians and let’s face facts. . . the health-conscious. It’s demographic is old, not that the ageing have a special preference, I mean this meal has its place in history. It’s high in salts and fats because that’s what was needed to get through a day at the farm or field. The breakfast of one religion, one job, one role in life.
Maggie’s does succeed where Hawksmoor fails however if you want to make the point of capital progression: as much as you want for less than £10? You can even have limitless coffee or tea. Can we conclude by saying Hawksmoor promises quality and Maggie’s, quantity? You’ll notice for Hawksmoor we were given one of (nearly) everything, and in Maggie’s gave two of everything. And I guess that’s how things change and progress; one rare thing transitioning into mass, replicated quantities. £1,000+ Nikons turn into iPhones cameras and photoshop. The working lumberjack’s Levi 501 jeans becoming the garment of youthful rebellion. The Walkman giving way to the iPod. What was once radical is safe. What once was opulent gives way to cheap gives way to tacky.
“. . .A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both. . .”
― Milton Friedman
How do you like your CLAASS in the morning? Where do you stand on the baked beans in a pot position? What is your favourite bit of Homage to Catalonia? Have you been to Maggie’s? Agree? Disagree? Comment below and let us know!