To really bond with a place, you have to eat breakfast there. Go where the locals go, eat what they eat, see what they're like first thing in the morning, hear what they did last night, listen to what they plan for the day.
Each place has its own little twist: country ham and biscuits in the South, corned beef hash in New York, smoked-salmon scrambles in the Northwest. So when I went to London recently, at the top of the to-do list, along with seeing a Premier League soccer game, was to have a full English breakfast.
I wasn't sure what that meant, advance research not being my cup of tea. But I knew I needed to have one. I assumed that crumpets and clotted cream were involved. But I have no idea what crumpets or clotted cream are.
I walked the endless streets of London for days, keeping an eye out for the proper breakfast spot among the high-fashion shops, the parks, the monuments, the hordes of tourists, the palaces, the row houses, the double-decker buses, the pubs. ... London is without real competition the greatest walking city in the world.
I saw that I could get breakfast at Harrods, and the food court there is like something from another planet, but after riding the store's Egyptian escalator, I had to flee back to reality. Down in Soho, I strolled among sex shops and used record stores until I hit a very fancy hotel offering a Full English for something like $25. Not my style.
Finally, with only a day or two left in town, I mentioned to my friends, an American college friend and her Irish husband, that I had exhausted the to-do list, save this one culinary adventure. They both perked up and said, "Oh, there's a great place on our high street." (Cultural note: By "high street," an English person means "main street.")
They told me it's called O Girasol, serves fresh handmade food, and it's run by a nice Portuguese family. I didn't say anything, but internally I resisted a little. I didn't want a handmade English breakfast served by Portuguese people. And wasn't I supposed to be eating in a smoky pub or at a greasy fishmonger's or in some uptight dining room?
I default to local advice, though, so let me tell you about the neighborhood, West Norwood. It calls itself a town and a residential suburb of south London. But don't get the idea that "London" ends someplace and "West Norwood" begins awhile later. London goes on forever.
On Norwood Road, I found O Girasol, a cute café with about 10 tables. I was greeted by a lovely woman and said, "I want a Full English, and I don't even know what it is!" She was charmed by my American bumpkin-ness and assured me they had the best English breakfast around.
What is an English breakfast? This can start arguments or, in England, polite debates. The consensus is, more or less, eggs, meat, bread, beans, mushrooms, hash browns, and stewed tomato. Yes, they eat beans and mushrooms for breakfast. The meat might be called bacon, but it's more like what we call Canadian bacon; they call it back bacon. You can also call this whole thing a "fry up," since it's usually all fried.
It's in the variations that things get interesting. According to Wikipedia, up in the North Midlands (no idea where that is), they eat fried oatcakes instead of the bread. The Irish might have soda bread, a potato pancake called boxty, white pudding (what you're used to, but with oatmeal in it) or black pudding (the same, but with blood cooked in). The Scots like to have tattie (potato) scones, fruit pudding (actually a sausage made with very little fruit), and, of course, their curse on the earth, haggis. (That would be a sheep's stomach stuffed with its heart, liver, and lungs, mixed with onion, oatmeal, fat, and spices.)
My breakfast was pretty traditional and pretty tasty. And it occurred to me, sitting there with my new Portuguese friends, acting on directions from an American and an Irishman, on a thoroughfare lined with shops and people from all over the world, in a homey corner of a city bigger than our ability to comprehend it, that I was having quite the fully English breakfast.