[ proper vittles ]
As much as I would like to claim that my recent artery-berating tour of U.K.-style breakfast plates is a clever tie-in to William and Kate's impending nuptials, the flabby truth is that I become easily fixated by food I see in movies.
It came to me during a screening of The Trip, the BBC series/soon-to-be feature film where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon tool around the north of England, dining out and messing with each other. Mixed in among the dueling impressions of Woody Allen, Ray Winstone and Michael Caine, there's a scene where the twosome's sitting outside a spot called The Angel Inn, knifing into a spread of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomato and mushroom. "This is just really glorious," Coogan says to Brydon, with the brand of joy that's only brought on by the consumption of salt-cured pork products in the hours preceding noon. "It's a sunny day in England with a fried breakfast. It doesn't get much better."
I immediately felt motivated to capture such glory myself, locally, by trying as many of these fried breakfasts — the source code for America's typical morning meal — as I could in one week.
While there is no universally referenced methodology, there are elements that must be in place for something to be called a "Full English," "Full Irish," "Full Fry" or "Fry-Up." (There's no official distinguishing characteristic between English and Irish, either.) "The eggs, the sausage, the bacon and some form of bread or toast is mandatory," says Sam Jacobson, chef of Lansdowne's Sycamore and a native Londoner. "The rest all depends on region and taste." Baked beans, blood pudding, 'shrooms, soda bread, hash browns ... like butter-coated snowflakes, no two fry-ups are the same.
The Eggs. A Full English or Full Irish has got to have eggs, fried sunny or over-easy. (Scrambled wouldn't look right.) At Rittenhouse's Bards (2013 Walnut St.), I requested my eggs poached and they came out perfect, their yolks exploding with the graze of a fork and running canary-yellow tributaries around tender bangers and crunchy discs of black and white pudding. At Fado (1500 Locust St.), my eggs came fried together in the dead middle of the plate, the orbiting puddings, sausages and back bacon sodium-laden members of a huevo-centric breakfast universe.
The Beans. It's not every day that you hear a chef proclaim the superiority of beans in a can. "Heinz Baked Beans. It has to be Heinz," says Robert Aikens of The Dandelion (124 S. 18th St.), a native of Norwich on England's east coast. He does a Full English for brunch. "It’s a great product. Why change it?" It's a sentiment echoed by Ed Strojan of Haddonfield's British Chip Shop (146 Kings Highway E).
The white bean in question, which come in an inoffensive tomato sauce, are typically applied in a spirited glop, cascading over the rest of your food like fire ants. At Fishtown's Ida Mae's Bruncherie (2302 E. Norris St.), however, the beans (actually not Heinz here) came in a dainty ramekin, much to the amusement of my breakfast mate, Jacobson. "That is hilarious. I've never seen that before," he said, turning the dish on its head and dumping its contents everywhere without missing a beat. Jonathan Adams of Pub & Kitchen (1946 Lombard St.), who runs a Full English fulltime in the winter and as an occasional special in warmer months, makes his own beans, braising navys with garlic and braised pork neck meat.
The Veg. With a meal this unapologetically meat-centric, it almost seems like a joke to include vegetables, but wedges of grilled tomato (yeah, yeah, tomato's a fruit) appeared in all seven breakfasts I tried. Nearly as ubiquitous: grilled mushrooms, either sliced and fried buttons (Ida Mae's, Fado, British Chip Shop) or, in the Dandelion's case, a bit of crisped-up portobello cap. Don't worry, there’s nothing green on the plate.
The Bread. Typical toast is common, but there’s plenty of carbo-loaded variation in this realm. At Ida Mae's, Mary Kate McCaughey makes her own soda bread, combining flour, buttermilk, salt, sugar and baking soda before puffing up slices on a flat-top. At Fado, you get a triangular wedge of starchy Irish potato bread; at Drexel Hill's Hibernia Deli & Coffee Shop (3711 Garrett Road), we were treated to fresh soda breads, both with and without raisins, perfect for soaking up the tasty sop that materializes when Heinz sauce joins runny yolk. Pub & Kitchen's Adams has been known to grill pumpernickel or country white bread and then slather it in bone marrow butter.
The Bacon. It’s all about the back bacon, baby. Unlike American "streaky bacon," sliced from pork belly, the leaner fry-up staple back bacon is cut from the loin with a small ribbon of fat, making it far leaner than the grease-bomb rashers we know and love. At Bards, back bacon comes branded with grill marks; at Hibernia, British Chip Shop and Upper Darby's Irish Coffee Shop (8443 West Chester Pike), it's pressed on a flat-top to a crisp. Exception to the rule: The Dandelion's Aikens includes two rashers of smoky Nueske streaky bacon in his Full English. "Though it's more traditional," the chef says of back bacon, "it gets a little dry."
The Sausage. At both Bards and Fado, you bang with serious pork bangers, inch-thick sausages imported from the Emerald Isle. Herb-heavy Cumberland sausage sourced from Manhattan's Myers of Keswick is the link of choice at Dandelion, while American-style breakfast sausages rule the platter at British Chip Shop. Most fry-ups feature a pair of sausages; at both Hibernia and Irish Coffee Shop, however, they mercifully offer a "small" Irish breakfast option that's half the portion of the full, a lone sausage holding court. It's still way too much food.
The Puddings. White pudding, common in a Full Irish, is not so different from scrapple, a blend of pork, herbs, spices and cereal — think toothy oats instead of cornmeal — sliced into coins and fried. (McCaughey at Ida Mae's actually serves scrapple in lieu of white pudding on her Full Irish.) Then there's black pudding — same basic ingredients as white, plus blood. "I've made it for two years, and my stomach still knots up when I add the blood in," says Pub & Kitchen's Adams, whose black pudding calls for three cups of LaFrieda Meats' pasteurized pig's blood ($45 a gallon!). Needless to say, it sketches some people the F out. Though British Chip Shop's Strojan acknowledges that black and white puddings are a traditional component, he deliberately leaves them off the plate, offering the option to add either on for a $2 upcharge. "From a practicality standpoint," he says, "not everyone is going to like that."
Everything Else. You'll often find a bottle of A1-esque HP Sauce (another Heinz product), which goes great with bangers and back bacon. Both Irish Coffee Shop and Hibernia cook grilled potatoes, either with or without onions. And at British Chip Shop, they offer bottles of Irn-Bru, a peculiar Scottish soft drink that's a reputed hangover cure. Unfortunately, it does not work on food-based hangovers.