To eat well in Britain, Somerset Maugham observed in those imperial days before Indian and Chinese restaurants and Elizabeth David and designer chefs had contrived to transform the culinary habits of a nation, it was necessary to eat breakfast three times a day. And what breakfasts they were, the sizzling bacon and the plump sausages, the black pudding with its glistening skin, the fried eggs with their yokes not quite set, the grilled tomatoes and the fried bread, all steaming with the promise of a day evidently starting so well. And then the wholemeal toast, the fresh butter and marmalade made of thick-cut bitter oranges, all washed down with strong tea.
Such a breakfast may have constituted a heart attack on a plate, but it established the soundest of foundations for any empire-building challenges to come. I happen to know that it’s how generations of Churchills grew to greatness. And it may be no accident, as the Soviets used to say, that the empire began to fade with the invasion of the British breakfast table by cornflakes, yogurt and croissants.
To consume such a robust dish three times a day, however, might appear to have been too much of a good thing. No matter. The British breakfast was in its golden age almost infinitely varied. The covered dishes on the sideboard contained not only the ingredients of the classics listed lovingly above, but a range of interesting alternatives.
There would be the aromatic kipper, the smoked and salted herring with its fiddly bones, and a vast and steaming bowl of oatmeal porridge with the heavenly treacle of Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, whose label portrayed a fallen lion and biblically proclaimed “Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness.” There would be deviled kidneys and gently fried mushrooms, a good game pie or the yellow fillets of finnan haddock, that splendid fish smoked and then poached in milk that goes so well with bread and butter.
And there would be kedgeree, India’s first gift to its colonizers, the flaked fish gently curried and mixed well with rice and onions and eggs and parsley. There would be laver bread in Wales with its marine scent from the seaweed, soda bread in Ireland, potato farls in Ulster and griddle cakes in Scotland. The more exotic tables might offer steamed spinach that could in a trice be elevated into Eggs Florentine, and adventurous cooks with Caribbean connections might offer that unusual delicacy so popular in British Honduras (now Belize) of fried rice with eggs and sliced bananas, seasoned with Jamaica’s fiery Scotch Bonnet sauce.
Maugham’s prescription is thus easily fulfilled, with eggs and bacon for the first meal of the day, a kipper and kidneys for lunch, and a large plate of kedgeree topped by golden finnan haddock for supper. The great British breakfast is the most accommodating and adaptable of meals, and particularly welcoming to a splash of alcohol, the morning heart-starter that can range from bullshot to Bellini, from a Bloody Mary to a wee dram of good Scotch whisky, or even Bismarck’s favorite tipple of Guinness and champagne. The Belize breakfast, it should be noted, goes particularly well with a white Burgundy or a peppery Zinfandel.
It goes virtually without saying that meals such as these repay, and probably require, serious and prolonged personal attention. They are culinary events that embody John Gunther’s celebrated dictum, “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.” They repay a sturdy, two-fisted approach, a healthy trencherman armed with knife and fork and large linen napkin. They are best enjoyed alone with the right kind of newspaper, or in the kind of suitably raised family that understands the limits of conversation at breakfast. They do not go well with small talk or strangers. They are not, therefore, designed to accompany that dreadful invention—the Washington working breakfast—at which food takes second place to speeches, notes are supposed to be taken, and brilliance is supposed to be displayed by a single acute question or comment.
We know what such occasions involve, in addition to running the appalling gauntlet of clashing scents of aftershave (a Washington working breakfast can smell like a particularly dissolute harem). They mean rising rather earlier than usual and gulping a token glass of fruit juice before heading to the think tank or embassy or congressional hearing room of the day, while trying to find the time to skim the morning papers in case some fellow victim asks, “Did you read…?” Then one must find a seat, juggling coffee and a small plate with bagel or danish, and sufficient paper napkins to hold the thing in order to avoid the curse of the sticky fingers that has ruined almost as many working breakfasts as it has neckties and notepads. And this is not to speak of impudent doughnuts squirting their jelly at one’s morning-crisp shirt, as they are invariably wont to do.
There are far too many social hurdles, as well, to be confronted at such an early hour, starting with a quick scan of the room to see if some friendly acquaintance is present who might be offended by being ignored. Then comes the tricky choice of the right moment for the attack upon the buffet table. Beware getting into conversation too soon, which can become tediously prolonged if one has to stand in line too long and is then required by politeness to join some passing acquaintance at table. Beware leaving the moment of attack too long, or all the best bits of fruit and smoked salmon will be gone, and only the onion bagels or blueberry muffins remain. Go early, look grumpy, and sit alone behind a protective newspaper is my advice.
There are few institutions in Washington that manage these events at all well. The residences of the British and German ambassadors perhaps do breakfasts best, with adequate parking, discreet and self-effacing waiters serving fruit and scrambled eggs and sausages, large napkins and tables generous enough for newspapers, notepad and a list of the other attendees. Above all, they understand tea, which they serve in large teapots rather than in the form of messy tea bags moistened with inadequately warmed water. The Russians also do tea well, but nothing else. Cheese can be acceptable at breakfast, but not in waxen slices, and the native delicacy of tvorog, curd cheese, is best left back in Moscow.
The Italian embassy can be forgiven everything else—;even the need to pretend to take Signor Berlusconi seriously—for the quality of its coffee. The otherwise excellent French embassy fails the tea bag test, as does the Capitol Hill Club, although its chefs understand scrambled eggs and it boasts the best bread rolls in town.
Of the think tanks, the Center for American Progress, the Carnegie Endowment and the American Enterprise Institute are the most thoughtful, offering decently-sized plates, proper cups and saucers, and acceptable coffee. Places that provide only polystyrene cups or paper plates are best avoided. Breakfast is far too serious an occasion to be mistaken for a picnic.
The most wretched breakfast of the year so far was served in the grandiose room of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the chairman, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, gave an entertaining speech about his summer travels through Morocco, Libya, Russia and Azerbaijan that was almost ruined by bad coffee, tiny plates, sticky buns and far too little space to arrange them. I am very fond of the Finnish ambassador, but less so when crammed in so tight that we almost have to sit on one another’s laps. Even Senator Lugar’s informative account of calling on Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in his sweltering desert tent, before repairing swiftly to the air-conditioned van the Libyan leader keeps parked discreetly behind the camels, hardly made up for the indignity.
There are, however, a handful of places to which one might go for breakfast with some equanimity. The Jefferson and Hay Adams hotels are very sound, so long as one is prepared to be forgiving of the tea, but only for intimate occasions of eight people or fewer. The Metropolitan Club is excellent with eggs and its croissants are almost up to French embassy standard. The worthy Cosmos Club has even been known to serve a well-spiced kedgeree. The White House mess, although cramped and busy and infamous for the weakness of its coffee, overcomes any inconvenience by the inarguable merit of location, location, location. That used to be a great merit of the convivial breakfasts in the boardroom of USA Today, when it had that splendid room at the top of its building on the Potomac, where one could while away the time between sausages and speaker by watching the airliners fly past on their way to land at National Airport. But now it has moved to Tyson’s Corner, and nobody goes there anymore.
The worst feature of all such breakfast events is the need not simply to pay attention, but to justify one’s presence—above all to justify it to oneself. Most such breakfasts are haunted by the remorseful question, visibly shared by most of one’s fellow attendants, of why on earth one ever accepted the invitation in the first place. Only a handful of such Washington occasions, and the AEI “Election Watch” breakfasts have been an outstanding example, are truly worth the effort. Few speakers are at their best at such an hour, and those rare beings who can sparkle before 9 am arouse jealousy—if not suspicion—under Oscar Wilde’s famous rule, “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”
The Golden Rule is to remember what makes breakfast unique: It is the only meal that should never involve travel, at least no further than the trip downstairs and at most no further than a stroll around the park with a suitably playful dog.