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May 5, 2006

Breakfast Ruminations

Filed under: Breakfast,Dieting,Japanese Food,Mr. Henry — Mr. Henry @ 4:59 pm

Dear Mr Henry

Here in England the hearty breakfast is the traditional English fry up of bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding, baked beans, tomatoes, toast. I can’t help feeling that this isn’t a good way to start the day. My own breakfast is likely to be oatmeal or muesli with milk, fruit, yogurt. But if you count up the calories that’s not such a big breakfast. So what is it you have in mind when you talk about the big breakfast. Could you post some examples?

Linda Grant


Mr. Henry knows this letter comes from a genuinely British person because here in the States we employ a period after “Mr.”, a dead give-away. (In addition to being foodies, Mr. Henry’s readers are punctuation fussbudgets and style sticklers.) Mention of muesli, as well, what we here call granola is a clear clue of her European origin. Of course both names by origin are trademarks for oatmeal mixed with nuts, raisins, brown sugar, and the like. Once we all began eating our morning porridge cold, however, the old name became inappropriate. ‘Cold gruel’ is an apt coinage, perhaps, but surely one unacceptable to the marketing department.

The traditional English breakfast fry-up where even the toast is fried! The morning cholesterol stun! Yes, that is the way towards empire, my son, the appropriate beginning for a traditional English day out hiking through the Hindu Kush or dog-sledding across the Antarctic, excursions which require sensible breakfasts and sensible shoes. Once in a while the hearty fry-up does hit the spot, Mr. Henry admits, but perhaps so many calories with such a high proportion of fat in one sitting is a jolt best endured at midday, the equivalent of a heart resuscitation by electric shock. [Place metal discs on either side of the chest, shout “CLEAR!” and hit the button.]

I quite agree with your choices of morning repast, Ms. Grant, and you serve as a paragon of English practicality. Mr. Henry himself always takes fruit in the morning, a banana at first, the gentlest of fruit, and then at the end of the meal something pulpy like melon, berries, or the pitted fruits – most delicious of all foods.

Rolled oats, and in this Mr. Henry parts with tradition rather dramatically, he eats raw, sometimes with plain yogurt and sometimes without. The crunch is very satisfying, the oats provide fodder for intestinal rumination, and the fiber encourages digestion while protecting against shocks delivered by the New York Times.

In the late 18th century, the rise of wage labor meant the English working man took his lunch at the job site, a lunch that normally consisted of a slice of cheese and bread with a cup of tea. The hot sugared drink took the place of a proper home-cooked meal and became one of the great adaptations of the modern world, a necessary element in the rise of industrialization. The traditional English fry-up is, Mr. Henry believes, a hold-over from a gentleman’s breakfast, not a working man’s breakfast, and reflects an abundance of expensive victuals. In our world when the cost of basic foodstuffs has become an expenditure smaller than the entertainment budget, eating bacon and eggs and black pudding, etc., at a single sitting is distinctly unwise.

When Mr. Henry speaks of a “big” breakfast, by the way, he does not mean the traditional morning offering at an NFL training camp. But he does mean something larger than the much vaunted Mediterranean-diet breakfast of an espresso and a croissant or some such white flour pastry masquerading as healthy food, a breakfast best suited to the person who rises at 11:00 a.m.Croissant.gif

Mr. Henry treats his alimentary canal with care. In his youth he had an iron stomach. Raised on TV-dinners, bologna & cheese sandwiches, and hamburgers, he could digest nearly anything. His favorite mid-morning snack from the school canteen (a holdover name from its military school days) was a Coke, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and a bag of Cheetos. He shudders to recall it, but since his adolescent stomach would not accept any breakfast whatsoever, the snack became young Henry’s breakfast long overdue. That triple-cocktail was the highest caloric mix available at the canteen.

But in 1975 a banana milkshake at the Hippie Café in Marrakech sent him crawling to his bed for two weeks, after which he could never again blithely graze the groaning board.

The intestines may have suffered but Mr. Henry’s character only strengthened. He began to establish routines, the signature of adulthood. And in life there are no more firmly rooted routines than those of breakfast.

The Japanese, for example, cannot begin the day without pickled vegetables, a curious habit Mr. Henry quickly picked up during his sojourns in Kyoto. Sashimi first thing in the morning was a habit more difficult to establish, however, but miso soup with rice (and fishy sprinkles), pickles, and a bit of egg went down nicely. Most unfortunately for western travelers, however, fruit in Japan is prohibitively expensive. Mr. Henry does not understand how the Japanese, an admirably practical island people like the British, permit themselves to remain victims of their greedy, protectionist farmers. He ruminates about this.


  1. The best English breakfast I ever had in my entire life was at the Grosvenor House in London. I can still remember the eggs. My god, the eggs. Traditionally the English gentleman dines upon breakfast alone. I quite like the way it works. A smooth, relaxed transition into the day.

    For many years my daily breakfast has been 1 cup of fat free plain yogurt, 1 cup of fiber-heavy cereal, and 1 chopped up fruit (a banana, a mango, a pear, a cup of berries, whatever’s available) all mixed up in a big dish with some Splenda – it’s nutritionally balanced and quite good. I’ve always felt cereal to get too soggy in milk but in yogurt it stays quite nicely crunchy.

    But if you’re ever in London, have breakfast at the Grosvenor House hotel. As the youth say, O.M.F.G.

    Comment by Gary — May 5, 2006 @ 10:57 pm

  2. JaneC sympathizes with Mr. Henry about no longer having an iron stomach. JaneC had an iron stomach until she went to university; she moved off-campus as quickly as was allowed, but two years of cafeteria food and living in a dorm stuffed with other people’s germs dissolved the iron liner on her stomach, and now she must be more careful.

    JaneC also prefers yogurt, a banana (or raisins, or berries if available), and bread of some kind (cereal or whole-grain toast), with tea. White fish such as sole or tilapia with rice and a steamed green vegetable is also good on occasion, but requires having the energy to cook in the morning.

    Comment by JaneC — May 6, 2006 @ 12:20 pm

  3. Here in Britain we are at the cutting edge of fashion, as the designers at the Paris couture houses will attest, and we have abandoned the use of the full stop after Mr Mrs Ms etc. unlike our rather stodgy colonial cousins. Having said that, Lynne Truss is an old friend of mine, and she would be cross with me for a missing ? in my original email.

    Mr (ha!) Henry, does not, though, quite address my question. His advice, if one wishes to maintain a svelte figure, is to make breakfast the largest meal of the day, but the breakfasts he outlines don’t seem that big to me, not compared with his lunches.

    Comment by furlagirl — May 8, 2006 @ 1:31 am

  4. I’m very glad that the topic of breakfast came up. As a working professional, the time I have in the morning is mostly devoted to walking my dogs (when it’s not my husband’s turn) and then getting ready for work (which takes me about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes). Breakfast is usually spent at my desk while I read the paper online, with breakfast usually consisting of a soy latte and a croissant or other type of bread. Being lactose intolerant, yogurt is not usually such a great thing for me (and I also had an iron stomach back in the day). I am going to strive for the Japanese breakfast you mentioned above, but any othe recommendations for someone who works in the continental US and doesn’t have much time for a sit down breakfast every morning?

    Comment by PaperPusher — May 8, 2006 @ 4:55 pm

  5. Bravo. I can have nothing but the greatest respect for any man who is not intimidated by japanese fish sprinkles (aka shaved bonito). They’re not only excellent on rice and fish, but also a great popcorn topping.

    Comment by jj — May 9, 2006 @ 9:19 am

  6. Paperpusher: This is not for those with delicate early-morning food sensibilities, but I really like oatmeal cooked in a crockpot with a timer. Set up the timer for the oatmeal the night before, and then when you wake up you just drop in a few fistfuls of frozen peaches and blueberries, take your shower (or walk your dogs), and when you get back out everything is nicely cooked through. Mix in some cashews or almonds, and you’re good to go. (Although my fifty-something, health-food obsessed father adds ground flax seed and oat bran.) It takes a while to EAT the oatmeal–it’s not the kind of breakfast you can wolf down–but the prep is no sweat.

    P.S. But be sure to always soak your crockpot with water afterwards, unless you want to spend your evening ice-picking rock-hard oatmeal out of it.

    Comment by Julia — May 9, 2006 @ 1:31 pm

  7. I think breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I’m not sure which I like better, the every-day breakfast, or the big breakfast, or the baked-goods-treat breakfast.

    At any rate, for those looking for a breakfast that’s quick but provides a little more protein than just oatmeal will give you, try this: Power Oatmeal

    Here’s a version of the Big Breakfast that I adore, and it’s much lighter than the traditional fry-up (go light on the horseradish sauce, though!)

    Spare me the croissants, though. There’s nothing like a dense little scone, studded with diced apricots and golden raisins, smeared with a little butter and a little apricot jam.

    Comment by Joan — May 10, 2006 @ 2:52 am

  8. I actually can’t stand eating pastries and fruit for breakfast. I suffer from a condition and that much acid from fruits in the AM gives me major stomach pains. Luckily for me thoug…bacon and eggs DON’T cause those problems.

    Bacon, fried eggs (or scrambled with cheese and zucchini), wheat toast, potatos….Its making me hungry.

    Comment by la petite chou chou — May 14, 2006 @ 9:37 am

  9. As ‘Mr’ is a contraction of ‘Magister’ or ‘Master’, and is not technically an abbreviation, it shouldn’t have a dot after it.

    I can’t believe I feel the need to point this out, but pedantry is indeed a great affliction.

    Comment by boeciana — June 2, 2006 @ 8:32 am

  10. At 50 I’m still surpised that my stomach still has some iron in it. While the yogurt and berries stuff is good, I like having a non-traditional hamburger with a fried egg on toast. With fresh ground garlic pepper on it too. Or a cheap burrito (mmm textured vegetable protein) out of the machine at work. Fortunately I’m in one of my exercise phases so I’m not gaining weight. Although I will have some sliced cucumber with ranch dressing as a snack and a chicken or turkey (with mayo) sandwich for lunch. So I’m not exactly killing myself.

    Comment by RayH — June 15, 2006 @ 3:24 pm

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